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October 24, 2007

Darfur - a burning ring of fire

A fellow hack poked her nose into the conference hall where Darfur's rebels were meeting in Juba yesterday.

And what was the music that she heard playing in the background as western Sudan's own wanted men walked around in camouflaged head wraps and battle fatigues?

It was Johnny Cash, of course.

Posted by aheavens at 3:56 PM

October 21, 2007

Darfur - the great Zionist conspiracy

US Starts Understand Real Causes of Darfur Dispute/Dr. Ismail
Sudan Media Centre (state-controlled) Oct 21 - Presidential advisor Dr. Mustafa Osman Ismail said the fundamental cause of Darfur dispute was mainly an economic one. However this reason was exploited by some internal and foreign elements alleging that the dispute was between Arab and African groups. Ismail gave this statement in Doha capitol of Qatar before the meeting of higher committee for reconstruction of Darfur region.

Ismail said the Zionism has exploited the situation and alleged that the war was a genocide led by Arab elements supported by the government against African groups. However he said western countries including the United States of America have started to understand the real cause of Darfur dispute.

Of course, it all makes sense now.

Posted by aheavens at 4:47 PM

October 18, 2007

That'll show em

Since the start of the Darfur conflict, British exports to Sudan have roughly doubled.

Trade with Sudan (£m)
2002 2003 2004 2005 2006
UK Exports 70.8 88.8 91.6 139.7 155.1
UK Imports 7.8 6.3 14.2 18.1 10.0
Source: HM Revenue and Customs

Table taken from the invaluable British Parliament tracking website TheyWorkForYou.com.

Posted by aheavens at 10:38 AM

October 17, 2007

Apology to Bob

A few days ago, Reuters had to publish a correction because I misspelled the Libyan city of Sirte as Sert in a story. I felt pretty bad about it at the time.

Then I read this apology/correction on the front page of today's Khartoum Monitor. And things kind of slipped back into perspective. [By the way, I have renamed the target of the apology as ‘Bob' so I don't repeat the libels against him. Another man has been re-christened Tom for the same reason. Let's just say Bob and Tom are both big in South Sudan.]

Apology to Bob
Khartoum Monitor Oct 17, 2007

In its issue number 1289, volume 6 July 14, 2007 (wrongly dated July 14, 2005), on page 6, Khartoum Monitor carried an article entitled South Sudan: Bob takes over the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).

In the article, which was posted on the internet by Sudan Today in its issue no V, very many serious allegations were made against Bob.

These include:

  • Charges that Bob is the greatest traitor that South Sudan has ever known.

  • Accusations that Bob is the deadliest enemy of the SPLA.

  • Allegations that Tom is a henchman of Bob.

  • Allegations that Bob and Tom together conspired on how to stage a coup against Dr John Garang, especially after Bob fell out with Dr John Garang.

  • Charges that Bob embarked on a vicious path to topple or kill John Garang.

  • Charges that Bob agitated his followers in the SPLA-controlled areas to shoot John Garang in the head.

  • Charges that Bob engaged himself in foul-mouthed talk against Salva calling him a simpleton and ranker who came to power by chance.

  • Allegations that Bob slaughtered two bulls in his house in Khartoum to mark the occasion of the appointment of Tom.

  • Accusations that Bob does not care for Salva's security and is pursuing the National Congress Party agenda.

  • Allegations that Bob's agenda is to assume leadership of the Southern Sudan.

  • Charges that Bob is the NCP-chosen candidate for Southern Sudan.

  • Allegations that Bob's only obstacle to leadership is the SPLA.

  • Accusations that Bob slaughtered bulls because he had taken over the SPLA by proxy.

  • Charges that a Bob leadership would provide protection to the killers of Dr John Garang.

  • Accusations that the new SPLA will be shaped and disciplined according to the liking of Tom and Bob.

  • Charges that Bob is working to split the SPLM.

  • Charges that Bob had a hand in the deaths of William Deng Nhial, Joseph Garang and John Garang.

  • Allegations that whoever disagrees with Bob meets a tragic death. That Bob quarrelled with William Deng Nhial and that quarrel never ended until Dengh was assassinated in mysterious circumstances in 1968. That Bob hated Joseph Garang from the late 1960s until 1971 and their quarrel never ended until Joseph Garang was slaughtered. That from 1999 to 2005, Bob picked up enmity with John Garang. He publicly advocated Garang's shooting and spent years travelling between Nairobi and Kampala. He never rested until he saw the coffin of John Garang laid to rest in Juba.

All these allegations, charges and accusations are completely false and we are sorry we published the article. We sincerely apologise to Bob for the article that tarnished his reputation.

Posted by aheavens at 3:11 PM

October 12, 2007

Diplomats brace for long talks as Darfur violence flares

A surge of vicious attacks in war-torn Darfur has left diplomats bracing themselves for months of bruising peace talks between Sudan's government and the region's rapidly splintering rebel factions.

There are just 15 days to go before Sudan is due to sit down with insurgent groups in talks brokered by the United Nations and the African Union in Libya.

But as the hours tick by, the men who should be busy preparing their briefing papers have been distracted by a series of murderous raids and counter raids, accusations and counter accusations.

Before the recent attacks, optimistic commentators said the talks could be over by December. Diplomats now say it could now take weeks just to get the talks going - to encourage groups fractured by recent violence to reunite behind common positions; to set up an effective new ceasefire during the talks, together with ways of investigating any fresh fighting; and to rebuild a modicum of trust, at least between former allies.

"Some people have said they want everything over by Christmas, but I think that is very optimistic," said one member of the international diplomatic community in Khartoum. "We're determined to stick with it for as long as it takes. The important thing is that we come out with a strong agreement at the end of it."

Many have dated the start of the recent explosion of violence to attacks by rebel factions on Adila, in south east Darfur and a government base in Wad Banda, outside the border of Darfur in Kordofan region both in August.

The assaults kicked off a string of reprisals and unrest that last week climaxed in the killing of 10 African Union peacekeepers in an attack on their base in the south eastern Darfur town of Haskanita by a large body of unidentified armed men.

Earlier this week, the picture became even more muddied after the Sudanese government was accused of attacking Muhajiriya, a town held by the one former rebel group that is supposed to be Khartoum's partner in power. The group in question - the faction of the Sudan Liberation Army led by Minni Minnawi - was the only insurgent movement to sign an earlier failed peace agreement with the government in 2006.

Many have since used the violence to write off the coming peace talks, scorning any chance of success. "Can pigs fly? No," said one international commentator when asked about the chances of the combatants reaching a peaceful resolution. "The talks are now in real jeopardy as many people in Darfur are busy burying their dead," read the regular 'Let us speak out' column in Wednesday's edition of the largely-independent Khartoum Monitor.

The US special envoy to Sudan, Andrew Natsios, told reporters on Saturday talks could fall apart if fighting did not stop ahead of negotiations. "If we do not have a ceasefire once the talks start then it's going to be hard to conduct these negotiations because every time there's an attack someone will walk out of the talks."

But senior diplomats have pointed out that, murderous as the recent attacks might have been, they could have hardly made relations between the already bitterly divided parties any worse.

Veteran UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi told Reuters over the weekend: "This is not something that has flared up out of the blue. There is a problem of violence. But this does not change anything fundamentally. These talks were going to be difficult

"This is the kind of violence that often takes place ahead of big negotiations, with people trying to take the best positions for themselves," said another observer.

Diplomats in Khartoum say the sheer weight of international pressure on Darfur will ensure some sort of talks start in Libya on Oct 27. They are determined not to repeat mistakes made in the build up to the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement, which many feel, broke up after rebels were pressed to hard and too soon to sign up.

But many uncertainties remain.

One key rebel leader, Sudan Liberation Movement founder and chairman Abdel Wahed Mohamed el-Nur, has so far stuck to his refusal to attend the Libyan talks, demanding a list of concessions ahead of negotiations. The leader of the powerful rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) Khalil Ibrahim on Saturday said he would boycott the talks if more than two insurgent factions turn up.

And few have dared to think of what might happen if the worst happens and the Libyan talks fall apart without a resolution. "In many ways, if talks fail we will be back where we are today," said one diplomat. "The situation couldn't get much worse."

Posted by aheavens at 2:43 PM

October 9, 2007

Everything's fine - Everything's falling apart

Here is the current lead story on the state-controlled, Khartoum-based Sudanese Media Centre website:

Future of NCP-SPLM Partnership Reassuring, Akol
Tuesday 9 October 2007 - CPA will never collapse because the Southern Sudan people militated and sacrificed a lot to achieve peace, Sudan's Foreign Minister, Dr. Lam Akol told Sudan Vision in an exclusive interview yesterday. He expressed reassurance of the future of partnership between the National Congress Party NCP and SPLM. ''This partnership has been dictated by the necessity to implement CPA,'' said the Minister adding that the Sudanese citizens will monitor the commitment of the two parties to the Agreement implementation.

And here is the front page story in today's Citizen paper, based in south Sudan's capital Juba:

NCP Partnership Falling Apart, SPLM Political Bureau Agrees
Tuesday 9 October 2007 - The partnership between the Sudan People Liberation Movement and the ruling National Congress Party is in jeopardy, officials said yesterday after the Political Bureau meeting in Juba.

Take both headlines together and you've actually got a pretty clear picture of the political situation here - a continuous round of 'Crisis! - What crisis? - Crisis!'.

And dotcha just love acronyms in headlines? For the few of you out there who aren't Sudanese political obsessives, here are some translations:

Posted by aheavens at 10:31 AM

October 8, 2007

You block Blogspot, I block Boing Boing

boing_blocked.jpgA tale of two internet blockers.

In Ethiopia, you start suspecting your website has been blocked when it suddenly disappears from your screen. Your suspicion grows as you try to log on from different internet connections at different times of day, during weekends, public holidays - and the site is still gone. You don't bother phoning Ethiopian Telecommunications Corp (ETC) to ask what has happened because you know what the monopoly operator will say - the official position remains that there is no online censorship in Ethiopia. You never really know for certain that you've been blocked because - given the state of ETC's overloaded circuits - who knows, it might still be a technical glitch. But over time, as your site fails to reappear, you gradually accept that your site has been blocked. (At least this was the situation when I left the country earlier this year. Has anything changed?)

In Sudan, you know you site has been blocked when a big message fills your screen saying: "Sorry, this site has been blocked by National Telecommunication Corporation" (see image). It even gives you links to follow if you want to protest about the blockage or, better still, suggest other sites that deserve to be blocked. As censorship systems go, it is pretty open.

So why the difference?

The most obvious reason is that the two countries are blocking for different reasons.

The OpenNet Initiative (ONI) recently identified Ethiopia as the only country in sub-Saharan Africa to carry out widespread blocking (although Zimbabwe seems to be joining in now as well). In a report on the region it said:

ONI research has found that Ethiopia focuses its filtering primarily on political bloggers with oppositional views by blocking two major blog services, blogspot.com and nazret.com. This blanket ban of these blogging domains results in extraordinary overblocking, filtering thousands of Weblogs that have no relevance to politics or Ethiopia. In addition, the government blocks Web sites of opposition parties, sites representing ethnic minorities, sites for independent news organizations, and sites promoting human rights in Ethiopia.

Sudan, on the other hand, is one of a large collection of North African and Middle Eastern countries that blocks for cultural and religious reasons before political ones. According to OpenNet:

Most of the sites targeted for blocking are selected because of cultural and religious concerns about morality...Iran, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen ... not only extensively filter political content but also pervasively block content that is perceived to be religiously, culturally, or socially inappropriate.

Political blocking is something you do in secret - it is almost always a covert attack on your opposition enemies to undermine their support. That is why state-run Ethiopian Telecoms, despite open ridicule, sticks to its story that the disappearance of opposition blogs is just a very targeted "technical problem".

Religious blocking is something you do out in the open - it is almost always a proud and principled stand against what you see as corrupting influences on the internet. That is why Sudan's telecoms regulater practically boasts about its blocking.

So, one more puzzle. Why is the light-hearted and non-corrupting uber-blog Boing Boing blocked in Sudan (see pic), while it is open to all readers in Ethiopia?

That is to do with another difference between the two countries - a difference in the techniques they use to block websites.

Ethiopia, according to OpenNet, used a pretty ham-fisted approach. It goes to its servers and tells them to block access to websites linked to certain words like 'blogspot' or 'nazret'. It is easy for ETC to do this. As the only operator in the country, it controls the only telecoms pipes in and out of the country. But the technique is a blunt instrument and very easy to circumvent. All you have to do is to move to another blogging platform - Wordpress for example - or buy your own web address. Ethiopia has to keep up with you by blocking each new name you choose. Boing Boing has survived so far simply because no one in ETC headquarters has thought of adding it to the list of blacklisted websites.

Sudan uses what is, on the surface, a more sophisticated technique. It uses commercial software, produced by U.S. companies like Secure Computing and Websense. According to OpenNet:

This software allows ISPs (internet service providers), often acting on the behest of governments, to filter lists of pages updated by the company, by category.

The trouble is that these filters are only as sophisticated as the people who set them up - i.e. not very. Here is Boing Boing itself on how it got blocked by Secure Computing's SmartFilter product:

At fault in most of these cases is a US-based censorware company called Secure Computing, which makes a web-rating product called SmartFilter. But SmartFilter isn't very smart. Secure Computing classifies any site with any nudity -- even Michaelangelo's David appearing on a single page out of thousands -- as a "nudity" site, which means that customers who block "nudity" can't get through.

Last week, Secure Computing updated their software to classify Boing Boing as a "nudity" site. Last month, we had two posts with nudity in them, out of 692 -- that's 0.29 percent of our posts, but SmartFilter blocks 100 percent of them. This month, there were four posts with nudity (including the Abu Ghraib photos), out of 618 -- 0.65 percent.

In fact, out of the 25,000+ Boing Boing posts classed as "nudity" by SmartFilter, more that 99.5 percent have no nudity at all. They're stories about Hurricane Katrina, kidnapped journalists in Iraq, book reviews, ukelele casemods, phonecam video of Bigfoot sightings (come to think of it, he doesn't wear clothes either), or pictures of astonishing Lego constructions.

So you picks your country and you takes your choice.

If you want to read Boing Boing's posts on ukelele casemods, Bigfoot sightings, Lego constructions, vaginas and lobotomies, you're fine in Ethiopia. If you want to keep track of opposition politics in Ethiopia, you had better stay in Sudan.

At the end of the day, it is good to know that those anonymous men, fine-tuning their servers in the back rooms of ETC and Sudan's National Telecommunication Corporation, are out there protecting us from one kind of online nasty or another.

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Posted by aheavens at 8:11 AM

October 7, 2007

All the headlines

Darfur town where troops killed "burned down" - UN
KHARTOUM, Oct 7 (Reuters) - A Darfur town has been burned to the ground, days after 10 African Union troops were killed there in an armed attack, a joint United Nations/African Union mission said on Sunday.

'We need security'
KHARTOUM, Oct 6 (Mail & Guardian) - Nelson Mandela's group of “elders” warned of signs of deep and growing division in Sudan as they ended their first official mission to the country, a visit marred by violence and confrontations with security forces. “We heard the tale of two countries,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu told reporters at a press conference at the close of the trip.

Mediators at Darfur talks need patience
KHARTOUM, Oct 4 (Reuters) - Mediators at Darfur peace talks will need patience and negotiators need to be more representative of the people of Sudan's remote west, a group of elder statesmen said on Wednesday after visiting the region.

Sudan criticises U.S. and EU after Darfur attack
KHARTOUM, Oct 2 (Reuters) - Sudan criticised the United States and European Union on Tuesday for failing to impose sanctions on Darfur rebel groups believed to be behind the deadliest attack on African Union troops in the war-torn region.

Posted by aheavens at 5:32 PM

October 4, 2007

Carter on the peace talks paradox

tutu_carterFormer U.S. President Jimmy Carter has spent the past three days touring Darfur with a group of "elders". They gave a press conference late last night.

Here is what he had to say about the paradox that only guys with guns win seats at peace talks (see post below):

An effort is being made by the United Nations and the African Union to bring to Tripoli on the 27th of this month, people who represent the rebel groups and who also represent the government. As you know the only qualification for the rebel groups is that they have some guns and they are qualified to kill people. And so far that is the only criteria by which rebel groups are defined. There have been six major rebel groups identified, but according to figures we've heard since we've been here is that it is now 28. And now those rebel groups are fighting each other. And they are fighting other people who are completely innocent. There's no provision yet to make sure that people who are not at war, the civilians who live in this country, who want peace, will be represented at Tripoli.

And how will their representation be chosen? Those are very, very important questions. Some of those rebel groups have no constituency except their own bandit members quite often who are carrying an AK-47. They don't have any civilian supporters but they are the ones so far who are being qualified.

Well, when that negotiation starts, later this month, just three weeks from now, we hope that the participants will be patient because this complex an issue can not be resolved in a few days or even a few weeks. There needs to be time to feel out both sides, to feel out new participants if necessary and to be patient all around and that includes not just the government of Sudan and the people from Darfur, it also includes the UN, the international community and in particular the African Union.

Posted by aheavens at 9:57 AM

October 3, 2007

Reports of my death ... #2

You are no one in Sudan until you have had to deny reports of your own bloody death. First it was South Sudanese president Salva Kiir, now African Union Darfur force commander Martin Luther Agwai [PDF alert].

Posted by aheavens at 11:49 AM

October 2, 2007

Peace talks paradox

It is now three days since the attack on AU troops in Haskanita, Darfur. And still there is no official explanation of who did it or why.

The most common theory is that it was a rebel splinter group of one or two rebel splinter groups, one of them the Sudanese Liberation Army's Unity faction (SLA-Unity).

One popular explanation for the assault is that the attackers were trying to prove themselves as a major player and win a place at coming negotiations between the Sudanese government and rebel groups in Libya on Oct 27.

That is the explanation put forward by the African Union spokesman who told state TV last night: "Those who carried out this operation and aimed from it to reserve a seat for himself at the Tripoli negotiations, this will not happen and will not come about."

If he's right, it is a pretty chilling mindset - 'Now we've killed 10 men, let us talk peace' - negotiations and prominence as a reward for violence.

But maybe not so paradoxical when you remember that all the current participants in the Oct 27 talks have all won their seats by possessing arms and showing a willingness to use them over the past four and a half years. (There will be other groups in Tripoli, representing women, displaced people and so on. But they will be very much on the sidelines.)

Posted by aheavens at 9:03 AM