Advocate reporter Paige Aarhus is in Africa with members of the Lacombe-based charity A Better World. She is filing stories about the people she meets and the issues they face. Today, she reports from Sudan.
KHARTOUM — A winding side road among the dusty streets of Northern Khartoum’s industrial area leads to a building that has seen better days.
A battered skeleton of a factory sits in a field of rubble and twisted metal. Further back, a few more floors of blackened brick and exposed sandstone sag to the ground.
It looks like a massive earthquake hit here, except the buildings on either side of this one are completely untouched.
This used to be the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory. Ten years ago, U.S. President Bill Clinton ordered an air strike on the facility, claiming its owners had ties to al-Qaida and that the factory was being used to manufacture nerve gas.
Today, a small boy named Hisham greets visitors at the gates of Al-Shifa.
“U.S.A. Bill Clinton,” is all he says as he lifts still-intact bottles of medicine from sacks on the ground, a sad tribute to what Sudan lost when the factory was shelled.
The destruction at Al-Shifa is a powerful symbol of soured U.S.-Sudanese relations — which took yet another turn for the worse last month when the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir.
Bashir has been accused of war crimes after three years of bloody conflict in the western region of Darfur left at least 200,000 dead.
Prosecutors claim he was instrumental in funding and supplying the janjaweed militia groups that tore a path of destruction across Darfur. Horrifying reports of rape, murder and burned villages caught the world’s attention in 2004, and the crisis became a cause celebre after Hollywood and the North American public launched a host of campaigns to save Darfur.
Many celebrated the ICC warrant.
But in Khartoum, old wounds have been reopened.
Western outrage was ignited after 13 international aid agencies were unceremoniously removed from the country following the ICC announcement. The Sudanese government accused the agencies, including Oxfam, Mercy Corps, Save the Children, and the International Rescue Committee, of supplying authorities with evidence to be used against Bashir.
Bashir himself has threatened to expel every foreign aid agency within a year.
The Adventist Development and Relief Agency is one of the remaining 57 groups.
Sudan director Llewellyn Juby was careful with his words when describing the situation.
“We don’t become involved in politics, we’re neutral. The reason we’re still here is that we weren’t running to outside organizations, we weren’t commissioned to write reports for outside agencies. We remain focused on the work at hand,” he said.
The expulsions are unfortunate, said Juby, because all projects run by the affected agencies were shut down — including ones outside of Darfur.
At the same time, he stressed that NGOs must stick to their given role, which is to provide on-the-ground relief to people in need.
“We have to remain neutral if we want to carry on. Our official position here is that we support the government in power,” he said.
Juby’s opinion might not find a kind audience in North America or Europe, but he’s going with the flow in Sudan, said longtime Khartoum resident Ahmed Siddig.
“The warrant has done only good for Bashir. Even people who did not like him are supporting him now,” said Siddig, who has spent the last 22 years doing groundwork and driving for ADRA.
Biased Western media coverage and pre-existing sentiments have only bolstered support for Bashir within the country, he said.
“What was happening in Darfur was happening for a long time. It was happening all over Sudan, all over Africa. The people here are wondering why now? They think it is very political,” he said.
Siddig gestures to a long line of flag poles at a soon-to-be-built bus station as he drives back from Al-Shifa, where American officials eventually reported finding little evidence to suggest chemical weapons manufacturing.
Flying on each pole is a flag adorned with Bashir’s picture, but they haven’t been around long.
“They did not put those up until after the warrant,” he said.