In Sudan’s remote Nuba Mountains, where Muslims and Christians live in peace with one another but can’t remember a time when they weren’t under attack from their own barrel-bombing, Osama-harboring Islamist government, Donald Trump’s election seemed like a reason to celebrate.
His tough talk on terror was so welcome, people I met in Nuba told me when I traveled there in February. And no way, they said, would Trump ever sell them out as Barack Obama had when he eased sanctions against Sudan in return for a cease-fire they knew better than to trust. Also in the deal, Americans supposedly won some cooperation on ISIS from their oppressor, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, a war criminal wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and crimes against humanity in nearby Darfur.
“Bashir doesn’t want to meet Donald Trump; he’s afraid,” a grinning soldier told me. He felt a connection with the new American president, he said, because “I don’t want Islamic radicals, and neither does he.”
That man and so many others I met in Nuba who were sure Trump would stand with them can’t be smiling now though, at the news that he may actually meet with Bashir on Saturday, at a summit of Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia during Trump’s first foreign trip since taking office.
No American president has ever met with someone wanted by the International Criminal Court, and if Trump becomes the first, he’ll send a dangerous message of American indifference to human rights.
In Riyadh, he intends to “deliver an inspiring, yet direct speech on the need to confront radical ideology,” says National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. But that’s the ideology to which Bashir has devoted his life. If Trump attends, too, his appearance will have just the opposite of the desired effect. And tell Bashir we don’t care what he does in Darfur, where he’s accused of using chemical weapons, or in the Nuba people’s pockmarked South Kordofan province, where scrambling in and out of foxholes is a way of life.
According to Reuters, Bashir is all atwitter about his potential embrace by our president: “ ‘On the question of the Trump-Bashir handshake, nobody can pretend anything, but anyway, President Bashir has been invited by the Saudis to be in that conference,’ Sudan’s Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour told reporters in Geneva. ‘We hope that everything will go through as it has been planned, and we look forward for normalization of our relations with the U.S.’...Asked if he hoped to see the two leaders shake hands, Ghandour said: ‘I don’t have dreams but I have hopes, and I hope they will be materialized.’ ”
Of course, those his government in Khartoum has persecuted also have hopes — of living in peace some day.
The Nuba are mostly Muslim, too, but their Islamic liberalism, darker skin and richer land have long made them targets of a government that has poisoned their water, raped their women and girls, burned their crops and bombed their mud-and-thatch homes in a region with no phone service, electricity or paved roads. “Black insects,” Bashir calls them, and promises to wipe them out. God knows he’s tried.
President George W. Bush pushed hard for peace in Sudan. Tragically, the agreement that led to the birth of what’s now South Sudan didn’t hold, and the world’s newest country is also starving and on the brink of genocide now. Still, the Nuba people remain convinced that American presidents from Bush’s party are apt to be allies.
Already, it’s become clear that Trump won’t reimpose the sanctions eased by Obama. But if he meets with the monster who makes them take cover in caves, he’ll make their faith in him ridiculous.