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What's At Stake In Sudanese Border Battle


For weeks now, war has been simmering along the world's newest border between Sudan and South Sudan. Both countries blame the other as the aggressor in a conflict that includes disputes about contested territory and about access to oil reserves. Before an American sponsored peace agreement, what's now South Sudan fought a long war for independence that killed an estimated one and a half million people. Now less than a year after separation, the two states stand on the brink of full scale war.

If you have questions about this conflict, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. We're joined now by Jeffrey Gettleman, East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times, on the phone from Johannesburg in South Africa. Nice to have you back on the program.

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Great to be back.

CONAN: And we've not had the chance to speak with you since you got the Pulitzer Prize this year. Congratulations.

GETTLEMAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Also with us, Ambassador Princeton Lyman, U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan. And Ambassador, good of you to join us again.


CONAN: And Jeffrey Gettleman, let's start with you. We've seen skirmishes across border incursions, air strikes, artillery fire. How bad is it?

GETTLEMAN: It's pretty bad, but my take is we're not going to have full-fledged war and we're not going to have full-fledged peace. I think there are so many issues that are problematic between South Sudan, Sudan, that we're going to see this kind of back and forth, this escalation, and then this kind of de-escalation happening over and over again over the next several months. I think we should be very concerned because this is a huge border. Both these countries are incredibly militarized, and there's absolutely no trust between them. But I think there's a lot of international engagement, and I hope that both sides kind of realize that a war would be mutually destructive for each of them.

CONAN: Can you give us any news of the plight of South Sudanese who are being told they must leave Sudan and then are unable to get there?

GETTLEMAN: Yeah. I mean, these people - there are a few hundred thousand Southerners who have been living in the North for years or decades, and they are totally trapped up there. I did a story a few months ago about a woman who has gone down to the South, a Southern woman who had gone down to the Aouth, tried to make a new life in the newly independent South Sudan, got caught up in some fighting in her area and fled back to Khartoum. She doesn't have a passport. She doesn't have a birth certificate.

I mean, we're talking about some of the poorest people on Earth, and it's very hard for her to get these documents. And now they're trapped, and at the same time the government in Khartoum is really cracking down. I got some emails just a few days ago about raids on churches because the North is predominantly Muslim. The South has many Christians. So I think things are going to get very uncomfortable for people on both sides of the border.

CONAN: Ambassador Lyman, Princeton Lyman, Jeffrey Gettleman mentioned international engagement. I know you've been there. What have you been trying to accomplish?

LYMAN: Well, we and many other members of the international community have been very - working very hard to de-escalate the present crisis. It was escalated when South Sudan occupied the area of Heglig, which is an oil producing area for Sudan. And the international community strongly urged South Sudan to withdraw. What is of great concern to us now is that South Sudan has withdrawn and has accepted a peace plan from the Africa Union Peace and Security Council, including the need for a ceasefire.

But now Sudan, the Khartoum government, is launching attacks against South Sudan, bombing and some incursions into South Sudan territory, in conflict with the AU recommendation and keeping the conflict going along the border. And we think that Sudan needs immediately to stop and to accept the proposals of the Africa Union just as South Sudan has.

CONAN: Do we have - is there a way to get the ear of the Sudanese government? Its president is under indictment for war crimes.

GETTLEMAN: Well, his foreign minister was at the AU Peace and Security Council meeting. He knows - they know what the communique is. It was, you know, of all their neighbors and key African countries making this point. So these are - they know exactly what's in that communique. And the foreign minister even said that they didn't want the U.N. Security Council to get involved because they should leave it to the AU.

Well, if that's the case - and the U.N. will get involved - but they should be accepting the African Union recommendation. That would mean a cease-fire, that would mean starting next week with negotiations on demilitarizing the border and setting up a verification and monitoring mission. And prolonging the conflict with this bombing and attacks just runs against everything that the international community has been urging, and which South Sudan has now accepted.

CONAN: Jeffrey Gettleman, first of all, my apologies, I misplaced you. You're apparently in Nairobi and not in Johannesburg. I apologize for that. But it's not just the AU who's involved here. The Arab League has also been playing a role.

GETTLEMAN: Yeah. There's a lot of concern across this region about what's happening between these two countries. And I think the American piece is an important one too. The way the Northerners look at it - and I've been up in Khartoum. I've interviewed a number of high government officials and people on the street. They feel very isolated right now. The Khartoum government thought that they should have been given some rewards for going along with the independence of the south, and allowing this referendum to take place and the south could declare independence and split off.

And I think there was a lot of disappointment that the United States especially didn't really change its position toward Khartoum, and that Khartoum remains on its lists of state-sponsored terrorists and that there are still heavy economic sanctions against the north. So I saw this. You know, there was this euphoria in January last year with the referendum. The north was behaving, you know, for the first several months. They didn't get what they wanted, and then there was this invasion in the Nuba Mountains. And then that basically erased in goodwill that they had earned for allowing the referendum to take place. So there's some very complicated international relations here, but I think, yeah, I think the north has gotten frustrated and they feel very isolated, and that's what's dangerous.

CONAN: Let's see, we get a caller in on the conversation. This is Hanuk(ph). Hanuk with us from Denver.

HANUK: Yeah. This is Hanuk from Josef Korbel School of International Studies. I'm a graduate student here. My question is the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement I think failed to address the contested area. So why they ignore the border region at the first place? And now, what is the international community is doing to fill the Abyei region, which is the oil-rich region area between those two countries?

CONAN: Ambassador Lyman, you're one of those principally involved in this?

LYMAN: Right. What the CPA does - the Comprehensive Peace Agreement does call for is a demarcation of the border. And that means that the two parties are to agree. There are five or six disputed areas of what the border should be, and the two sides can't agree on how to resolve that. Sudan says by negotiation. South Sudan says by international arbitration. And there's been no meeting of the minds. And, therefore, the border itself has not been demarcated.

And much of the conflict going on along the border now is an area that one side or the other claims is in dispute or is on the other side of the border, et cetera. And that's one of the things that has to be resolved in negotiation. Abyei is a special case. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement provided for a referendum for the people there to decide whether to be part of the north or south, but the two sides cannot agree on who should be eligible to vote. That referendum didn't take place. But there's a temporary joint administration of Abyei and a peacekeeping force there that, at least for now, is keeping the peace in Abyei.

CONAN: Hanuk, thanks very much.

HANUK: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Ambassador Lyman, I'd like to hear Jeffrey Gettleman on this too. Some people would also say there is a major problem in the genesis of this country. South Sudan, this brand new country, the first created from a piece of another country in Africa and that is it's a landlocked place. There was a long and bitter war. It is entirely dependent for transportation and its economy on its former countrymen in the north. By geography, gave the south much of the oil, but it has to ship that oil through its former friends in the north. Ambassador Lyman, this is a prescription for hostility.

LYMAN: There is no question that as a new country, a very poor country with very little infrastructure that the challenge is for South Sudan to be viable and successful are very great. And the current oil crisis in which South Sudan shut off its oil production because of disagreements with Sudan, and diverting of its oil by Sudan, has left it with virtually no budget income. So the result is that South Sudan faces a very difficult future. And while there may be long-term alternatives for Sudan to - South Sudan to export its oil, in the near-term, the next year, two years, three years, agreement with Sudan is essential. And it's also essential for Sudan because they derive income from it. The facilities are, in many cases, dependent on each other. So even though the countries really don't like each other, they need each other.

CONAN: Jeffrey Gettleman, are they - is it evident to them they need each more than they dislike each other?

GETTLEMAN: You know, yes and no. But what I think is interesting is that there's a lot more support for the southern government in the south than there is for the northern government in the north. I think this conflict is much more dangerous to the regime in Khartoum. Just about everybody in the south is ready to give up what they're doing to fight to - to fight for the south, to preserve their independence that they, you know, worked so hard to achieve.

In the north, you know, from what I'm hearing - I haven't been up there for a couple of months - but I think there's a lot of questions about Bashir's posture. I think there's a lot - you know, already the north is facing rebellions in Darfur, in the Nuba Mountains, rumblings in others parts of the country. And I think, you know, Bashir is really playing with fire by, you know, taking such a provocative and aggressive stance. And what we could see is if things don't go well, let's say this escalates and there's more border fighting and the south takes territory like they did; they show it on the battlefield that even though they don't have the money and they don't have the equipment, they're pretty tough and they took, you know, a very strategic spot away from the north in a matter of days. And I think that could be very dangerous for the regime in Khartoum, and that's what worries me, is that if, you know, there could be a coup. There could be, you know, more rebellions, and that could have serious repercussion across the region.

CONAN: We're talking wit Jeffrey Gettleman, East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times, and with Ambassador Princeton Lyman, U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And, Princeton Lyman, as we stand on this brink, how does South Sudan supply itself without getting supplies in from Port Sudan down through that highway, not just the oil pipelines, but that's its lifeline?

LYMAN: Well, the - unfortunately, Sudan has closed the border and blocked any shipment of food across the border. What that means is that prices have risen very high in South Sudan for food, and they import much of their food and particularly up in the northern part of the country, near that border. So it's causing a great deal of hardship in South Sudan. Inflation is very high. They're living off their foreign exchange reserves, and they've adopted austerity budgets, but it cuts back on a lot of its development prospects.

So the situation is indeed very difficult. But I agree with Jeffrey that its situation is also very difficult for Sudan. The exchange rate has jumped up to 7 to 1 against the official rate of about 3 to 1. They're having difficulty importing food that they normally import. They've experienced fuel shortages. So Sudan is suffering as well and carrying on battles in Darfur, in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile and now, along the border are simply making the situation worse and not helping in what everybody else is trying to do, is to help them reach agreement on all these issues.

CONAN: Is there any inducement at this point that might help the government in Khartoum alter its policies?

LYMAN: Yes, and Jeffrey's right that they feel isolated. But, in fact, the president began the process for removing them from state sponsors of terrorism. By law, it's a six-month process as soon as - or right after the referendum that they allowed in January 2011. But as Jeffrey pointed out, then there was the fighting in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile and the refusal of the government to allow humanitarian access there. And the United States did not feel it could go forward to the Congress under those circumstances. And we have said to the government address these issues. And there are things we can do together. It include supporting debt relief and a number of other things.

CONAN: Jeffrey Gettleman, as you look forward, is there any upcoming - what do you fear the most?

GETTLEMAN: Well, here's the thing. There's mixed signals. There's aggression on the border, but there's also talk - you know, I was just sent a letter from the government of South Sudan yesterday and they want the cease-fire. They agree to take forces out of Abyei, which is a hotspot. So they're trying in their own way to deescalate this. What worries is me is we're talking about a huge space in the middle of Africa where there are, you know, many rebel groups, lots of guns, lots of ethnic differences. And I really think, especially in the north, the government is not popular in many parts of their territory.

And we could be seeing a Somalia situation, where if the center goes down and something happens to the government there, there may not be an obvious replacement. You may have rebellions and instability across, you know, a huge piece of territory. And that's what happened in Somalia. And once these countries get stuck in this kind of stateless rut, it's very hard to climb out of that. The south has its own problems. There's been, you know, ethnic fighting with thousands of young men taking arms and attacking towns to kill people of other ethnic groups. So we're talking about a very, very violent part of the world, and the last thing they need is, you know, a war between the two sides.

CONAN: Jeffrey Gettleman, thanks very much for your time today.


CONAN: Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times with us from Nairobi. And, Ambassador Lyman, thank you as always.

LYMAN: Well, it was pleasure and thank you for doing this.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.