Sudan Ambassador Often Shunned

The man who represents Sudan in Washington says that he is misunderstood — and so is his country. John Ukec seems to be having a hard time getting heard. President Bush has not met with him, and the media has blasted him as a propagandist.

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Activists around the world are trying to keep Darfur in the news. In that western region of Sudan, thousands have died in a four-year conflict. The government of Sudan denies U.S. accusations of genocide. And the man who represents Sudan in Washington has been giving a lot of attention, too - not all of it good. He says his country - and he himself - are misunderstood.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has this profile.

MICHELE KELEMEN: John Ukec seems to be having a hard time getting heard. Some members of Congress were upset when he showed up at a reception earlier this year and took the microphone out of turn. Last month, some of his fellow countrymen got in a shouting match with him at a conference in Philadelphia. And when he gave his first major news conference, the Washington Post blasted him as a propagandist and gave him a nickname - Khartoum Karl.

Ambassador JOHN UKEC (Sudan): No Sudanese ever have that name, you know? I think Karl - I remember somebody called Karl Marx, you know? He's a Jew, I am not, you know?

KELEMEN: The Sudanese charge d'affaires still hasn't gotten the art of diplomacy down, but he is trying to counter what he sees as the bias in U.S. media.

Ambassador UKEC: Until my friends in the Washington Post - they should not make me fun, you know? I am not a fun guy. I'm a legitimate person. This country, I was born in it. And I'm working for it. And I want to put it back together.

KELEMEN: Ukec comes from southern Sudan, and says with the help of the late rebel leader John Garang, he studied at Garang's alma mater - Iowa State University. Ukec says he used to protest outside the Sudanese Embassy. He only joined the government after Khartoum made peace with rebels in the south.

Ambassador UKEC: The government of Sudan now is a government of natural unity. All those people who are fighting the government of Sudan are parties to the present government.

KELEMEN: And that's why Ukec says American should be listening to him. But his stand on Darfur has left him with few friends on Capitol Hill. Three years ago, he wrote an op-ed in Iowa, describing the conflict in Darfur as genocide, explaining that the Sudanese government pitched Arab militias against the African population. Now, John Ukec says the opposite, denying that genocide is taking place and blaming rebels for much of the violence.

Ambassador UKEC: If you ask me privately what I want to say, that is none of your business now. As an ambassador, I represent my government, and I reflect what my government thinks.

KELEMEN: The way Ukec sees it, Darfur is a lot like Iraq, and Sudan may not be able to keep promises to disarm the so-called Janjaweed militias that have rampaged through villages, killing and raping civilians in a deadly counter insurgency campaign.

Ambassador UKEC: The Janjaweed are not in a different from the Shia militia who are in Iraq now. Has the government of Iraq and the government of United States been able to disarm them? This is the same criteria. You cannot know who is a militia, who is a rebel, who is a mere innocent civilian. So it is not easy.

KELEMEN: John Ukec has been in Washington less than a year and says he's never met with President Bush, and generally only deals with midlevel State Department officials. He says the U.S. is making a mistake by sanctioning Sudan. That just sends the wrong signal to the rebels, he argues. And Sudan could respond by curtailing the one solid part of the relationship -intelligence sharing on terrorism.

Ambassador UKEC: If Americans think that we are not valuable to them, why would we continue giving them information? Why would we do that? We are not their slaves.

KELEMEN: The State Department recently wrote in a report that Sudan has been a strong partner in the war on terror. That seems to be the ambassador's main trump card as he tries to get heard here.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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