Piled high on overloaded diesel trucks with their piteous cooking pots, bicycles and straw beds, thousands of Sudanese are making a halting escape northward on a rutted dirt track to escape a confusing new war.
From whom are they fleeing? “Ethiopians! Jews! Tigreans!” the black Muslim peasants, dressed in white cotton robes and skullcaps, declare without hesitation.
The Islamist government in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, has blamed a cook’s stew of foreign adversaries--including Israel, Britain and the United States--for the latest bout of war nibbling at its vast frontiers. If one subscribes to domino theories, the remote bush battles developing here in northeastern Africa could have ramifications for political Islam not only in Sudan, Africa’s largest country and one of its poorest, but also in the nearby Middle East.
The anguish is visible on the faces of the dispossessed, and this much seems certain with the eruption of the new conflict: A nation of 30 million people long beset by poverty, hunger and strife is soon to be facing even more misery.
In an offensive that began Jan. 12, combatants crossed into Sudan from Ethiopia, occupied two border towns and seized a ribbon of territory 120 miles long and 20 miles wide. Although Sudan has a perennial civil war to the south, near its border with Uganda and Zaire, this is the first time in a decade that it has faced an assault from the east.
The identity of the invaders is a matter of debate. Sudan says Ethiopian army troops carried out the lightning attack. But the National Democratic Alliance--a partnership formed in 1995 between black African guerrilla fighters from southern Sudan and Arab foes of the regime from the north--says it has invaded, without any help from outsiders.
No one thinks the invaders have the numbers or weaponry to actually defeat Sudan’s armed forces.
Rebel spokesmen say the real aim of the push, which is toward the strategic Roseires hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile, is to trigger a coup or a popular uprising against the 7-year-old government, which is led by President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir and parliament Speaker Hassan Turabi of the National Islamic Front.
“In a way, this is a battle between Christianity and Islam,” said Khider Moussa Habir, the lanky, white-turbaned mayor of Wad el Mahi, a town of 5,000 on the front line of the latest battle. “We are holy warriors. . . . If they put their authority here, then there will be no Islam.”
Wad el Mahi is 25 miles southeast of the dam. Its architecture is round, thatched mud huts set off by straw fences. There is no electricity or pavement, and there are no telephones. Herders carry bows and arrows in wooden quivers, and the most common locomotion is by donkey or, for the well-to-do, camel.
For centuries, this area on the upper tributaries of the Nile has been the southern edge of the Islamic world. When the sun sets, its inhabitants bow down in unison amid their baobab and thorn trees to pray toward Mecca.
Muslims make up 70% of Sudan’s population, and Christians and followers of traditional African religions make up the rest. Since independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956, there has been ongoing war between the Muslim north and the non-Muslim south, with the exception of one 11-year truce. An estimated 1.3 million people have died from the fighting and war-related hunger.
The rebels in the current offensive say they represent democracy, not a particular religion. They deny accusations from Khartoum that they have been armed by Israel and the United States to topple one of the most militantly Islamist governments in the region, one that has been a fixture on the U.S. list of those who support terrorism. Sudan’s most prominent foreign ally is Iran.
The rebels’ claim to transcend the Muslim-Christian divide is bolstered by the support they are now receiving from a number of prominent Muslim opposition politicians, including Sudan’s last elected prime minister, Sadek Mahdi, who was ousted in 1989 by a military coup but remained in the country until he fled into exile in December.
The government’s appeals to religion and Arab nationalism in its fight with the invaders are to be expected; the government has had little else to stand on since it seized power in the 1989 coup.
In the intervening years, it has managed to alienate the West, much of the Arab world and its immediate neighbors, starting in 1990 with its refusal to join the Persian Gulf War coalition against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and continuing with its alleged support of Islamic insurgencies in nearby countries.
Watchdog groups say the Sudanese government has a poor record on human rights, with extrajudicial arrests and crackdowns on dissent carried out by shock troops. Meanwhile, the economy has stagnated, with more than 4 million people dependent on handouts from the United Nations and international aid organizations to survive and an estimated two-thirds of public spending going to the military.
Government-organized rallies in Khartoum over the past few weeks in support of the anti-insurgency effort--which the government describes as a holy war--had a weary, rent-a-crowd feel.
When a convoy of chanting demonstrators snaked through the city last week chanting “God is great” and waving copies of the Koran, people on the street watched listlessly. Ordinary Sudanese--merchants, students and even soldiers in uniform--volunteered to foreign journalists that they would welcome a change of regime.
In what would be another severe blow to the government, the U.N. Security Council is poised to ban air travel to and from Sudan--punishment for the government’s failure to turn over three suspects in a 1995 shooting attack on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s motorcade in Ethiopia.
Sudan’s public prosecutor, Abdel Elkhalifa, said in an interview that the U.N. extradition demands are unfair. He said Sudanese authorities never succeeded in locating the suspects and that anyone with knowledge of the case agrees that by now they most likely have left the country. Sudan has denied any foreknowledge of or involvement in the assassination attempt.
Some diplomats give the regime grudging credit for reducing corruption and substantially liberalizing the economy. The senior U.N. official in Khartoum, Christoph Jaeger, said he believes the regime has been working to reduce human rights abuses and that it is more tolerant and less radical in practice than is often portrayed.
But its response to the latest attack in the east of the country was typical. Prominent opponents of the government--those not already in exile--were immediately locked up. Although the government-controlled press has claimed that troops are mounting a vigorous counteroffensive, marshaling large numbers of fighters to regain, as headlines blared, “every inch” of lost territory, a visit to the area suggested that the initiative remained with the insurgents.
There were no signs that heavy weapons or aircraft had been brought to the area, and little fortification was visible.
A few truckloads of volunteers from the Popular Defense Force, a militia that makes up for its scant military training with religious fervor and close ties to the National Islamic Front, cruised the town of Damazin, where the dam is located, waving their weapons and shouting, “There is no God but God!”
“We are all keen to die for the sake of victory,” said Tajib Abdel Rahim, a merchant in Damazin who supports the government against the attackers. “When the time comes, God willing, I will be there. You can consider every single citizen a soldier.”
But in the army itself, badly chewed up in its initial contact with the invaders, there was notably less enthusiasm for a scrap. “I think if they get as far as here, then a large number of people will go over and join them,” said one soldier, requesting anonymity.
“We want the situation to change,” the soldier said. “Instead of there being this government belonging to Turabi, we want somebody else.”