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U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan on the American role in Sudan's civil war


The cost of Sudan's bloody civil war is growing. Thousands of people are dead. Many more are injured. About 25 million people urgently needing aid, according to the United Nations, as food, water, medicine and fuel are in short supply. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called again for peace this past week.


ANTONIO GUTERRES: The fighting there must end for the sake of the Sudanese people who face hunger, horrors and untold hardships.

RASCOE: Tom Perriello is the newly appointed U.S. special envoy to Sudan. He joins us now from Djibouti. Welcome.

TOM PERRIELLO: Thank you for having me, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So two rival factions, the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces, have been battling for power in Sudan for nearly a year. What's your big-picture assessment of the war right now? Has it moved in any direction?

PERRIELLO: It has become a horrific humanitarian crisis. We're talking about millions and millions displaced - 8 million, at least - from their homes. We're getting credible reports of dozens of children dying from malnourishment, and we are heading into a rainy season and escalating fighting that is making this far worse.

I've been meeting with Sudanese who've escaped, who've talked about it as hell on earth, as facing imminent death every day. And this is a war that was unnecessary. It was two men who chose to start it. And we need the two men and their forces to end this immediately.

RASCOE: You said that you've been in touch with some people who have left Sudan, and they say it's hell on earth. Can you talk about what you're hearing about the situation on the ground?

PERRIELLO: We're here. You can see the trauma on people's faces - people who not only saw horrific things that they'll describe to us, from bombing campaigns and slaughtering of the Masalit, of having to leave aging parents behind only to hear troops have taken over their houses and kicked them out. People are living in terror there, and it was all the more painful for them because they had had this brief taste of hope when the revolution had helped throw out a dictatorship and really put Sudan on a path to inclusive democracy. And that's what people want back. And for right now, people just need access to food and water. And we have these generals playing games with peoples' lives by closing borders, closing lines inside where food can cross, while people are dying. So people are suffering that every day. And honestly, they feel like the world has ignored it.

RASCOE: The United Nations reports that about 5 million are at risk of starving if aid isn't delivered. Hospital closures due to the violence are intensifying the suffering with outbreaks of cholera, measles and diarrhea. And we should note that workers trying to deliver aid are being targeted and killed. So what does a strategy - aid strategy look like at this point?

PERRIELLO: So first, I just want to say how amazing it was to meet with some of the humanitarian leaders in the region. They're taking great risks to try to get in food and really thank the American taxpayer because we have spent almost $1 billion over the last year in supporting refugees. But meanwhile, we can't get the trucks where they need to go because the SAF generals and the RSF generals are making it impossible for that to happen.

And it's only going to get worse. They know how Sudan works. They know the rainy season's coming. We're facing a lean season after that, traditionally. But usually, you go into that lean season with stores and stores of food from the peak harvest. But during that harvest, both sides were burning fertile ground, so food couldn't be grown. The stores were burned and looted. So we're going in with almost no resiliency. And we are within weeks, if not months, of seeing acute famine in this area if we don't have immediate change in the humanitarian access by ending this war and letting in the food and medicine that people need to stay alive.

RASCOE: Well, how will the U.S. help to make sure that happens? I mean, what can the U.S. do?

PERRIELLO: Well, we have been very serious in sanctioning individuals on both sides and forces or entities and banks that have been part of supporting this effort. We're working very closely with the U.N. as well as our African Union and IGAD contacts here in Djibouti to bring the forces together to get to that peace deal and really message to all of those who've been a part of fueling this conflict that they've lit a fire that costs the region for decades to come.

RASCOE: Both of the warring factions in Sudan are receiving support from other states, including U.S. allies like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Does this complicate peace efforts?

PERRIELLO: It is a complicated situation, but I think that what we are seeing is some of those that have been supporting one side or the other are realizing they've made a mistake - that, in fact, they've really created a situation where nobody is going to win from a failed state. We're also seeing a return of militant Islamist factions that we had helped Sudan spend a long time eradicating from that area to restore the kind of civilian democracy people wanted. So if anyone involved in this felt like one side had a path to clear victory, I think those days have gone and that the only option here requires that handover to civilian power and silencing the guns now.

RASCOE: But how difficult will that be? You know, multiple peace and cease-fire agreements have failed since the war broke out, and Sudan is a place with generations of ethnic conflict.

PERRIELLO: Well, I think, sometimes, we also need to be careful not to overcomplicate this. And remember that there were two men, generals of two factions, who made a decision to start this war. It was not a war anyone else wanted, and they still have the power to end this war. Second, I think any country, particularly our African partners and Gulf partners who do have influence in the area, need to be aligned with a single voice, saying we must silence the guns now, allow that access, and get Sudan back to the Sudan they were building before the coup happened and then the war broke out. What the Sudanese people have been so clear with me on is they just want to be heard. And if we listen to them and elevate their voices, then the solution becomes quite clear.

RASCOE: That's Tom Perriello, U.S. special envoy to Sudan. Thank you so much for joining us.

PERRIELLO: Thank you, Ayesha.


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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.