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The U.S. contributed to Sudan's instability, a former official says


Fighting between two warring military parties has turned Sudan's capital, Khartoum, into a war zone. More than 400 people have died since fighting broke out on April 15, and people are looking for a way out.

ISMAIL KUSHKUSH: We are in the middle between the gunfire on both sides.


That's Sudanese American journalist Ismail Kushkush. He told us Friday he was trapped in a building downtown with more than 30 others.

KUSHKUSH: The greatest fear that we have at the moment is running out of food and water. We think we have food and water that will last, perhaps, for 10 days.

CHANG: Yesterday, on the ninth day, they escaped, as Kushkush told us in an update this morning.

KUSHKUSH: This is Ismail Kushkush. We're out of the building.

CHANG: They were out thanks to the building's doorman who brokered an agreement with the paramilitary soldiers surrounding the building.

KUSHKUSH: The door person in our building knew some of the soldiers. Before the fighting, they would come and bring their clothes to be washed, so he knew them.

BLOCK: The soldiers agreed to provide safe passage, and the residents filed out as a group.

CHANG: After a half-hour walk and a bus ride, Kushkush and a few others are now at an apartment on another side of Khartoum, trying to arrange travel to Egypt.

BLOCK: The collapse of talks between the two warring factions, the Sudanese army and the RFF, or Rapid Support Forces, was an utterly predictable outcome. That's what Jacqueline Burns told us based on past negotiations. She's a former adviser to the U.S. special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan.

JAQUELINE BURNS: One of the biggest problems was that the negotiations prioritized the voices of the armed actors over civilian actors, civil society, women's groups, other people who were genuinely fighting for political reforms and for peace in Sudan.

BLOCK: And your essay in today's New York Times is titled "The Violence In Sudan Is Partly Our Fault." And by our, you are faulting the United States as well as the European Union, the U.N., the African Union, among others. What is the role of those interveners? Why are they at fault?

BURNS: So the peace processes in Sudan go back decades. And in these processes, the facilitator's role is to determine who needs to be at the table and the format of the negotiations. And so by continuing to let the armed actors' demands to have an exclusionary process win over, we cut out all the space for civil society and other actors to be able to participate.

BLOCK: It does seem to me that there is a pretty obvious power imbalance, though, in what you're describing. Armed groups have arms, they have weapons. And civil society, for all of its valid, honorable goals, just seems to be disproportionately disadvantaged at the negotiating table.

BURNS: They are. That is true. And I am not denying the complexity of these factors and all of the difficulties when trying to find a formulation of a peace process that is going to work. However, civilian-led transitions are needed if we want actual reform and change in Sudan. The armed actors are not interested in this. And so the international community needs to find ways to help with that power balance to make sure that we are insisting that their voices are included and are heard.

BLOCK: And what would the leverage be for that?

BURNS: That is complicated, of course. I think that there's a range of actions that we could talk about that would be considered formal sanctions, whether they be economic sanctions, whether they be removing them from membership on international organizations or regional organizations. I think that there is more to be done also when it comes to our soft power, right? The more we engage with these actors, the more we give them legitimacy. And that legitimacy does matter. It emboldens them and makes them think that they are going to get what they want and that they continue these actions. And it also emboldens other actors to put their support behind them. And so right now, there is an impetus here for the international community to help build up the voices of civilian actors who are interested in peace in Sudan, and to help get them back on track to a civilian-led transition.

BLOCK: And looking forward, do you see that as a realistic scenario, a civilian-led government in Sudan?

BURNS: Eventually, yes. Unfortunately, I think the immediate outlook in Sudan is pretty grim. But I do think in the long run, yes, it can happen, and I think it eventually will happen. But I think my overarching point that is the longer the international community continues to appease and provide legitimacy to the armed actors is going to prolong the conflict and prolong how long it takes for us to get to a civilian-led government.

BLOCK: I've been speaking with Jacqueline Burns, a former adviser to the U.S. special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan. She's now with the think tank the RAND Corporation. Miss Burns, thanks so much.

BURNS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.