In Khartoum and Jelalabad the misery goes on
1998: US missile attacks will be counterproductive, both in Afghanistan and in SudanBy John Ryle • 25 August 1998 • City of Words • The Guardian • Posted 2016 • 884 words
The provincial city of Jelalabad, once the winter capital of Afghan kings, stands on a fertile plain in a ring of snow-capped mountains just beyond the Khyber Pass. It’s not much of a place anymore: there’s an airport, a bullet-scarred palace, a ramshackle bazaar and a hospital restored to working order by the International Committee of the Red Cross. It will be even less of a place now, after the American missile attack on terrorist training camps near there last week. But the inhabitants of Jelalabad and the surrounding villages are accustomed to bombardment. This is thanks to the stockpiles of weapons introduced to the country by the CIA and by the Soviet army in the 1970s and 1980s, and thanks to the further supplies now provided by the government of Pakistan, main sponsor of the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist movement which currently controls the border area—and much of the rest of Afghanistan.
What do the American raids mean for the inhabitants of a place like this? And what do they mean for the inhabitants of Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, America’s other target in last week’s revenge attacks?
For villagers in Jelalabad (or Khost, where the US also struck) the immediate threat of missiles from any party, internal or external, is exceeded by the constant danger of landmines, which stretch from the city to the mountains, making their immaculately terraced wheat fields and apricot orchards places of danger. When I visited the hospital in Jelalabad a few years ago it was filled with grievously injured children. The new American intervention—which, from an international perspective, may appear to have startling implications—is, for these villagers, just one more item in a bundle of afflictions. In the 1980s the CIA gave the Afghan Mujaheddin surface-to-air missiles to fight the Soviets, a significant intervention that helped turned the tide of the war. But the effect of last week’s attacks on the conflict in Afghanistan will be marginal.
A pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum
Khartoum North, the United States’ other target, is nothing like Jelalabad. The northern part of this huge desert city begins as a residential suburb north of the bridge over the Blue Nile, then blurs into an industrial zone stretching along the railway to Port Sudan, Khartoum’s link to the sea. Although Sudan has been at war almost as long as Afghanistan, the war has never directly affected the capital. There have been military coups, but no significant episodes of street violence or urban terrorism—apart from the state terrorism practised by government security agencies. Aerial bombardment of rebel-held areas of Southern Sudan by government planes is routine, but a direct attack on Khartoum is something unprecedented.
In Khartoum, and its twin city, Omdurman, the effects of war and resultant economic decline are seen most dramatically in the huge influx of displaced people from the south and west, many of them squatters in Khartoum North, the area of the city north of the Blue Nile. For a time the biggest displaced camp in Khartoum was Hillat Kusha, an industrial wasteland close to the factory targeted by last week’s missiles. Here, a few years ago, I spoke with destitute southerners living in makeshift tents in a landscape littered with twisted metal, broken glass and human faeces. (The name Hillat Kusha means Place of Garbage.) One of the few sources of income for southerners in a place like this is making alcohol, a traditional activity banned by the Islamist government. Although few southerners are Muslims, some of those prosecuted for brewing beer have been subject to the full rigours of sharia law—lashing and imprisonment.
In recent years, as a security measure, the government of Sudan has forcibly relocated many of these Southerners to the periphery of Khartoum, where they are a less visible reminder of the dreadful human cost of the war. This forced move may, inadvertently, have removed them from the target area. The American attack will at least bring home to the inhabitants of Khartoum, northerners and southerners alike, the growing international interest in their war. But can this bring them any benefit?
The government of Sudan has caused untold suffering to its people—hundreds of thousands of them have died as a result of the ruthless tactics employed in the war. And since the truck-bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York in 1993, which has been plausibly linked to a Sudan-based terrorist group, the US has been indirectly waging war on this government by supporting southern rebels and northern opposition groups.
But US support for these groups, like last Thursday’s attack, clearly has less to do with concern for the well-being of the people of Sudan than with the national pride of the United States. The US does not even claim that Sudan was involved in the embassy bombings; the justification for the attack on Khartoum rests on the dubious and unproven claim that the targeted factory was part of a chemical weapons manufacturing chain. An isolated missile attack like this will do little to weaken the government of Sudan. It is more likely to strengthen it by enabling it to call on support from Arab countries. Such an attack plays into the hands of anti-American nationalist sentiment, without any lasting gain. ★