USAID chief says she's haunted by how many people are unable to leave Sudan
The ongoing fighting in Sudan is being described as a civil war, with fears of possible genocide. The World's host Marco Werman speaks with Administrator Samantha Power, who heads the US Agency for International Development (USAID) about the unrest and humanitarian support to those who need it most.
USAID Administrator Samantha Power is interviewed by the AP at USAID Headquarters in Washington, Aug. 4, 2022.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File photo
The fighting in Sudan is now being described as a civil war. The battle between two rival generals has escalated since it began in mid-April.
The unrest is stoking ethnic tensions, especially in the country's western Darfur region, which has led some observers to suggest another term for Sudan's conflict: genocide.
The World's host Marco Werman spoke with Administrator Samantha Power, who heads the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The group is keeping a close eye on the fighting, while also trying to get humanitarian support to those who need it most.
Marco Werman: This week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that Sudan is on the brink of a full-scale civil war that could destabilize the entire region of northeast Africa. What's the latest you are hearing about the situation on the ground?
Administrator Samantha Power: Every day, we get new reports of flare-ups of fighting in different parts of the country. Darfur, of course, is an epicenter of violence right now, but so is the capital Khartoum, which very few Sudanese could have imagined being wracked by a civil war-like conflict as it is now. Additionally, we're getting reports of looting of humanitarian facilities. And if you think of the ultimate embodiment of brutality, imagine a militia that both kills, commit sexual violence and actually loots wheat and ready-to-use therapeutic food for starving children. And that's what we're talking about here in terms of the depravity. It's also really tricky to get access to different parts of the country. So, I can't claim to you that we have perfect knowledge by any stretch of the imagination across this vast country about where the needs are the most pressing. But we are trying to flow resources to trusted partners on the ground. This isn't the first time, as you noted, that Darfur has seen very significant violence. And so, we do have relationships on the ground, and there are brave Sudanese and other international personnel who are there trying to meet the health, food, shelter and other needs, but being able to do almost nothing to stem the violence.
So, the violence is being perpetrated by two armies: the national army and this rebel force, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Does it look as if civilians are siding with either general, giving this conflict a sectarian aspect, or do you see it as innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of two armies?
I would say largely the latter, as is so true of conflict everywhere with the added wrinkle that both the so-called RSF, the militia that you mentioned, and the Sudanese armed forces have in many parts of the country, sought to mobilize tribes on their side.
Listeners will remember, Administrative Power, that before entering government, you were a prominent voice in the human rights community, focusing, among other crises, on Darfur. Also a pioneer on what constitutes genocide. What are you seeing now in Darfur?
Well, I think until we get better access, it's going to be very hard to label or to reach some kind of assessment. But what we know is that targeted killings, ethnically motivated killings and attacks are occurring and many of them are being perpetrated by the same individuals in some cases, and certainly the same militias that were active back in that horrible 2004 to 2005 period when genocide was perpetrated. I was in eastern Chad back 20-something years ago when genocide was being perpetrated in Darfur. And I returned this past May, and it was just chilling in the extreme to meet with families who were crossing into Chad from Darfur, Sudan, and who were often crossing for the second, third, fourth time. And in one case, I met a mother whose son had been ripped from her arms and thrown into a fire. And I just thought I was in a time warp, because those are exactly the kinds of stories that I heard back in 2004.
It sounds like you witnessed conditions there that possibly could lead to genocide.
We have to know what the intent of the perpetrators are and we have to have a better sense of scale. But we already have evidence that executions are occurring, that sexual violence is being perpetrated, that internally displaced person camps that have existed for some time, in part, because of the prior atrocities that those are being attacked.
UN officials have called Sudan the toughest place in the world for humanitarian workers. Why is that?
Mainly now, it's, of course, violence, mass violence and popping up in very unpredictable ways. But there's also horrific bureaucracy. I know it sounds banal compared to what we've been talking about, but when you actually have bureaucrats who are looking for 10 permissions from various offices in order to allow a convoy to move from one part of the country with lifesaving assistance in it to another part, it just compounds injury with insults, you might say. So, we have been pressing, but because Sudan was in something of a governance limbo prior to the outbreak of fighting, because it had been on a path to civilian rule after years of dictatorship under Omar al-Bashir, who was indicted by the International Criminal Court, the people of Sudan rose up in 2018 in these popular female-led protests, brought down this dictatorship, and the African Union (AU) helped facilitate a path to civilian rule.That didn't last long and and those who felt themselves excluded launched a coup to undermine that. I mentioned all of this history because the will of the Sudanese people is being so defied again and again by these armed actors. But also, it's actually very diffuse right now as to where the levers are to secure greater humanitarian access for these lifesaving goods that are, in some cases, stuck in Port Sudan waiting to flow, but can't get a bureaucrat to sign off, in part, because of the tradition of obstructionism.
So, peace talks in Saudi Arabia have broken down. The US and Saudi both seeing little productivity there. Egypt is playing some role, saying it will host leaders from Sudan's neighbors on Thursday. Administrator Power, where do you see glimmers of hope for resolving the conflict peacefully?
Well, I think that the leadership shown in the last couple of days, as well, by Prime Minister Abiy [Ahmed] of Ethiopia and President [William] Ruto of Kenya, is encouraging. So, regional leadership efforts that also bring in the Arab-led process that the Saudis have been chairing on the humanitarian front in the town of Jeddah, we need these lines of effort to be proceeding in parallel. I will say also, USAID does a lot with civilians on the ground, with civilians who rose up and demanded the end of dictatorship. They were largely excluded from negotiations about Sudan's future after the coup. We are working hard on the ground to give them the support so they can self-organize. It's really important that civilian voices and women's voices be at the table, and that's not always what happens.
Finally, Administrator Power, you mentioned that trip to Chad you made in May, speaking with refugees escaping from Darfur and Sudan. Are there moments from that trip that stick with you today, maybe even haunt you?
For me, the most haunting aspect of this is knowing how many people are unable to get out of Sudan. When I met with those refugees coming into Chad from Sudan, what they talked about was lines, processions of people, who were trying to get into Chad and were being blocked or attacked while attempting to flee. So, it's really the people who we aren't able to access, who we know are in desperate circumstances and who are either bunkered in their homes or in displaced person camps or being dressed down for bribes and have run out of money, who are dying of thirst, for all we know, in the very inhospitable conditions in Darfur. I think it is the unknown unknowns, and then knowing too much about who these perpetrators are and how they conduct themselves. It is that combination, I think, that is chilling in the extreme.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.