Our three-person crew traveled to Sudan to cover the genocide that U.S. officials say is taking place in Darfur, a large and remote area in western Sudan. In the last 18 months, 50,000 black Africans have died as a result of attacks by the government-supported Arab Janjaweed militia. Approximately 1.5 million people have been forced from their homes into cramped, squalid refugee camps in Darfur and eastern Chad. In just a few days, we visited numerous towns that had been destroyed by the Janjaweed militia and toured a dozen refugee camps, speaking to survivors about what they had been through.
Reporting on the Darfur attacks and their aftermath is part of the story that my colleagues, Jonathan, Pierre, and I went to Sudan to cover. The Islamic government of Sudan, run by hard-line fundamentalists, played a central role in another bloody internal battle, and for a period of years even harbored Usama bin Laden.
For more than 20 years, the Arab government was embroiled in a bitter and bloody civil war with southern rebels, who are predominantly Christian and/or considered moderate Muslims. The war claimed millions of lives on both sides of the dispute. Southerners insist they had to fight what they considered Khartoum's heavy-handed governing style. The most contentious issues were religion and self-rule. According to people we interviewed, the Arab government in Khartoum tried to convert Christians to Islam and required them to adopt Arab names and speak the Arabic language.
Many people in the South speak tribal languages, but we met a surprising number of southerners who speak English. In schools, in the most remote parts of southern Sudan, children were taught to read and write English. One teacher explained, "We are not Arab. We have the right to learn whatever language we need, that's all we want." He considered English the best language for his students.
Southerners also fought Khartoum about changes to the justice system. In the early 1980's Khartoum incorporated traditional Islamic law, called Sharia, into the penal code. Sharia law is known for its harsh punishments such as amputations for theft and lashings for possessing alcohol. (Today, alcohol remains illegal in Sudan.) Christians and moderate Muslims fiercely opposed Khartoum's campaign and worked together under the umbrella of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army and Movement.
In the small southern town of Yei, where there are constant reminders of the civil war, I interviewed Governor Samuel Abujohn, a SPLM regional secretary, about Khartoum's interest in imposing its will on the people of southern Sudan. He said, "They think we are just black Africans and Arab blood is more pure than ours." While the South and Khartoum have recently struck a peace agreement giving southerners a degree of self-rule, some believe the "Arabization" of Sudan continues.
Southerners believe "Arabization" is the goal of the Sudanese government in the conflict in Darfur. Malik Agar Eyre, Governor of Southern Blue Nile, who opposed Khartoum during the civil war, told me, "Everything in Sudan is geared toward one goal — Arabization of the Sudanese, whether you're African or Muslim or Christian, the goal is Arabization and Islamization."
Unlike most southerners who are black Christians, the villagers killed and persecuted in Darfur are black Muslims. The Janjaweed militia are Arab Muslims. The survivors of Janjaweed attacks claim they're being targeted for extinction because they are not Arab.
If "purification" is Khartoum's goal, it's in line with the thinking of Usama bin Laden, who lived in Sudan from 1992 until 1996. At a remote and muddy airstrip carved out of the southern jungle, Governor Eyre said, "most of the people in Khartoum have taken his teachings, so many teachings from Usama bin Laden and his vision of a model Islamic state."
A few days after our trip to southern Sudan, we visited Khartoum, the one-time home of Usama bin Laden.
Bin Laden and the government in Khartoum were kindred spirits of sorts, sharing a disdain for western cultures and a strong interest in spreading Islam throughout the region. When Saudi Arabia took away bin Laden's passport in the early 1990's, Sudan welcomed him. According to the 9/11 Commission, bin Laden first internationalized his terror network in Sudan by bringing together terror leaders from around the globe. While there, bin Laden plotted the attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salam, Tanzania that killed 224 people including a dozen Americans.
He trained men in camps spread throughout the country and at the same time appeared to live the life of a typical wealthy Arab businessman. He owned at least 35 companies and was responsible for building many of the country's major roads. It's believed that he employed at least 4,000 men.
He made his home in an affluent neighborhood of Khartoum. Everyone we talked to in the capital knew that bin Laden had once lived there. Many were familiar with the neighborhood in which he lived. We had no trouble finding his old house, a swanky mansion by Western standards. Once positioned across the street from his house, locals approached us and began to ask questions. They wanted to know who we were and if we had permission from the government to film (we did). As Pierre, our cameraman, and I shot footage of the home, Jonathan, our producer, filmed bin Laden's neighborhood mosque and kept the local men at bay. They repeatedly asked Jonathan if he was an American and Christian. He artfully dodged their questions, enabling us to finish getting the footage we needed.