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Sudanese factory destroyed by US now a shrine

President Bill Clinton ordered a cruise missile strike on the pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum in 1998; the Sudanese still haven't forgotten.

By Staff writer / August 7, 2012

Above, a Sudanese man looks at the ruins of the Al Shifa pharmaceutical factory in the yellow glow of a sandstorm in Khartoum, Sudan. US cruise missiles destroyed the plant – which the US suspected of making chemical weapons – 14 years ago. Left: A label for veterinary medicine lies in the ruins of the factory

Scott Peterson/TCSM/Getty Images

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Khartoum, Sudan

Fourteen years after American cruise missiles destroyed a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, its ruins have been left untouched as a shrine that still rankles Sudanese.

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The precision strike did its work: The buildings are pulverized, a tangle of broken concrete and iron bars; thousands of brown bottles of veterinary and other medicines lie scattered, the whole scene stained by endless sun and sandstorms.

The Aug. 20, 1998, attack was ordered by President Bill Clinton, simultaneously with missile strikes against training camps run by Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, to retaliate for the dual bombings two weeks earlier at US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Myths continue to abound, on both sides, about a military strike that wiped out Sudan's largest pharmaceutical facility, a trophy plant that specialized in anti-malaria medicines, antibiotics, and lifesaving veterinary goods – and where the British ambassador was among the dignitaries at the 1996 opening.

Debate remains unresolved in the United States, whenever it is brought up, about the wisdom of destroying the factory and whether it ever posed a threat, as Washington declared, of chemical weapons falling into terrorist hands.

Still bitterness

But in Sudan there is no such debate, just bitterness and anger at what is widely seen as an unjustified strike. Indeed, Sudanese officials at the time told this journalist visiting days after the bombing that he was free to go anywhere, and photograph anything – the first time ever under the authoritarian regime of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

Ikram Ataib sees the ruins of Al Shifa every day that she goes to work at the furniture showroom across the street, where the plush, polished leather chairs and gleaming chrome and glass tables are a sharp contrast to the dun-colored ruins of Al Shifa.

Ms. Ataib was 9 years old when the attack took place. She heard the blasts at her family home a couple of blocks away, and said her pregnant aunt miscarried her unborn child at 5 months because she was so afraid.

"I am very, very affected," Ataib says. "Some people were angry. Some people were weeping. And the dead; until now this memory is with me. I remember the fire, the flames...."

One person died in the middle-of-the-night strike, and 10 were wounded. Afterward, then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen said that, before the strike, the US was unaware that the plant was making medicines, even though the plant had recently signed a large US-approved United Nations oil-for-food contract with Iraq.

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