Sudan, with roughly the same land mass as Texas, has one of Africa's longest rail systems, with 3,600 miles of track. And it has the ambition to make it grow. The most recent extensions include 50 miles of new branch lines built to transport petroleum products between the refinery in Abu Khiraiz and Al Obeid station. Publicity material from Sudan Railway Corporation (a mostly state-owned entity) describes plans to build connecting lines into Chad and Ethiopia. But an industry that could boost development and infrastructure is instead giving a full head of steam to the government's war machine.
The country's main line runs south from Khartoum, connecting the capital with government-held towns as far as Wau on a Nile tributary. Trains pass through rebel-held territory along the way. The government fortifies the trains, often filled with troops, using militia riding on horseback. Over the years of Sudan's civil war, the militia riders have latched onto a money-raising scheme. Fanning out from the train, the horse riders capture women and children. They take their captives to Khartoum on the round trip and sell them in slave markets, turning the security operators into venture capitalists.
UNICEF spokesman Martin Dawes told WORLD, "Trains are mainly used on that line for military purposes. When they move, there tend to be human-rights abuses on both sides of the line. Local tribesmen are attacked, women and children are picked up by the militias accompanying the train. It drives the population away from the railroad line."
The declining state of the government's locomotives, however, has slowed the trade in human freight. With breakdowns on the rolling stock as well as ruptures in the track (sometimes sabotaged by rebels), round trips sometimes take a year to complete. Seeing a way to resurrect the rail line, Sudan foreign minister Mustafa Osman Ismail approached UN World Food Program officials in Khartoum, along with the U.S. special envoy to Sudan at the time, Harry Johnston. If the United States would allow an exemption for spare parts to repair the trains, the World Food Program could use the trains to transport sacks of grain to the south.
U.S. trade sanctions against Sudan have been in place since 1997. The only exemption has been gum arabic, a key soft drink ingredient, which the United States imports from Sudan. Ninety percent of the railroad system's rolling stock is American made, consisting of locomotives made by U.S. manufacturers General Electric and General Motors. Mr. Ismail asked Mr. Johnston to seek a sanctions exemption so that approximately $600,000 in spare parts made by General Electric could be shipped to Sudan, Mr. Johnston confirmed to WORLD. After discussions with State Department officials, including the undersecretary for Africa, Susan Rice, "we agreed that we would allow GE to sell parts," Mr. Johnston said recently. An exemption was duly registered with the Treasury Department in March 2000.
Mr. Johnston said U.S. officials extracted concessions from Khartoum in return for the exemption. Mr. Ismail agreed to remove militia from the train so UN officers could post their own guards over food supplies. World Food Program officials also announced plans to paint the trains white with blue UN insignia.
More fanfare ensued. The U.S. exemption led to an agreement, signed in May of last year, among Sudanese officials, UN relief coordinators, and several rebel representatives for transporting relief aid via the railroad line. A press statement issued by the government on May 3, 2000, said the World Food Program had agreed to repair four trains for food delivery. "The parties to the conflict are committed to providing all security guarantees to ensure the safety of United Nations convoys delivering humanitarian assistance from armed groups," the statement read. Further, China, with a growing stake in oil development in Sudan, announced it would loan the government $22 million for revamping the trains and rail lines.
But one year later, it's apparent that the UN bureaucrats and the U.S. government abandoned the scheme while leaving the exemption in place. Several UN officials, including World Food Program director Massood Hyder in Khartoum, said the trains have not delivered food more than once or twice. He said security, given fighting along the route, was not satisfactory. UN agents now distance themselves from the arrangement they made a year ago. Currently, according to spokeswoman Lindsey Davies, "The World Food Program does not deliver food by the railroad. We deliver food by air and road."
Mr. Johnston said it was his understanding that the exemption had been used to obtain spare parts and repair the trains. But he said he was not surprised that UN officials could not find a way to actually finalize food delivery. "A lot of times the government of Sudan promised things they could not deliver," he said.
A spokesman for General Electric, Jeff Demerey, said the company did not lobby for the exemption. Nor did the Fortune 500 company receive orders directly from Sudan. "We did not sell parts to Sudan," he said. Mike Elbaz, a former GE employee and sales manager for Maintex, a Montreal-based firm that services trains for Sudan Railway Corporation, said he also was not aware of direct sales of GE parts to Sudan. He acknowledged that there are after-market suppliers and other ways of acquiring the parts without going directly to the source.
Trains on the main line are back to a regular schedule after several erratic years, according to John Eibner of Christian Solidarity International, a Zurich-based organization that sends teams into the area to track and redeem slaves. Eyewitnesses report seeing the train at least as recently as Jan. 21, accompanied by horseback militia engaged in slave raids. The trains are running again, just not the way humanitarians planned.