This is the first in a five-part series.

The trip to Sudan almost didn't come off.

Since the Darfur crisis broke in the world's media, Sudan has been overtaken by visits by U.N. officials, high-level diplomats, members of Congress, human rights investigators and the international press corps. The rape and pillage of the country's western Darfur region has captured the attention of Americans as no African issue has since the days of apartheid in South Africa. Citizen's campaigns across the country have mobilized religious communities, students and members of Congress, and celebrities ranging from Charlie Rangel to Ben and Jerry of ice cream fame have gotten themselves arrested outside the Sudanese embassy in protest to the ongoing suffering in Darfur.

The last thing Khartoum wanted was another high-profile delegation, especially one that it presumed to be hostile. One government official put it plainly this week when he told reporters that "Sudan is not afraid of the threat of sanctions by the United States, which is using the crisis in Darfur to weaken and destroy the government of Sudan in a similar fashion in which they devastated Iraq and Somalia."

For me, returning to Sudan evoked waves of nostalgia and no small amount of trepidation. I had lived there in the 1980s, when those of us in Khartoum's tiny press corps were certain that nothing could be worse than the inept dictatorship that ruled this vast country. How wrong we were.

The violence and chaos unleashed in Darfur is, tragically, not new. Marked as it is by its vast scope and the glare of international attention, the destruction of a way of life in the far corners of Darfur is, indeed, the story of a troubled and tragic country.

Like many African countries, Sudan was dealt a weak hand by the departing colonial powers, who cemented rather than resolved ethnic, tribal and racial differences. The U.S. Army Handbook for Sudan released in 1960 offered this commentary in describing the Arab-African divide: "The ideal Arab is a man with an undisputed claim to direct descent from the Prophet; he is light-skinned and does no manual labor; is familiar with the Koran and the law and eloquent in classical Arabic; has married at least once and has several sons; wears ample white robes, and keeps his women in seclusion. The typical Negro, as seen by the Arab, shows none of these characteristics and is accordingly condemned to a physical, moral, and economic inferiority which fits him for the position of slave to the Arab."

Sudan won its independence in 1956 after having been ruled for years as an Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, an arrangement that allowed London to make all the decisions and Cairo to implement the colonial order. In its wisdom, the British colonial power decided that the best way to prevent the spread of Islam from the north into the predominantly Christian south was to leave the two regions separate. In a country one-third the size of the United States, no roads linked the north and south, and a vast swamp known as the Sudd precluded regular barge traffic= While the absence of physical infrastructure did prevent the expansion of Islam into central Africa, it also paved the way for a national incoherence that led to almost 40 years of a north-south war that killed over 2 million people.

Like its predecessors, the government that took power in 1989 in a military coup was determined that power should rest in the hands of those at the center of this vast state, and that the north should control the south, the east and the west. What was new was the vehicle – an Islamic state structured to reflect the hard-line, ideological bent of a handful of elites, and buttressed by alliances with other radical Islamist forces.

In short order, Islamic law was rigorously enforced, the civil service was cleansed of non-believers and replaced with supporters of the National Islamic Front, state security forces multiplied, and the military was reorganized into several entities, none of which was strong enough, on its own, to challenge the central government. In the south, the government mounted a strategy that combined scorched earth campaigns, forced relocation, and divide and rule tactics against a growing rebel movement. Ambitious to the extreme, the regime moved to create an international Islamist network that included terrorist organizations from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, remnants of the Afghan mujaheddin and, significantly, Osama bin Laden, who moved to Khartoum and established a substantial financial and organizational infrastructure. Khartoum's moves earned Sudan a place on the State Department's list of official state sponsors of terrorism and unilateral U.S. sanctions during the Clinton administration, and the government's involvement in an assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak triggered U.N. sanctions in 1996. In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, as pundits debated which countries America should attack, Sudan was on the list.

Relations between Khartoum and Washington warmed slightly when the Bush administration took office, and the Sudanese government reportedly demonstrated a new willingness to cooperate in the war on terror. Working with regional governments, the British and the Norwegians, Washington came close to securing a final peace agreement between the Sudanese government and southern rebels – so close that seats were reserved for the Sudanese president and rebel leader John Garang at this year's state of the union address. But six months later, the peace agreement has not been signed, and Sudan remains on the State Department's list of official state sponsors of terrorism.

Not surprisingly, Sudanese officials were hesitant to provide visas for the U.S. delegation, led by Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) and including former Ambassador to the U.N. Richard Holbrooke, Bill Clinton's former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, and myself – a former National Security Council official who once handled the Sudan portfolio. As the date of departure neared, and still without visas, we made alternative plans to travel to Chad, where 200,000 refugees from Darfur seek solace from the violence that has overtaken their homes.

Finally, the night before we were slated to fly out of New York, the Sudanese ambassador to the United Nations informed us that our visas were granted, and 12 hours later we took off for Khartoum. Almost 20 hours later, I looked down on the capital city – it had grown dramatically, and from the air I could see the 'elephant's trunk,' the site where the White and Blue Niles join before heading north to Egypt and the Mediterranean.

Gayle Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, served as a special assistant to the president and senior director for African Affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.

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