Sudan’s Attention-Grabber


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Sep 24, 2010
Sudan's Attention-Grabber

Marco Di Lauro/Reportage, for The New York Times
John Prendergast on the banks of the White Nile in southern Sudan.


Published: December 2, 2010

"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.

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Marco Di Lauro/Reportage, for The New York Times

AMERICA AS ALLY Prendergast with Pagan Amum, the minister of peace for the regional government of southern Sudan.

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.

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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."

A version of this article appeared in print on December 5, 2010, on page MM48 of the Sunday Magazine.

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