Sudan's Tragic Legacy of Civil War

Article excerpt

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. …