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A long way from Capitol Hill

Africa | Former Senate majority leader finds suffering and war alive and well in Darfur, but signs of peace and reconciliation elsewhere in Africa

Issue: "Tortilla wars," March 10, 2007

Former Senate majority leader Bill Frist, a Republican from Tennessee, saw feisty debates during his 12 years on Capitol Hill. But the longtime heart surgeon never saw what confronted him on a medical mission to four African countries last month: a Kenyan tribesman with an arrow driven 7 inches into his skull. Frist operated to extract the intrusion, the result, the Kenyan said, of a land dispute.

The African mission may have been a long way from the Senate floor, but it was not absent political theater. During a three-week tour that took Frist to Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, and Sudan, he tried to visit President Omar Bashir of Sudan in Khartoum, but Bashir refused to see him. Frist is unpopular with the Sudanese government because he pushed a 2005 resolution as Senate majority leader that branded government violence in Darfur as genocide, he said. The conflict has displaced over 2 million Sudanese and killed 350,000.

When Frist first visited Darfurian refugee camps two years ago, they were new, with survivors needing immediate food and water. By contrast, dusty Otash Camp outside Nyala, in South Darfur, now has become home to its 35,000 residents. In all, displaced camps in South Darfur house over 250,000. The displaced at Otash receive job training. Women learn to sew and weave baskets to earn money. But as camp life improves, Darfurians are less likely to return to their bombed and raided villages, Frist told WORLD.

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High danger remains a constant in Darfur, and recently humanitarian workers came under rebel and government assault. In January police beat UN staff workers and sexually assaulted one of them, a woman. In December attacks on six humanitarian compounds in southern Darfur pushed workers aiding 130,000 Darfurians to withdraw. Visas for aid workers and journalists to Darfur are difficult if not impossible to obtain, and aid efforts are slowing.

Frist said he was "dumbfounded" by the way South Darfur's governor downplayed conflict statistics and labeled international media coverage of the conflict a "great exaggeration."

The governor also opposes the introduction of UN peacekeepers, even though the current African peacekeeping force in Darfur has been unsuccessful at curbing violence and atrocities. UN peacekeepers are required under a UN Security Council resolution passed last August.

Frist sees the roadblocks to resolving Darfur as part of Khartoum's faltering peace agreement with the south, signed two years ago. Southern Sudanese see little progress in defining borders or in accessing accurate figures about oil revenues, half of which belong to them. Without the integration of the south into the north, he said, "there will be a slow resolution of Darfur." Frist argued with officials for a greater role by the south's political leaders in Khartoum to bring more accountability.

Still, the markets and churches he visited in the south are thriving, signs that times have changed since he was treating war injuries and performing amputations on locals hit by government bombs and landmines.

Frist says he now has more time to spend on such trips, which the former Senate leader has been taking for nine years, treating patients and performing surgery. This time he traveled with Samaritan's Purse founder Franklin Graham, and could see two sides to genocide: Darfur with its ongoing brutality, and Rwanda, where genocide has ended. Frist offered good news about Rwanda after spending three days on a retreat with Rwandan President Paul Kagame and some 50 government officials. He said he marveled that "12 years after a million people had died [in Rwanda's 1994 genocide] a country can reach reconciliation."

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