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I’ve watched children drink by droplets from broken gourds in Sudan. I’ve watched them chew on dried cornstalks (yes, the stalks) alongside thin goats also struggling to survive. And I’ve watched children die in Sudan. The Khartoum regime directly responsible for forced expulsions, forced starvation, and genocide is the same one the Trump administration on Oct. 6 rewarded by permanently lifting comprehensive economic sanctions in place for 20 years.
President Omar al-Bashir, who came to power in 1989 via a military coup he led, is the same president who backed Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait in 1990, the same president who sheltered Osama bin Laden and allowed him to set up al-Qaeda’s first training camps in Sudan, camps from which al-Qaeda plotted the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Bashir, now 73 and entering his 29th year in power, is the same president who egged on a 20-year civil war against his own people, attempting to destroy the mostly Christian population of southern Sudan. His army rolled tanks over Christians as they fled their torched villages, locked them inside their churches, then set them on fire. I keep on my desk a metal clip from the roof of a church burned just that way, its trapped congregants screaming inside while soldiers rolled pages from their Bibles into cigarettes and smoked.
It’s the kind of move that paves over the persecuted people of Sudan, particularly its long-suffering Christians.
To be sure, Sudan’s president at times seemed to pivot from his evil ways. Under U.S. pressure, Bashir kicked bin Laden out of Sudan in 1996 and closed his camps. In 2005 he signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement ending Sudan’s civil war. He stood down while southerners voted for independence under that agreement and formed the new nation of South Sudan.
But Bashir has never strayed far from a relentless ethnic and religious cleansing campaign against his own people—attacking Muslims in Darfur and Christians in the Nuba Mountains and the oil-rich areas of South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and White Nile states. Such pursuits earned Bashir in 2008 an indictment from the International Criminal Court—the only sitting head of state ever charged by the panel—on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
It’s hard to imagine so long a career in the same direction suddenly changed. Yet early this year, in one of his last acts as president, Barack Obama temporarily lifted economic sanctions, citing “a marked reduction in offensive military activity, culminating in a pledge to maintain a cessation of hostilities in conflict areas.” President Donald Trump had to choose whether to make the action permanent, a move Trump supporters—and Christian advocates who have long held Sudan as one of the world’s worst persecutors of non-Muslims—deemed unthinkable.
Trump did the unthinkable, and here are three likely reasons why. First, his on-the-ground intelligence originates mostly from the same Obama-era diplomats, due to Trump’s slack approach to filling key State Department positions.
Second, the Trump administration bowed to pressure from Saudi Arabia. The Gulf state has been courting Bashir to support its bombing campaign in Yemen and to oppose Iran, goals the United States shares.
Third, lifting sanctions stands to benefit Exxon Mobil, which took steps toward oil deals in Sudan’s vast petroleum reserves while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was its CEO. Exxon reached a deal with South Sudan but will need transit authority through Bashir’s Sudan to reach Red Sea ports.
All of which sounds strikingly like politics as usual, and the kind of sellouts under the Hillary Clinton State Department and the Obama White House many Americans thought a Donald Trump presidency would end.
It’s also the kind of move that paves over the persecuted people of Sudan, particularly its long-suffering Christians. Just this past year Bashir’s regime targeted for closure 27 churches, successfully confiscating property or demolishing most of them. It has jailed Christian leaders and forced Christian refugee children to recite passages from the Quran.
November for Christians in America marks two Sundays for International Days of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, this year Nov. 5 and 12. Perhaps the church will summon divine intervention where mortal leaders fail.