Sudan Envoy Goes from Rebel to Diplomat

Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth is a former foot soldier in the Sudan People's Liberation Army, the main rebel movement in Southern Sudan. Now, as a Sudanese diplomat in Washington, he's trying to make sure the United States' promises of aid materialize, and that the Sudanese government adheres to a peace deal that ended a long civil war

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now let's turn to another troubled country, a country where there are signs of hope but also some of frustration. Two years after a peace agreement that ended a long war between north and south Sudan, the southerners are boosting their diplomatic presence in Washington, D.C. They're trying to keep America focused on their region while so much attention is shifted to the western part of Sudan, Darfur.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth is not your typical Washington diplomat. He spent the late '80s and early '90s on the battlefield. He was, as he described it, a foot soldier in the Sudan People's Liberation Army, the main rebel movement in Southern Sudan. And like many in the south, he lost lots of relatives in a civil war with the north.

Mr. EZEKIEL LOL GATKUOTH (Head of Mission in Washington for Southern Sudan): I lost my elder brother. I lost my father. All of us in southern Sudan, we have lost a lot of people. We have lost more than 2.5 million people in this war.

KELEMEN: Under the peace deal signed two years ago by the government in Khartoum and the rebels in the south, the local government in southern Sudan was allowed to set up missions abroad. Gatkuoth describes it this way: One country, two systems. He runs the office here in Washington, which he says is something short of an embassy. He can't issue passports or visas, for instance.

Mr. GATKUOTH: Our job is basically to make sure that the government of southern Sudan, all the people of southern Sudan, are getting the development that they need.

KELEMEN: As he shows off their small office space, he talks about big plans for one of the least developed corners of the world.

Mr. GATKUOTH: This is the map of southern Sudan. These are the proposed roads that we are proposing to build.

KELEMEN: Gatkuoth says it's easier now to drive from southern Sudan to Kenya or Uganda, but most of the lines on this map mark places where the southern Sudanese hope to have roads.

Just up the road from here is the embassy of Sudan. Gatkuoth says he does have differences with the diplomats there, particularly over the issue of Darfur and the need for United Nations peacekeepers.

Mr. GATKUOTH: We are for the U.N. force to go to Darfur. Because, simply, if you can have U.N. forces in southern Sudan, why not having them in Darfur? It's simple as that. And number two, people are dying.

KELEMEN: But he's mainly dealing with local issues on his job. He's trying to keep track of the southern Sudanese who live here in the U.S. to make sure they register a vote in not only on national elections but in a planned referendum on the future of southern Sudan.

Mr. GATKUOTH: We are a large number, and the estimate is we have more than 100,000 southern Sudanese are residing in the U.S. We have more than 9,000 southern Sudanese in Omaha, Nebraska, alone. And we have a good number of them also in Nashville, Tennessee, and also in Phoenix, Arizona.

KELEMEN: Gatkuoth says he travels to these cities to give others southerners updates on how the peace deal is going. He complains it's been too slow and there's little transparency in how the country's oil wealth is being shared.

If southerners end up voting for separation four years from now, Gatkuoth says he'll be ready to turn his office into a real embassy.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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