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Sudan's tragic legacy of civil war.

From the sky there seems to be nothing but savannah and grassland--where the Nile River and its tributaries slink through the African countryside like snakes on a playful afternoon. This time of year, shades of brown and yellow prevail and many rivers are dry. Where some moisture remains, the land is green. And almost invisible among the high growing grass, the yawning branches of many different types of trees, and along the morasses and smaller rivers, 4.5 million Sudanese are constantly displaced.

Torture, murder, rape, enslavement, and theft are common in the Republic of the Sudan, Africa's largest country and one of the world's poorest. A drought has gripped the area for two years and massive numbers of people are now dying from famine. But the deaths are generally blamed on Sudan's current civil war. For almost fifteen years, the mainly Christian south has been fighting for autonomy from the Muslim north. Indeed, with the exception of a ten-year period, Sudan has been at war with itself for the last forty years. And to make matters worse, oil has been discovered.

Forgotten Conflict

As we near a bend in the road from Chuckudum to New Cush in southwestern Sudan, we see two women walking, accompanied by two younger boys. The boys are fourteen or fifteen years of age, armed with AK-47 automatic rifles, and virtually naked. The women each balance a gourd of water on their head while leading a donkey. A piece of leather covers each woman's waist, while small, colorful chains of beads encircle their wrists. The younger woman is in her last months of pregnancy, and the whole scene would make quite a snapshot.

The road we travel was recently made by the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) using bulldozers it seized from the government in Khartoum. As the driver of the van I am riding in notices the women, he explains that they are on their way to take food to a cattle camp. As we watch, the donkeys-frightened by our motorized vehicle--turn around and jerk on their cords, causing first the pregnant woman and then the second woman to lose balance and fall on the ground. From the van, I can't see if the donkey fell on the pregnant woman. Her gourd--a very valuable possession here--is smashed into pieces and its precious water disappears immediately into the soil, leaving a dark spot behind. The two boys accompanying the women brandish their rifles at the van driver and order him to get out. They are desperately angry. The driver has no choice and starts crying: "Don't shoot! Don't shoot! I am a priest, a Catholic priest." The snapshot is turning into a nightmare.

In the van there are a number of people from the same tribe. One man gets out and beseeches the boys not to shoot the priest. He is Bishop Paride Taban, one of the main champions for peace and reconciliation in southern Sudan. A few other passengers step out of the van and hide behind it. Some remain inside and watch in disbelief as the bishop--arms wide open--walks toward the boys, talking to them. They maintain that he has made a big mistake and point at the pregnant woman. Their guns sparkle in the sun. The donkey has not fallen on her. After a few minutes their anger subsides, and a moment later the click of the guns' safeties is heard. Talk turns now to compensation. At first the boys demand the complete contents of the van. After a few more minutes they accept that we take the women to a clinic for checkups and provide a jerrican or two filled with water as recompense for the broken gourd. A disaster has been avoided.

"If I had not been a priest," Taban later says, "but an ordinary driver, they would have killed me without mercy. Everyone here has automatic weapons. Even twelve-, thirteen-year-old children. That has made life cheap here." Later that night at a compound on our route to New Cush, he breathes easier and says, "Life can be ended at any given moment. This morning too."

Taban had been on his way to a river site where a bridge is being constructed and had food with him for the workers. "People are very happy with the new road," he told me. "Development is peace. You sense that every moment here." In his parish there are mobile clinics, a veterinary service, a boarding school for 350 girls, and a cooperative shop. "Those changes," he says, "change things here. Village chiefs, who in the older days would steal each others' cattle, now come to me and ask for advice."

New Cush is one of the places in southern Sudan that is fairly easy to reach from Kenya or Uganda. Southern Sudan is equal in size to the area from northern New York State to southern Georgia, yet it has no more than twenty-five miles of paved roads. There is no electricity, no gas. In fact, there is nothing here.

If you want to go anywhere, you have to take a plane out of Lokichokio in adjacent Kenya. Lokichokio is the headquarters for United Nations operations in southern Sudan; it's where you'll find all the news about developments in the warzone. For example, one morning Bill Simpson tells us: "This morning our people in Panthau heard heavy mortar and gunfire in the region." Stationed in Lokichokio, Simpson is responsible for the safety of all aid workers in southern Sudan.

Panthau is near Mapel and Ameth, two villages I want to visit. All foreigners have been evacuated, although no victims have been reported. Southeast of Panthau is where rebel leader Kerubino Kwanyin Bol has located his headquarters. He has separated from the SPLA and joined a smaller faction called the South Sudan Independence Movement (SSIM)--the group that signed a so-called peace charter with the government in Khartoum, the country's capital. In exchange, the government turns a blind eye when the SSIM plunders and steals and destabilizes the peace process in the south. Nobody knows for sure how many soldiers Bol controls, but it must be in the thousands.

When I ask Simpson how safe Ameth is today, he says that it is okay: "We had to evacuate a few relief workers the other day, but at this moment it seems all right. Mapel is quiet. We even have some barrels of kerosene so planes can refuel. Duar is very stable. For six months, no bad reports. No problem."

When I tune in to the BBC World Service that night, I hear that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the SPLA have captured the border towns of Kurmuk and Qeissan in the Blue Nile province. Within the NDA, the northern opposition and the rebels from the south have joined forces. The rebels are only fifty miles from Damazin, where the plant that furnishes energy to Khartoum is located. SPLA spokesperson Samson Kwaje says that the capture of Kurmuk and Qeissan aren't significant militarily but are highly significant from a morale viewpoint. And Hassan al Turabi, the strongman in the north, admits that there are substantial losses but claims that Ethiopia is responsible for the attacks and charges international aggression.

The Sudan government tries to minimalize its country's civil strife and the successes of the SPLA by pointing its finger at neighboring countries. Ethiopia denies any direct involvement in the conflict, as does Eritrea. However, the NDA has its headquarters in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, and there are SPLA and NDA training camps in the western regions of that country.

Militarily, there is not very much progress in Sudan's war. After 1983, the founding year of the current conflict, the SPLA won many battles. When the military seized power in Khartoum in 1989, the southern region became divided. Two years ago, the SPLA began to again win some battles, and the regime in Khartoum now isolates itself internationally.

Ameth is controlled by Khartoum, not by the rebels, and is the only place in southern Sudan where the government has issued a permit allowing relief workers to land planes. I travel there with countless bags of maize, medicine, and two tents. The flight is seven hundred miles, and from the air I can see how scarcely populated southern Sudan is. There aren't even any huts, or tukuls as they are called here. I see no people at all.

Arab Militias

Upon landing in Ameth, however, there are many people, about half of whom are women. "They are hungry," the pilot says. "They are from around here. The others are from an unsafe region where the Popular Defense Forces (PDF) control power."

The PDF are Arab militias trained and armed by those in the Khartoum government. There are about ten thousand members of these militias roaming the country. They steal and kidnap children and women, selling them for domestic and sexual misuse in the north. Awor Padang is one of the many victims of the PDF. She is a Dinka woman--a Dinka-Ngoc, to be more precise--from Abyei. Her story is typical and illustrates the dangers in southern Sudan today:

A year ago, more than four hundred PDF men on horses

came to a small town near Abyei, where my sister-in-law

and I had looked for refuge. We hid with her sons in the

grass. The children are four and two years old. An Arab

discovered us in the grass. He followed us and wanted the

children. We ran and ran, yelled and screamed. There was

dust and sand everywhere, but he never let go. When we

were exhausted, the Arab grabbed the two children and

disappeared with them.

She tells of about eighty displaced women. Most of the them have had horrible experiences with what they call "the Arabs." She says that, only a few months ago, almost one hundred children in the region were kidnapped and about the same number of adults were killed.

Gaspar Biro, special rapporteur on human rights abuses for the United Nations, and I became good friends. Last year he wrote a devastating report on the human rights abuses in all of Sudan. Slavery and trade in slaves are well documented in the report. Padang and her sister-in-law soon found out that their stolen children work as slaves in a northern household. They could be bought back for 300,000 Sudanese pounds (a good cow or bull fetches 40,000 pounds). Padang says that they are trying to pool their chips--that so far sixteen children have been bought back.

When she and thousands of others fled PDF terror and left for Anoc, a sleepy little village, they had to stand off the Nuer people, another enemy. The hostility between the Dinka and the Nuer is a century-old feud. Ever since Riek Machar, leader of the SSIM, signed the peace treaty with the Khartoum government the situation has worsened. Padang says that the Nuer took all of her belongings, as well as the things she had received from relief organizations. The Dinka couldn't stay in Anoc because the Sudan government denied them a permit. They were forced to walk on to Ameth, where they are now.

In Ameth, they have a third enemy to watch: Kerubino Kwanyin Bol. Padang says the community is very scared of him. Because of the danger he poses, the U.N. food distribution center must be mobile. Right next to the landing strip there are two tents set up. "If necessary, we can pack everything within thirty minutes," two relief agency workers say. "We stay four days max here. That's the time Kerubino needs to direct an army in this direction to steal the maize and radio equipment."

Nobody unpacks in Ameth. Everyone is on standby for immediate evacuation. They told me in Lokichokio that, only a few weeks ago, all relief workers in Ameth had to be evacuated. In fact, a few months ago, Bol took some hostages. He kept them for a month until the United Nations swapped jeeps and radios for them--an incident the Western press labeled "bizarre."

Mapel is another town in southern Sudan. The market there has ten stalls, offering salt, clothing, tobacco, and dried fish. Farther on, a woman sells peanuts and sorghum. Then there's a beerhouse where you can purchase food. A few men play music on their homemade guitars. In Mapel there are also a few stories worth hearing.

Over the past months, one relief organization has registered seven thousand newly displaced people--and there are probably an equal number who haven't registered. Ngor Angui, a forty-eight-year-old man, has just fled from Wau. "Whoever does not want to become a Muslim is in danger," he says. If you aren't Muslim in Wau, you can't buy anything at the market, even if you have the money. "I witnessed how a teacher was arrested and killed for that reason," he reports. "First he was tortured and, when I went peeping that night, I saw how they dragged him near the river, slit his throat, and threw his corpse in." Together with his wife, Angui decided to build a raft and cross the river. "After all," he says, "they had stolen everything from us. I only had my underwear. My wives were all naked. At the other side, we adults each took a small child to carry, and to the bigger ones I said they had to go on foot. We walked for days and days." In Mapel, he got a pair of trousers and a shirt, as well as a kit full of emergency food.

An Evolving Image

The Sudan People's Liberation Army has a bad reputation. Strongman John Garang doesn't like criticism or advice. He knows all that goes on but publicly dismisses stories of misbehaving commanders having committed cattle theft, extortion, rape, and murder. Yet both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have extensively documented the human rights abuses perpetrated by all parties in Sudan.

Friction developed within the SPLA as a result of these activities and abuses, leading to the defection of Riek Machar, Lam Akol, and others from the movement. They formed or joined other rebel factions, which then made war on each other, as well as the central government. The resultant strife has consumed tens of thousands of lives in a sad fratricide in southern Sudan and marks one of the saddest and most dismal periods in the recent history of this country.

In 1994 the SPLA held a national convention. While the political and military leadership of Garang remained undisputed, a careful new course for the movement was set. First, the SPLA was to serve the common people much more than it had before. Second, the internal discipline of the SPLA was to be increased; apart from the SPLA, there was a civil government in the region. Some traces of that new course are visible in Ameth. In the old days, food was distributed to the men. These days, it is given to the women; women control it better and are more honest than the men have been.

In Mapel, the new course has changed things even more. There is a small clinic for health care. It's a simple clinic--no more than a hut of tree branches, mud, and straw built within a small compound. Even if the termites do not permit its use longer than a year or two, it's still clean and neat and a positive change. "We have some forty patients a day here, mainly women," a caretaker tells me. Besides running the clinic, they are also training local women to take over when they leave. They especially take care in the training of midwifes. "Besides normal complaints, we get a lot of trauma-related complaints. We listen to their stories but we cannot do very much. He or she who has really lost everything gets a food kit from the relief service of the SPLA. The village chiefs support that."

Under the roof of a hut in Mapel, there is the only sewing machine in a region of 35,000 people. A man is repairing mosquito nets. Sometimes women use the machine to make school uniforms. Nearby I see a space with blue emergency kits for displaced people. Every kit contains two blankets, a mosquito net, clothes, a bar of soap, some salt, two pots, a fishing hook, and some nylon cord.

"The dried fish you see here at the market is caught with fishhooks we distribute," Efisio Kong says. He is the regional secretary general of relief operations for the SPLA. The school here consists of three rooms. Here, too, the termites are very dedicated. "If you look at the blackboard," Kong says, "you'll see that not only the human armies are our enemies but also the termites. Part of the blackboard is eaten away." He explains that education is in English. Language has often been an issue in southern Sudan. Some people favor Arabic because of the relative close ties with the Muslim north. Others prefer English because that language has more ties with Kenya, Uganda, and other English-speaking countries in central Africa.

Kong has plans for a boarding school. "We already have three thousand poles and lots of grass," he says. "It is all local material. Local people here become carpenters and plasterers." In southern Sudan, men traditionally are the hunters and protect their families. Women look for wild nuts and leaves near their hut. The men travel to exchange cattle for food; the women stay home. But many admit they are not happy with the traditional roles, also because of the war, which has turned many things upside down. Many men have been maimed or killed or are simply away fighting their wargames. Women started to take over their tasks and society changed a bit. "We improvised what men had to do all the time during a day and experienced what they are going through when they have to run. That led to more respect with the men. Now, we don't have to serve them food on our knees anymore," one woman here says. Last October, women from Kenya organized a workshop on the relationship between women and men in these difficult times. "The results you see here," the woman adds.

Foreigners in the Warzone

That night two Kenyan relief workers--a Dane and a German--roast a chicken just outside the clinic. One of them swears, as if to gain some relief from the silence. "When I looked I really found Mapel on the map," says George, a Kenyan worker, "so when I left I expected to find a little town with at least a shop and some form of amusement. But there is absolutely nothing here. We are so isolated."

There are no roads, so there are no cars. The only amusement is to walk up and down the airstrip. A Danish worker admits that she sometimes gets desperate and wonders what she is doing here. She often wonders how long the suffering is going to go on. She's not sure, however, whose suffering she's thinking of. I asked if they consider leaving. George says, "Although we do not speak their language, we cannot leave these people here. The patients keep us here. We have an obligation, a moral obligation." The Danish worker says, "I don't know if I will renew my contract when it expires after a few months. Whenever I get very desperate, I think of sounds of the sea and dolphins. Then I get rid of the claustrophobia of the bush." George adds, "When things are really, really bad, I start singing gospels in Swahili." He starts humming away.

The City of Duar

Duar holds a special place in my heart. When landing here, the pilot has to fly very low over the airstrip so he can chase the cows away. They just don't seem to be bothered, so he does it again--lower this time. And once more. Only then do the cows move enough, and he is able to land the plane.

Duar has grown lately because of the kala-azar sickness. It's a deadly disease caused by a parasite that's transported by the sandfly. Without immediate medical treatment, one has no chance of survival. And the sickness is still spreading because so many people are displaced. Most of the inhabitants of Duar are patients, ex-patients, and relatives.

There is one clinic in Duar, but the clinic is not what makes the city so special. Duar is special because it lies within the territory of Riek Machar of the SSIM. In April 1996 he signed a peace treaty with the Sudan government in Khartoum. Many within the SPLA see the treaty as bowing to "the Arabs." However, Dr. Timothy Tutlam, secretary general of relief operations for the SSIM, says: "That peace accord doesn't mean that there is peace and that the SSIM has given up the struggle for independence and self-determination of South Sudan. No, we have our hymn, our flag. Soon we will have our own passports. We have all of our military positions, all our weapons. We can always resume using them."

Neither Tutlam nor Simon Jalduong, who resides in Duar, finds it obstructive that Machar and Khartoum have signed the charter without prior knowledge of the other factions. "We heard it over the radio and discussed it widely. We have no alternative than reconciliation. The war takes so long already. All my life I have known war. If we can manage to get peace without more bloodshed, why shouldn't we do it?" Jalduong says. Both say that, if Garang wants to talk, he is more than welcome. "When we broke away, it was because Garang is a dictator. What we are feeling sorry for is that the West supports Garang but forgets about the SSIM. After all, we are for peace, hence of more importance to the West."

Most people in the peaceful town of Duar want to resume talks with Garang and fight for an independent southern Sudan. Khartoum likes the peace charter for obvious reasons. It proves that the process works from within. It also increases conflict among the rebels. Large groups of rebels are now neutralized--among them, the armies of Machar and Bol.

"Therefore, my friend," says Tutlam, "the vast and recently discovered oil fields may be exploited." Khartoum has closed a deal with the Canadian Arakis Energy Corporation, which is going to drill oil near Bentiu. The company will construct a 1,200-mile-long pipeline to Port Sudan. Two garrisons of well-trained soldiers will protect it.

Oil has been a major factor in the suffering of Sudan, which has claimed almost 1.5 million lives since 1983--a conflict that has some similarities with Rwanda's. The big difference is that barbarism in Rwanda was of a relatively short duration and received much attention by the international media. Conflicts in Sudan have lasted forty years and have been barely noticed.

Anton Foek is a freelance writer based in New York City. His story, "Sweatshop Barbie," in the January/February 1997 Humanist earned recognition as one of the top ten underreported stories of the year, as chosen by the media watchdog group Project Censored.
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Title Annotation:the world is just beginning to notice the 15-year old civil war
Author:Foek, Anton
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Sep 1, 1998
Words:3861
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