Life Improves Despite Sudan's War

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: IN REBEL TERRITORY

A VISIT deep into rebel territory in southern Sudan is like stepping backward in time. Proud nomadic herdsmen wander through immense tracts of dry, roadless land, carrying spears. They bring small wooden stools with them, to sit on or use as pillows.

Villages and towns have no telephones, lights, running water, or private vehicles. When people move about, they may spend weeks walking or hitchhiking on relief or military vehicles.

Homes contain only a few possessions - perhaps a locked tin suitcase or trunk, a few garments for the women, a small sack of grain.

A country like neighboring Kenya, itself a developing nation, looks modern by comparison.

But under normal circumstances, the nomadic herdsmen, the fishermen camping along the crocodile-infested Nile or other rivers, and the village farmer can live fairly well, they say. Six years of war, however, between the Sudan government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) - primarily over power-sharing in Sudan - have left their mark.

There is a lack of cattle inoculation programs. Hundreds of thousands of cattle have died. Because milk is the basic diet, herdsmen and their families feel the loss.

Crops have been hit by several droughts, floods, and insect infestations - and the disruption of war. Two million or more southern Sudanese are thought to have fled to government-held towns, mostly in the north, or to neighboring countries of Ethiopia and Uganda. Sudanese living around Bor say that during the years prior to the SPLA occupation of Bor, Arab troops attacked villages, randomly shooting at civilians, forcing many to flee. Reports over the weekend said that between 300 and 1,500 villagers were killed by Arab troops in areas further to the north.

People no longer have money to buy fish or much of anything else. Village markets, once packed with imported and local goods, are practically empty. People have reverted mostly to a barter system. Salt and soap, rare commodities today in southern Sudan, have become a form of currency.

The war has made rebel towns such as Bor both difficult and potentially dangerous to visit. The roughly 600-mile, 10-day trip by truck and land cruiser from the Kenyan border to Bor and back covers roads that the Sudanese say are still lined with antipersonnel mines left by fleeing Arab troops. At one point a bomber flew overhead as we changed a tire on the road.

Though the SPLA organization has some modern equipment and has won a string of victories over the last two years, some equipment is quite old.

At one point, a doorless old truck was broken down on the road with a load of SPLA soldiers in the open back. Many of the SPLA recruits wore sandals or flip-flops, shorts, and T-shirts. Uniforms are the exception, because of lack of funds, an SPLA commander explained. Some SPLA soldiers carry old rifles; many carry machine guns.

The SPLA says that when the British colonizers controlled Sudan, they did little to develop the south. And the same pattern continued, they say, under a succession of independence governments that the SPLA claims were ruled by a northern clique. (Sudanese in the north say that except for central Sudan, including Khartoum, the capital, there has been little development anywhere in Sudan.)

Today, as the war grinds into its seventh year, the economy and the standard of living of people in the rebel areas is actually a bit better than in 1988, when thousands died of hunger.

Last year relief food apparently made a difference; few deaths because of starvation were reported.

But United Nations and United States-led efforts to promote a break in the fighting - to allow food deliveries to both government and rebel areas - also helped. Food deliveries have been sharply reduced, though, with the halting of relief flights by the Sudan government.

Nevertheless, Sudanese, UN, and other international relief officials are beginning to tackle the long-term needs of rebel areas: wells, cattle vaccination programs, schools, provision of seeds and metal-tipped hand hoes. But if fighting increases, some agencies may pull staffs out of the south.

``Now we cannot stand on our own legs,'' says Aciek Wai, an elderly man in the village of Kolnyang, near Bor, speaking of Sudan's need for outside relief and aid. ``We are relying on friends [foreign help] until the time we can stand.'' He said all but five cattle in his herd (once numbering 300) had been wiped out.

But far to the south, near Kapoeta, another rebel town, Lokwar Adupa, a Toposa herdsman watches happily as his herd is vaccinated.

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