Sunday, December 5, 2010

Attention-Grabber for Sudan's Cause


The New York Times

December 2, 2010

Attention-Grabber for Sudan’s Cause


“I do human rights the way I played basketball,” John Prendergast said. We were sitting in the outdoor restaurant of an unfinished hotel in Juba, a boomtown of mud and shanties beside the White Nile in southern Sudan. It’s a restaurant where the South’s liberation leaders tend to gather, and these days they are in a buoyant mood. They have traded their fatigues for dress shirts and suits. A half-century of civil war seems to be culminating in independence. If a referendum on Jan. 9 goes as expected, the map of Africa will be redrawn — with a new nation around the size of Texas. But for the moment, Prendergast, who is America’s most influential activist in Africa’s most troubled regions and who huddled on a White House patio with President Barack Obama a few days earlier, talked about basketball guards.

Pistol Pete Maravich, the N.B.A. All-Star of the ’70s, with his floppy socks and flashy ball-handling, was a childhood hero, Prendergast said. He spoke about his own brief high-school glory, his own attempts to dazzle and, now, his celebrity-strewn methods of making Americans turn their eyes to Africa. He raked his fingers through wavy gray hair that fell to the shoulders of his T-shirt. The hair, along with the unshaven scruff on his chin, made for a look of dashing flamboyance that was undercut by bursts of boyish energy. “There are a lot of criticisms that it’s about me and not the cause,” he went on about his work in the field of human rights. He declared that he can’t be bothered by the complaints, some of which arise from his habit of dropping into conflict zones with actors like George Clooney and Angelina Jolie. At 47, he has devoted all of his adult life to Africa, especially the Horn and Congo, formerly known as Zaire. He’s been jailed in southern Sudan. He’s had militiamen’s assault rifles jammed into his stomach in Congo. While we sat in the Juba restaurant in October, he was fighting off a rare infection that is a precursor to elephantiasis, contracted in Sudan a week or two before. Swollen glands throughout his body made him wince as he walked across the restaurant.

Prendergast laid a small map of Sudan — of the nation as it looks for the moment, not yet divided in two — on a table in front of Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, an insider in the South’s government in waiting, a towering man with tribal scars, six raised horizontal lines, spanning his forehead. The two men discussed the chances of the new country’s being born without causing more cataclysmic warfare. Scribbled notes cluttered the map as Gatkuoth brought Prendergast up to date on developments in the South, on fresh pacts being sealed between the main liberation group and an array of factions. The rebel leaders know from CNN, and from Prendergast himself — “So George Clooney and I met with President Obama last week . . .” — that Prendergast has pull with their ally America. And for Prendergast, the information that he can learn from those leaders is currency. The mix of his exhaustive knowledge and his marshaling of movie stars has placed him near the heart of the American administration’s role in Sudan’s impending rearrangement.

If the vote isn’t derailed by disputes between North and South, it seems certain that the southern Sudanese will cast their ballots in January overwhelmingly for secession. After that, it’s possible that the South — an expanse of parched scrub and swamp, a land of seminomadic herders whose cattle have gorgeous lyre-shaped horns and whose dung fires send a blue-tinted gauze into the air at dusk — will emerge quietly into statehood. But many worry that it all will explode. During the phase of fighting from 1983 until the signing of the fragile current peace agreement in 2005, it’s estimated that more than two million people, mostly southern civilians, were killed. Many were slaughtered by marauding militia on horseback — forces armed by the northern regime based in Khartoum. More perished in war-sown famine. Now many analysts warn that a vote to break away will spur Khartoum back into belligerence, that there is no way the North will relinquish the oil fields that fall largely in southern territory and that the next phase of the conflict will be even more catastrophic than anything before it. Earlier this year, Dennis Blair, then America’s director of national intelligence, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that in thinking about the next five years in all the world’s unstable places “a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in southern Sudan.”

Prendergast insists that the United States can prevent the resumption of warfare. “I live in the country with the greatest influence in Sudan,” he said. He was thinking back to the underuse of American power that outraged him during the Rwandan genocide and during the initial crisis in the western Sudanese region of Darfur, a situation mostly separate from Sudan’s North-South fighting. He is determined not to let the same kind of abdication bring disaster with the referendum. “Do I sound like a zealot?” he asked me. “I am a zealot.” His faith in America’s capacity to stave off war in Sudan is all but absolute — though some experts aren’t nearly as confident — and his fear that he will not be heard, that his faith will not be heeded, runs deep. “I am not a tree falling in a forest,” he said. For much of his career, he was heard faintly at best as he journeyed alone throughout the Horn, writing about atrocities and failed states in Human Rights Watch reports and journals with names like The Review of African Political Economy and in the occasional newspaper op-ed. In recent months, he has waged a loud campaign to compel Obama and members of his foreign-policy team to engage aggressively in persuading Khartoum to let the South go in peace. “He has been enormously influential; he’s created direction and intensity,” John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has just emerged as Obama’s unofficial point man in averting devastation in Sudan, told me.

Has Prendergast’s advocacy sometimes become uncomfortable? I asked Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser, at the White House a few weeks ago. “Yes!” McDonough, a man who doesn’t seem given to displaying uneasiness, answered emphatically, acknowledging the effect of Prendergast’s relentless effort to pull attention to one of the world’s easily ignored realms. “Are you always comfortable with your conscience?”

“My father was a frozen-food salesman — he sold pork fritters out of his station wagon,” Prendergast said, remembering his growing up around the Midwest and outside Philadelphia. “He kept the samples in dry ice and his deep fryer in the back, and he would do demos at hospitals and schools.” Both his parents were devoted to volunteer work, and Prendergast, during college, volunteered at a homeless shelter. When he was 21, he took in three children — 7, 8 and 9 years old — from the shelter to live with him in his small apartment for the summer, so their mother could focus on her younger children. “Every day we tried to figure it out,” he told me, describing the way he managed this ad hoc big-brother program, caring for the three with the help of his friends and family. Over the years since, informally or through organizations, he has been a big brother to six more kids — reading with them, canoeing with them.

During an itinerant college career — he went to five universities before graduating from Temple — Prendergast was sure his lifework would be aiding the urban poor, but in 1984 he saw images of the Ethiopian famine one night on television. This was before the crisis became a cause sung about by pop stars, and the inert, skeletal figures stunned him. “Somehow for the first 21 years of my life, I’d missed the fact that such a level of human suffering could exist,” he said. “I was immediately obsessed.”

He applied right away for an Ethiopian visa. After being denied, he flew to Mali, another country of famine. “I wanted to know what I as a citizen, and what America as a country, could do to keep more people from that depth of agony.” On the plane, a Malian who went to graduate school at one of the universities Prendergast attended recognized him from the gym, remembering his long hair and Maravich-inspired showboating on the basketball court. Prendergast explained why he was on the flight, and the Malian, an agriculture official, took him to live on his compound and schooled him in the theories of famine. “My vocation shifted from education and youth employment toward wars and starvation in Africa,” he said. Two and a half years later, Prendergast was in southern Sudan, in camps for the displaced, documenting war-caused starvation for an American advocacy group.

By 1991, he was traveling along the reedy shallows of the Sobat River, a tributary to the Nile, in a dugout canoe, going to meet with Riek Machar, one of the South’s rebel generals. Prendergast was 28. He was employed, at that point, by a small American nongovernmental organization; he envisioned himself absorbing everything he could about the Horn and Central Africa — where he was living for about two-thirds of each year — and then one day putting his knowledge to use in a midlevel State Department job that would give him a role in promoting peace and preventing famines. He was making his way to Machar with the ambition of learning more thoroughly about the South’s resistance movement — one that stirred his deep sympathy — and with the belief that Machar would prove to be a pivotal hero among its commanders. “I had the glow of naïvety,” he recalled. He’d met Machar before; now he was going to immerse himself in his thinking. He approached the general’s swampy base of crouched mud huts. “There was a bit of ‘Apocalypse Now’ about that trip,” he said. “I was arriving on the river to understand the man. His soldiers were all around us. We sat outside in plastic chairs, and I listened straight through the night.”

By the time Prendergast had his audience with Machar amid the crackle of military radios and the flicker of kerosene lanterns, Sudan had been ravaged by civil war for decades. The fighting started just before independence from joint British and Egyptian colonial control in 1956, with the southerners, who are predominantly black and who practice, for the most part, traditional animist religions or Christianity, battling for freedom or partial separation from Khartoum’s Arab and Islamic rule. In 1972, an accord was reached, allowing the South a measure of autonomy; but in 1978, Chevron discovered oil just to the southern side of the North-South line. It wasn’t long before Khartoum decided that the South’s semi-autonomy, which included resources and revenues, wasn’t a good idea. In 1983, Khartoum effectively reunified the country. It declared, too, that Shariah law would be imposed throughout the nation. Southern rebels quickly stormed one of Chevron’s bases and resumed their resistance against the North. In the early ’90s, the rebels became appealing freedom fighters in the eyes of the U.S. government. This was partly because the Khartoum regime supported Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and provided a home for numerous jihadists, including Osama bin Laden, earning Khartoum a spot on America’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. And it was partly because Christian evangelicals saw the southern cause as a movement of religious brethren.

“He had a vision,” Prendergast said of his night with Machar. As clouds of insects hovered around the kerosene lamps, the general declaimed that he just split from the South’s main rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, and that his new force would be the one to carry southerners, at last, to their independent destiny. “He was charismatic. I was very impressed. He said all the right things about inclusiveness; I thought he could see exactly what the southern rebel movement should look like.” The S.P.L.A.’s leadership was dominated by members of the Dinka tribe, the South’s largest, and was faulted for perpetrating the abuse of other southerners. Machar, who belongs to the Nuer, the South’s second-biggest tribe, pledged that his army would fully represent the land’s diverse people. After spending three days at Machar’s base, Prendergast traveled on. “I was inspired,” he said. “I felt promise.”

Soon, though, he started hearing accounts of a rampage by Machar’s new faction on a Dinka area in the Bor region. Prendergast headed in that direction and was horrified to find Dinka corpses and torched Dinka villages. In what came to be known as the Bor massacre, Machar’s troops killed around 2,000, mostly women and children. “It was such a betrayal,” Prendergast said. “It was a very, very confusing moment. It left me with a desolate feeling.” He paused. “It was a good step in my education about the realities and politics of war.”

Southern Sudan’s realities have forever involved outbreaks of warfare between its scores of ethnic groups, but in the ’90s, the North was adding fuel to these enmities by backing southern militias. It was a tactic Khartoum had already employed, in a slightly different form, by arming Arab herders in areas bordering the South, herders at odds with southern tribes over scarce water and grazing land, and then watching as the Arabs terrorized southern settlements, forcing civilians to flee, to let crops go unplanted, to face starvation. The North employed a similar strategy in supplying weapons to outfits like Machar’s and then to other southern splinter groups in the confidence that, though the factions billed themselves as freedom fighters, they would turn their firepower on each other. “Mission accomplished, Khartoum,” Prendergast said bitterly. And in the territory of the oil fields, the North fully co-opted southern commanders to clear the land of people, so that drilling could be done without resistance. In the second half of the decade, a Chinese-led consortium began partnering with Khartoum and started pumping most of what is now nearly 500,000 barrels of petroleum a day from Sudan’s fields.

After the Bor massacre, the S.P.L.A. carried out revenge attacks on the Nuer. And Prendergast threw himself into recording, in Human Rights Watch publications, the horrors committed by all southern forces, as if he could reset the moral compass of the liberation movement by holding everyone accountable. For his efforts, Prendergast was arrested by the S.P.L.A. “You have violated the laws of southern Sudan” was the only explanation he remembers receiving. For three days, he was held in a metal shipping container — retching violently from the foul water he was given — before he was let go.

Many things have changed since Prendergast’s stay in that shipping container. For one, Machar realigned himself with the S.P.L.A. nine years ago and is now slated to become the new country’s vice president, a situation with which Prendergast has made his own private peace. We went to his Juba compound shortly after Prendergast met with Gatkuoth. Machar was hosting a bull sacrifice.

The killing was to sanctify the fact that another Nuer militia commander, Gabriel Tanginye, was joining the S.P.L.A. after years of fighting fellow southerners. When Gatkuoth told Prendergast in the restaurant about this development, Prendergast exclaimed, “This is a friggin’ success story!” As Gatkuoth added that the South’s incipient president, Salva Kiir, wooed Tanginye with a pledge of forgiveness and the offer of a major general’s rank in the S.P.L.A. and that Kiir was in the process of making the same deal with a number of brutal factional leaders, Prendergast, thrilled by Kiir’s embracing of old enemies, burst out, “This is a moment!” To me, he said that he worried about the South’s ability to stitch itself into one country, yet his natural optimism seemed to overwhelm the concern that today’s freshly made major generals will soon return to staking their divisive claims. Tanginye told us that the Nuer are the true southern liberationists. Kiir, in a separate meeting, said that the Nuer can’t be trusted. But Prendergast’s upbeat vision of the emerging southern nation couldn’t be repressed. At times, it was almost as if all his years there hadn’t completely dimmed the glow of naïvety.

At the sacrifice, Machar wore brown wingtips and khakis and had a pen clipped to the pocket of his light blue shirt. Prendergast talked amiably, guardedly with him on a couch in a sparsely furnished living room, gathering information as always, taking in Machar’s thoughts on last-minute negotiations with the North — over borderlines, over oil revenue — that could jeopardize the referendum. To converse this way with Machar was a compromise; the need to hold perpetrators accountable, the drive that impelled him after Bor, had calmed. “I’m very relativist in my views,” he explained to me. “If these leaders, if these ethnic groups have decided to bury the hatchet, literally to bury the spear, bury the AK-47, I’ll bury it.” Peace, he said, must trump accountability.

After his talk with Machar, we went out into the courtyard. Soldiers chased a black-and-white bull, then roped each of its hooves and held it still. Wearing dark slacks and a tailored shirt with blue and black vertical stripes, Tanginye, the newly integrated commander, raised a wooden spear. He pierced the animal’s side once with the spear’s slender blade. The bull crumpled and lay dead on the mud, having absorbed, according to this Nuer ritual, a wealth of malign spirits — forces that had long torn the South apart.

In the town of Bentiu, with the oil rigs pumping nearby on a vast, flat landscape of low trees and scarce huts, the area’s governor spread a colonial-era map in front of Prendergast, showing him where the North-South border should be drawn, as if Prendergast, with his access to Obama, could make it so. Prendergast’s connections to Washington power can be traced back to 1996, when he was invited to be on a panel at a Princeton University conference about U.S. policy in Somalia. At the conference, he seized the opportunity to catalog President Bill Clinton’s failures not only in Somalia but also during the Rwandan genocide and in Sudan. Susan Rice, then the senior director for African affairs in Clinton’s National Security Council and now the American ambassador to the United Nations, was the conference’s keynote speaker. The two had a spirited conversation afterward, and Prendergast again imagined the possibility of working in government. Less than a year later, he was employed under Rice in Clinton’s administration. Rice was passionate about peacemaking in Africa, and Clinton was, in Prendergast’s telling, increasingly invested. The administration put its energy into resolving war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Yet Sudan, Prendergast said, never got the engagement it needed. The U.S. government sent nonoffensive military equipment, ranging from boots to transport helicopters, to neighboring countries intending to support opposition to Khartoum. But Prendergast said: “It was way too little. It was a waste of damn energy.”

In 2003, Prendergast was back to his old existence, doing field research and analysis for the International Crisis Group, an NGO focused on international-conflict resolution. He met Angelina Jolie at a Congressional event where she spoke about her visit to a Congolese refugee camp in Tanzania. After suggesting that she could strengthen her impact by traveling to Congo itself, he took her there. When they returned from the conflict zone — where he’d long tried to raise awareness — her photographs of the trip were exhibited on the Web site of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. They received so much traffic that the site crashed. “You can’t get slapped in the face any harder than that,” he said. “If I had made that trip alone, maybe a few hundred people would have paid attention.”

It was a lesson fresh in his mind as Khartoum was reacting to a new separatist movement — in the West, in Darfur. Much as it did in the South, the regime sent local Arab forces, some on camelback, to kill and rape civilians, to chase them from their homes and into deathly disease and malnutrition in order to leave the rebels with no base of support. Prendergast played a central role in drawing American eyes to Darfur’s devastation through a campaign that enlisted Clooney along with fellow actors like Mia Farrow and Don Cheadle (with whom Prendergast has paired up to write two books, one of them a best seller, about responding to the world’s atrocities). Save Darfur raised millions of dollars for advertising and grass-roots organizing; drew 70,000 people to a rally on the Washington Mall in 2006; and lent momentum toward this year’s International Criminal Court indictment of Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, for the genocide of Darfurians.

By escorting Clooney to Juba and along the Nile this fall, Prendergast hoped to spread the star’s light from Darfur to the South — and to jolt Obama, who appeared, to Prendergast along with other activists, to be half-asleep when it came to what might be visited upon southerners and who has been accused of being less invested in Africa generally than he once promised. The Clooney tour typifies the approach of the nonprofit Prendergast co-founded in 2007, the Enough Project, with backing from a foundation started by Pam Omidyar, the wife of the creator of eBay. The project’s rationale is that U.S. human rights and international-policy organizations take an elite tack on trying to influence American government involvement in the world’s ignored places. The groups struggle for coverage by foreign correspondents and offer to testify in front of Congressional subcommittees. But the organizations usually fail to stir public opinion that could generate political will for their ideas. Enough’s plan is to combine thorough field reporting with Web campaigns and celebrity glare. “If you don’t get people in Des Moines to write their congressman or senators,” Prendergast said, “you’re not going to get anything done in godforsaken regions like eastern Congo and southern Sudan.”

Attracting attention is — and isn’t — a new goal for Prendergast. He is, after all, a man who once modeled himself on Pistol Pete Maravich, and there are human rights advocates today who see his recent methods as more about self-display than substance. One afternoon in the Juba airport, I caught a glimpse of the pleasure Prendergast takes in the limelight when he crossed the waiting area to let a stranger know that the book she was reading, “The Worst Date Ever” — a jokey nonfiction narrative about tracking down a handsome activist in Africa in the hope of romance — is about him. Some critics raise other issues. Andrew Natsios, former special envoy to Sudan, worries about Prendergast’s vision of American power. “Prendergast and advocacy groups often grossly overestimate the ability of American diplomacy and power to direct the course of events in other countries,” Natsios told me. “And local groups engaged in civil war often believe the overestimates and think they’ll be rescued by American influence — and this can distort negotiations, sometimes disastrously.”

No one, though, seems to doubt Prendergast’s success in implanting Sudan in the consciousness of Americans. Right after Prendergast and Clooney returned from the South, there they were on “Today” and “Larry King Live,” among other shows, speaking to millions of viewers about a place and people those viewers barely knew existed and about America’s ability to protect them. They also sat at a small garden table on the Oval Office’s stone patio with Obama.

Prendergast’s aim was to intensify the president’s attention on Sudan. Back in 2005, the North signed the current peace deal with the South, an accord that includes the upcoming referendum on independence, partly because President George W. Bush made it a priority. Impelled by Christian evangelicals, Bush dispatched Secretary of State Colin Powell to signal America’s seriousness and help broker an agreement. And Khartoum signed, perhaps believing that this was a key step in getting free of U.S. sanctions dating to its harboring of bin Laden and maybe figuring, many Sudan analysts speculate, that it could find ways to postpone the referendum forever.

The Enough Project’s effort to compel Obama included full-page ads over the summer in The New York Times. The ads featured Obama in profile and proclaimed: “The lives of millions of Sudanese hang in the balance. The choice is clear — and it’s yours.” The Enough Web site accused Obama of being “AWOL” on Sudan. Before their recent talk, Prendergast had spoken with Obama a number of times at various events going back to Obama’s term in the Senate, and their most recent brief exchange had been cordial, Prendergast said, despite Enough’s campaign. But, he added, “I wouldn’t be getting a 45-minute meeting with the president if it weren’t for Clooney.”

In that meeting Prendergast reiterated, he told me, the main points he’d been making for months. He discussed with the president the need to let Khartoum know that America would not look away if the North undermined the South’s vote and that the U.S. would reward Khartoum’s compliance and punish any belligerence. And he wanted Obama to dispatch a major political or diplomatic figure to the pre-referendum negotiations so that both sides would recognize the strength of America’s desire that war be left permanently in the past.

Within a month of the meeting, Obama added Senator John Kerry to what had previously been a low-profile diplomatic effort. The president sent Kerry with an offer to Khartoum: if the North doesn’t obstruct the January vote, if the North respects the results and peacefully resolves issues like oil-revenue-sharing, Obama will remove Sudan from America’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

This would be a first step in the awarding of further benefits — the lifting of sanctions; help with debt relief — if Khartoum merits them in the future. Prendergast has spoken to administration officials about going as far as working toward a United Nations Security Council deferment of Bashir’s indictment for genocide, though he stresses that this is not a current consideration. The mere possibility would outrage some in the human rights community, but again, he’d prefer peace to principles. “I’m not a human rights purist,” told me. “Human rights and peace have to coexist.” He also wants harsh consequences if Khartoum flouts the vote and stokes North-South war or fails to improve the bleak situation in Darfur. The potential reprisals he mentioned to me progress from aggressive asset seizure to supplying anti-aircraft artillery to the South so it can deter the North’s bombing. Sending weaponry may seem like an extreme and unlikely option, but Prendergast said that if such artillery becomes necessary, he would work to mobilize support behind it. For the moment, he is reassured by Kerry’s role as a sign that Obama has a major stake in Sudanese peace.

It is difficult to measure exactly Prendergast’s importance in Obama’s surge of public focus on Sudan. Two weeks before Prendergast and Clooney arrived at the White House, the president addressed a U.N. ministerial meeting to emphasize America’s watch over North and South as the referendum nears, a speech that could be attributed in part to Enough’s campaign or traced to Obama’s long-stated commitment to Africa, a commitment that may be obscured by issues like the economy and Afghanistan but that is never unfelt. One way to understand Prendergast’s influence, suggested Samantha Power, who is the National Security Council’s senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights and who counts Prendergast among her close friends, is not to see Obama as lacking a sense of urgency on Sudan were it not for Prendergast’s recent activism, but rather to view the president as long-engaged on Sudan partly because of the highly successful advocacy movement Prendergast helped to start several years ago around the crisis in Darfur. And now, she continued, on North-South peace, Prendergast is “creating a political space; he’s putting political wind in the sails of people who care about this issue: the president, Denis” — she nodded toward McDonough, the deputy national security adviser — “me. He’s elevated Sudan to Himalayan proportions on the mattering map in Washington.” While this may be an overstatement, Prendergast has surely helped to pull an expanse of scrub and swamp, and the people who live upon it, into American sightlines.

Daniel Bergner is a contributing writer. He is the author of “In the Land of Magic Soldiers: A Story of White and Black in West Africa.”

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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