Invisible Crisis In World's Newest Country?

South Sudan gained independence in 2011, but it has been locked in a bitter conflict with its northern neighbor. Rep. Frank Wolf (R.-Va.) just returned from the area. He talks with host Michel Martin about what some observers are calling a humanitarian crisis, and what the U.S. can do to help.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, last week's conversation about the musical reunion of pop stars Chris Brown and Rihanna, who's relationship famously ended after a violent altercation, was a hot topic in our Barbershop segment last week and it lead to some even hotter responses from some of our listeners. We'll tell you which of our regulars sparked the flood of angry mail in a minute, but first we want to bring you an update on developments in the world's newest country.

South Sudan gained independence last year but the bloody conflict that has plagued the region did not end with that declaration. A border dispute, internal uprisings, and reported cross-border military raids have some observers saying the region is no longer at the beginning of a celebration of nationhood but rather at the start of another massive humanitarian crisis.

Congressman Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia, recently returned from a trip to South Sudan, only his latest to the region, and he's compiled a report about what he saw there and he is kind of enough to join us now. Congressman Wolf, thank you so much for speaking with us.

REPRESENTATIVE FRANK WOLF: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And it's been only a few months since South Sudan gained independence. You were the first member of the Congress to visit the new country and you've spent, as we mentioned, a number of years traveling back and forth. You just filed a pretty disturbing report from the region upon your return. Could you just give us your assessment of why you say that this on the beginning of another humanitarian crisis?

WOLF: Well, I was there with my chief of staff, Dan Scanlon, and what I saw were people pouring across the border from the country Sudan and the Nuba Mountain area because up in the Nuba Mountains they're bombing people three and four times a day. They drop bombs that are loaded with shrapnel. They don't use a precise bombing scope that they can target it and they just roll the bombs out of the back of the plane. So, it might hit here, it might here there. There's no way of knowing where they're going to hit.

So they can't work the fields. They can't work the crops, and there's no food up in the Nuba Mountains. So they're leaving the Nuba to come south and then the government has even the government of Sudan, the Khartoum government, has bombed some of the refugee camps in the south, so the people tell me they're hungry. And lastly, the women we talked to believed that they were being targeted because of the color of their skin and they all wanted to know why Bashir was permitted to continue to do what he did.

When the effort took place in the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo, Milosevic was an indicted war criminal. The West made sure he got to the court. Karadzic was an indicted war criminal, the West made sure he got to the court. And Mladic was an indicted war criminal, a general from Srebrenica, that he got to the International Criminal Court. They haven't seen any activity with regard to Bashir and so they don't quite understand.

Here in the West people moved against Milosevic and they were brought to The Hague or brought to the court. And now Bashir's been in office for, I mean, almost twenty years, maybe longer and there's been no activity.

MARTIN: Could I just tie a bow on this? You've been telling us about the fact that and reminding us that Omar al Bashir, the president of Sudan, has been in office for a couple of decades now, has been wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes genocide and crimes against humanity related to what happened in the western part of the country and you're describing the fact that it seems that he continues to operate with impunity. What is your sense of why that is? Why is it that the international communities focused attention on this doesn't seem to be bearing any fruit?

WOLF: Well, my own opinion is that when it took place on the continent of Europe people got worked up about it. You had a lot of media there. Now that it's in a very remote, very difficult area of Sudan to see what's going on.

MARTIN: I think what I hear you saying is that this part of the world just does not seem to compel our attention in the way that other parts of the world.

WOLF: Because they're poor people and they're Africans where as on the coast of Albania, the situation with Serbia, they were Europeans. It was I think if this were happening in Southern Europe the world response would be different rather than this happening in Southern Sudan. Now, Bashir has a Washington representative, he has a high powered lawyer here in town, a guy by the name of Bart Fisher, to represent them. Well, there's something wrong there.

Secondly if you remember Bashir's been traveling to many countries. He went to Malawi a couple months ago and we asked Malawi not to have him in. They have him in. Well, I asked the secretary of State, who I know cares deeply about this, let the word go forth that if you are a country and you allow Bashir to visit you will get no foreign assistance from the United States government, period. And also, I've asked the administration to make sure this guy Bart Fisher can no longer represent Bashir and the Sudan government here in Washington.

MARTIN: I wanted to talk more about what you think is motivating what you saw there. As you know - as you know better than anybody there are long running tensions between the South and the North. That's one of the motivations behind independence for the South. Is it your assessment that a lot of the violence that you're seeing is intended to drive more people into the South? Is it intended to damage the South in some way or do you think that it is just a - not just - but a byproduct of the kind of ethnic tensions that have plagued the North for some time now?

WOLF: I think it's the latter. I think it's just some ethnic tension. You'll see the same thing in Darfur. When we were in Darfur a number of years ago, we interviewed a number of young women who had been raped just before we got there. And they said that when they were being raped they were told that they were making a lighter skinned baby. Race seems to play a large part of this.

You also have the whole issue of oil. It's been complicated by oil. Both of the countries, the North and the South, depend on the oil coming out and now there's a great dissension as to how that oil will be distributed and how the proceeds will be. And then it's animosity. As you know the South used to be part of the North and I think many people in the North, particularly at Bashir, never wanted to see the South separate. No one wants to see the country broken apart.

Lastly you have Bashir's been an indicted war criminal. He's been indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and many other things and that I think has put a lot of pressure on the circumstances there. So, it's a complicated issue. I don't know if there's any one thing but the longer this thing continues, both the North and the South will suffer. They both need the oil revenues and of course the people are going to be the ones that pay the ultimate price.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm joined by U.S. Representative Frank Wolf, a Republican of Virginia. He just got back from a fact-finding trip to the worlds newest country South Sudan but he says that there's a growing potentially disastrous humanitarian situation unfolding there. We've been talking a lot about what's been going on in Sudan in the North and the sort of the ongoing things that a lot of Americans will be familiar with but I want to go back to South Sudan.

As we said, the world's newest country. This separation arrived at after a long series of negotiations. You just met with South Sudan's new leadership and I wanted to ask how you think things are going there because there have also been disturbing reports that after the initial euphoria of independence that there have been, you know, ethnic tensions there that have lead to killings and reprisal killings and so forth. So, what's your assessment of how things are going in South Sudan?

WOLF: Well, they have had problems and there's been some ethnic killings. A large number of people have actually been killed. Overall I think they're going to do okay. I think Salva Kiir and his people Salva Kiir is the president of the South. I think they are committed to making this thing work and Salva Kiir lived in the bush for years. He was a military officer. I think most of the people that are in the government many have been educated here in the West.

I think they're going to do okay and also they're going to have the necessary resources if they can work out this oil share in agreement between the North and the South. Right now they've shut off the oil because the North has been taking proceeds that they think belongs to them.

If you can resolve this - and I sense they will, because both countries are dependent upon it - I think they're going to do OK. I'm pretty confident that I think the south will make it, although keep in mind, America, we fought the battle of the Revolutionary War. The Articles of Confederation didn't work very well, and we had a very difficult time getting a Constitution. We had great men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and Madison and Monroe. It took us a while. So I think it's going to take them a while, but I think they're going to be OK.

MARTIN: Finally, congressman, before we let you go - and I really do appreciate your taking the time to talk to us about this - you've made a compelling case, both in your written report, which is on your website, and also here in our conversation today about the toll you think that neglect, international neglect is taking on this region where there are these serious challenges.

You know, a lot of the world's attention is now focused on the Middle East, you know, the ongoing situation in Syria, which is very dire, the tensions with Iran and so forth. What is your argument to the American people about why they should continue to care and focus on this region?

WOLF: Well, in the Bible it says, to whom much is given, much is required. And I think these people are not asking for American foreign aid in the sense that it's going to cost us money. They want us to stand with them with regard to democracy. Keep in mind, 2.1 million people were killed in a North-South battle. Many of them were Christians, many animists, some Muslims, but they wanted freedom. We should understand that.

You know, the words in the Declaration of Independence - President Reagan said the words in the Constitution were basically a covenant with the entire world. And so I think they're not asking us - they don't want soldiers. They don't want forces. They're not asking for large foreign aid. They just want our moral support to stand with them. And had it not been for the United States, they would not have had freedom.

President Bush appointed John Danforth, former Senator John Danforth, who did an incredible job of negotiating this North-South arrangement. And they needed America to stand with them, because many other countries were not interested in them. So they're not asking for tangible things that cost us.

I think America should be interested in - we should be interested in the Coptic Christians that are being persecuted in Egypt. We should be interested in what's taking place in Syria. I think when you are the leading power in the world, not - you should want this for power, but I think it's important that we help people with regard to peace.

MARTIN: Frank Wolf is a member of the U.S. House. He is a Republican who represents a district in Virginia. He was kind enough to join us from the studios at the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill and, as we mentioned, he's just back from a fact-finding visit to South Sudan.

Congressman Wolf, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WOLF: Thank you very much.

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