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In Sudan and Bulgaria with President Kalam

In Sudan and Bulgaria with President Kalam

Sudan was in news headlines recently as it became the third Arab country after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to normalize ties and diplomatic relations with the Jewish state Israel. It occurred under a promise of Trump administration that Washington will remove the country from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Sudan also said that it has signed an agreement with the U.S. that could effectively stop any future compensation claims being filed against the African country in the U.S. courts.  The deal, signed with U.S., was meant to settle all lawsuits against Sudan in American courts, including those related to the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The deal can be finalized only after U.S. Congress passes legislation needed to implement the agreement. This seems to be in doldrums with the change  of administration in Washington.  Sudan’s government has agreed to pay $335 million in compensation for victims of the attacks that were carried out reportedly by Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network while the militant leader was living in Sudan. However Sudan says  the money would be held  till the U.S. finalized the restoration of Sudan’s sovereign immunity.

 Osama Bin Laden’s and mentor Abdullah Hasan Tarabi would also live in the Sudanese capital Khartoum.  Sudan came under radar of US as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1990s, when Al-Bashir government briefly hosted bin Laden and other wanted militants on the said condition that Osama Bin Laden  will heavily  invest  in agriculture and infrastructure in  the country.  According to an interview published in Asian Age on Oct 23, .2003: “Every one knew in Khartoum, especially taxi drivers about the location of the house of Abdullah Hasan Tarabi. He was close to the current government until three years ago, when he left to form his own National Congress Party. He came under US scrutiny when he spoke out in support of Osama bin Laden and has been imprisoned regularly. He was just released from house imprisonment by the Sudanese government on October 13 after 900 days and laughingly says that he has spent over nine years all told in jail or under house arrest”. In the same interview Tarabi denied close association with Osama bin Laden, insisting that he had met him only thrice. “Twice he came to meet me and once I returned his call,” he claimed. He insisted that the Al Qaeda leader was a media creation. 

Now a transitional government led jointly by military and civilian figures rules Sudan, after the overthrow of former leader Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. 

 After medieval invasions and colonial upheavals independent Sudan’s history  always  remained under turmoil over a long period. There was a vast division of ethnicity, culture, religion and language between north and south Sudan regions. North public is Islamic and speak Arabic while southern region people are Christians and speak a different language. For a long time, country faced heavy conflicts due to ethnic and economic reasons that resulted in giving an autonomous region to South Sudan. 

 In 1978, Sudan’s president Gaafar Nimeiry wanted to take control of the newly-discovered oil fields located on the border region between north and south Sudan.  In 1983, President Nimeiry imposed  Sharia Law across the nation and abolishing the mostly Christian Southern Sudan Autonomous Region.  Most South Sudanese people and other people who were non-Muslim living in the north were now punished by Sharia Law. The  rebels from South Sudan formed the Southern Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) to fight the central government in Khartoum and thus a long civil war began. Nimery was ousted in a coup in 1985. Civil war like fighting went on between Khartoum central forces and rebel forces amidst many intermittent peace negotiations with atrocities and human rights abuses occurring on both sides. In January 2011, a referendum  was held to determine whether South Sudan should become an independent country and separate from Sudan. 98.83% of the population voted for independence .On July 9, 2011, South Sudan became the 54th independent country in Africa ending a long war and heavy loss of life.  

On July 14,2011, South Sudan became  the 193rd member of the United Nations.  Post independence South Sudan too faced a lot many armed  revolts from rebels within. In December 2013, a political power struggle broke out between President Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar , as the president accused Machar and ten others of attempting a coup  Fighting broke out, igniting the South  Sudan Ethnic civil war involving troops from neighboring Uganda for peace.

It was in October 2003 that I was part of the media delegation that accompanied our  President A P J Abdul Kalam on his visit to United Arab Emirate (UAE),Sudan and Bulgaria. This was President Kalam’s first foreign tour after assuming office. Unlike Prime Minister’s visits, Presidents foreign visits are not too taxing for journos as they get enough time to see around. But President Kalam was very active and he kept the media team on tenterhooks that covered the visit extensively. He had a very busy schedule in UAE, Khartoum and Sofia with giving lectures in parliaments ,schools , scientific establishments and meeting Indologists and local people.

Generally as a custom, PMs or Presidents meet the accompanying media group only once on board special flight during the visit. But President Kalam would come and interact with journos in all the intermittent flights between countries to share his experiences of the nations. Like a teacher, he would explain on how he chose those three countries for his first trip abroad. 

Before landing in Khartoum, we could see the single stories mud houses on the Sudanese soil. No high rise buildings were noticed. A question was pondering in everyone’s mind that why the President chose this country for his first foreign visit! What was his idea of Sudan which was virtually demolished   in a long civil war and US had listed the country in the state sponsored terror list. Omer Hassan Ahmed al Bashir  was in place as President at that time. .  

Dr Kalam said while landing in such a place one could see the landscape dotted with mud houses like in India. Let us see the poor and their lives and their zeal to survive in such a war like crisis here. He told accompanying scribes that you will have many chance to  see big cities with  sky scrapers in developed countries but not cities like this for a different experience. He described the Sudan visit as a learning trip. He mentioned the ancient relations between India and Sudan for trade in silk and other commodities.

He liked Sudan as its capital Khartoum is located at the confluence of Blue Nile and White Nile rivers converging into great Nile. Dr Kalam also said that First  Indian  Election Commissioner Sukumar Sen conducted first election in Sudan too in 1953. There had been many bilateral visits of Indian Presidents and Prime Ministers to Sudan and Sudanese  leader’s visit to India. India had good relations during British era too as steel for two bridges on River Nile was sent from India. He also mentioned that India’s  ONGC was venturing in oil exploration in Sudan under an agreement.    

As media persons, we went through the city and its markets and met the people. We  felt as if we were wandering in any small city of India. But the city located on the banks of  both the blue and white Nile rivers present Khartoum with a unique  scenario loaded with a glorious past and history. People speak only Arabic. You are lucky if you come across an English knowing man. Even we had to face such a situation when our driver could not understand to take us to airport to catch the Presidential flight. He took us to other places before arriving at the airport in the nick of time.     

In Sudan, President addressed their Parliament though there was a deep strife between north and south Sudan.  While we were cruising on great Nile, a Sudanese singer sang a song and its meaning was “O river flow slowly till I end song of my life”. We attended a gala banquet hosted by the then Sudanese President in the lawns of famous palace where British Generals Kitchener and Gordon lived during British rule there. 

In Bulgaria, the Reela Monastery of Bulgaria is a very popular pilgrimage surrounded by beautiful hills clothed with colorful forests. President Kalam visited the ancient monastery and took keen interest of its history. My Bulgarian interpreter Tswetanova told me that there is an ancient connection between India and Bulgaria as Alexander the Great was from Macedonia which was part of Bulgaria then.

 (The writer is a senior journalist and broadcaster.)

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