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Food, Health Programs Lead to Peace in Sudan

By Jimmy Carter

Except for brief interludes, war has raged for 40 years in Sudan, Africa's largest country. More than a million people have perished since 1983.

But this spring, some things are different.

Late in March the government in Khartoum and the rebels in the south agreed to a two-month cease-fire which has just been renewed.

During the successful cease-fire, aid workers have been able to make great progress in improving the health of the Sudanese people.

Prospects are not hopeless in Sudan.

Sudan is a big country, as large as the United States east of the Mississippi River. Geographically its northern region of desert, mountains and the Nile Valley resembles its Egyptian neighbor: the people predominantly Muslim and of Arab origin.

The south, with about 30 per cent of the population, has a more Central African terrain, and is inhabited by different ethnic groups, most of whom practice traditional African religions and Christianity.

Sudan's southerners, who were captured by Arab traders from the north and sold into slavery, long have considered their region to be both deprived and persecuted. Most recently, the attempt by political leaders in Khartoum to impose Islamic Shari'a law throughout the nation has been strongly opposed by non-Muslims in the south. This has been a root cause of the civil war.

The government in Khartoum has been declared guilty by the international community of human rights violations, lack of democracy and exporting religious extremism.

Although serious human rights abuses are perpetrated by all sides -- and fundamentalism and a lack of western-style democracy are common to vast regions of the Islamic world -- Sudan and a few other Islamic countries are especially condemned and isolated by western nations.

In the 1980s there was a flurry of global interest in Sudan when a famine exacerbated the devastation of the war. This is when I made my first of many visits there.

With approval from northern and southern leaders and despite international sanctions against the government, in 1987 the Carter Center and a Japanese foundation launched an effort to increase the production of food grains.

At one of our farming sites south of Khartoum near the White Nile, I was impressed with the eagerness of the people for help. We had planned a brief training session for a few dozen neighboring farmers but almost 2,000 came. Some had walked more than 20 miles to learn how to increase their yields, and their persistent questions required all day to answer.

After three years we lost our private funding because of the constant warfare, but a $600,000 grant from Norway and Sweden let us complete our five-year project. Annual wheat production was increased from 160,000 tons to almost 1 million tons.

We conducted intense peace negotiations in 1989 but were finally frustrated: Both sides believed that military force could prevail.

The complex issues included three major ones: application of Shari'a law to non-Muslims, the degree of autonomy for the southern region in a united Sudan, and how oil and other national resources might be shared equitably.

One tragic result of the conflict is that, for 12 years, access to the southern battle zone has been limited or impossible, frustrating efforts to deliver basic health services such as immunizing children, eradicating the crippling guinea worm disease or preventing river blindness by giving one inexpensive tablet of the drug Mectizan each year.

In March we decided to try health care as a step toward peace by securing a two-month cease-fire before the heavy rains came in June.

It would not be easy.

Southern rebel leaders with whom my wife Rosalynn and I met in Nairobi readily accepted our proposal, both because they were exposed to the diseases and because they knew that a dry-season cease-fire would give them a military advantage.

Donors and relief agencies, however, were unanimously skeptical because previous cease-fires had quickly collapsed.

In Khartoum I presented our best arguments to the government leaders during hours of intense negotiations, but on my last day in Sudan their military officers rejected a cease-fire. Furthermore, they were distrustful of most of the relief agencies, believing that they were biased toward the southerners.

I rejected this claim and reminded them of our own successful agricultural project and our negotiating effort between government and southern leaders in 1989. I was willing for the Carter Center to be their main contact and would raise the necessary funds for the health initiative.

I was scheduled to speak that morning at a national conference with President Omar Al-Bashir presiding. My statement there and to the news media would be that the government preferred military action to health care for the people.

I was asked to delay my departure and our talks continued during the day. Finally President Al-Bashir approved a two-month cease-fire with an option for its extension.

With few violations of the peace, relief workers have been able to visit 1,923 villages afflicted with guinea worm and have distributed 87,703 filters to eradicate the disease. At least 25,000 people have been treated with the drug Mectizan to prevent river blindness and at least 35,000 children have been immunized against polio, measles and other diseases.

Tens of thousands of children are receiving vitamin supplements and oral rehydration therapy.

Seeing these results, both the government and southern leaders agreed in late May to extend the cease-fire for two more months. There is new momentum for peace talks and we are contemplating another agriculture project.

In private conversations, I find that key leaders on both sides want peace and are amenable to some form of federalism with autonomy for southern regions in a multi-religious nation.

Despite remaining differences, a peace agreement will be more likely with the prospect of more food and better health.

President Carter's columns are distributed biweekly by the New York Times Syndicate. For more information, please contact the Syndicate at (212) 499-3333.

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