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Out There News

'Normality' means hunger and siege in southern Sudan

By Paul Eedle 

JUBA, Sudan, Feb 21, Reuter - People say life in Sudan's southern capital, Juba, is back to normal after rebels nearly captured it last year. But it is the normality of a besieged town in an unwinnable civil war.

Two thirds of the 300,000 people in the town are refugees, crowded in flimsy shelters of sacking and plastic or cramped mud huts without clean water, drains or electricity. Few are starving but most are hungry: all food has to be flown in over the rebel-held bush around the town. Relief handouts are half the ideal ration and prices in the market are often beyond reach. 

The radical Islamic government's security agents, many of them brown-skinned Arabs from the north, monitor and intimidate the population, who are mostly black African Christians and animists. After rebel attacks last summer, diplomats say the army and security forces burned down and bulldozed refugee camps suspected of supporting the rebels. Some 300 southerners serving in the army, police and prison service were arrested and have not been seen since. A diplomat said 80 were known to have been killed. One, almost certainly two, of the victims were Sudanese working for the U.S. government aid agency AID. 

The government, eager to rebuild relations with the outside world after months of pressure over human rights abuses, has taken two groups of foreign reporters to Juba this year but security men shadowed every step they took. As Father Nicholas Adalla, a young priest in a blue t-shirt, talked to one group in St Teresa's Catholic cathedral an unsmiling man who described himself as "a citizen" took notes at his shoulder. The only safe question to ask seemed about the Pope, whom the government had just allowed to visit Khartoum. "It means a time of joy, a time of celebration. Just to think of the Pope coming to see them, to strengthen their faith, is a beautiful thing," Father Nicholas said in a low voice. 

In a refugee camp, a man talked freely to a reporter in his tiny hut until the security men, who had relaxed for a moment and stayed outside, realised what he was saying and rushed in. "Our problem is an international problem. Our problem should be solved by the world at large. The world cannot keep quiet," he said. "This war is between Christians and Moslems and the minority Christians in the south became victims. "For this reason we appeal to the Pope, we appeal to the world to see to our problem in this part of the country. Why do Westerners go even to Somalia and leave us? Why not look to us?" The United States is heading a multinational force of 33,000 troops in Somalia since December to guarantee safe distribution of relief aid. 

Successive Sudanese governments, autocrats and democrats, have fought southerners demanding autonomy for the south, from 1955 to 1972 and since 1983. Peace talks lurched to a halt in Nigeria last November but were due to resume in Uganda at the weekend. But the Islamic radicals who seized power through a military coup in 1989 have made the civil war a Jihad, a holy struggle to Arabise and Islamise the south as a step towards spreading militant Islam across Africa and the Middle East.

A fading poster in Juba proclaims: "Caravan of Guidance and Integrity to the City of Juba. General Union of Sudanese Students, University of the Holy Koran and Islamic Studies. Students are the Vanguard of the Renaissance of Civilisation." 

Residents say Islamic groups offer money to converts. "They distribute what they call donations, zakat. They give to few, those who accept," a man in the refugee camp explained, cowed by the hovering security men. A building behind a wall topped with barbed wire had a sign reading: "International Islamic Relief Organisation." A man who noticed a reporter looking at the sign called out: "They bring nothing. We are fed up with these people." 

The government captured 14 towns from the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army last year. It says it wants to resume peace talks although diplomats say it has also built up men and weapons for a new offensive. The SPLA split into two factions in 1991 and fractured again in 1992. Relief workers say it is disintegrating further in some areas and commanders operate as independent local warlords. 

But outsiders say the civil war is unwinnable. No government in Africa's largest country can field enough troops to control the vast swamps, savannahs and mountains of the south.