Prospects for peace in Sudan may be a bit closer now that the prime minister's party has approved the Nov. 15 cease-fire accord with Col. John Garang, leader of the southern-based Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). But in Juba, the remote capital of Sudan's southern Equatoria region, the negotiations have had little effect on a daily reality of hunger and insecurity under rebel siege.
So weary and jaded have the people here become that ``there's a joke around town that there's a secret meeting place near Juba, where the prime minister and John Garang plan their common assault on the civilians,'' an experienced international relief official said.
Indeed, this country's five-year-old civil war between the northern-based, Arab government and the southern, mostly black African rebels has decimated the south. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have died of famine or disease while trying to flee conflict-torn region. And prospects for peace still seem distant in Juba.
In their latest offensive here, the SPLA rebels have captured six towns on the east bank of the Nile River, and strengthened their position in the tall, thick grass around Juba. Their strategy has been to drive village populations into government-held towns, leaving animals and unharvested crops behind. By laying ambushes and landmines, the rebels cut all access to food and supplies to the more than 200,000 residents and war refugees trapped in Juba.
The town's embattled civilians seem to find little protection from the government - either from the police, who are mostly fellow southerners, or from the national Army, made up mostly by Arab and Muslim northerners. (Observers estimate that Juba's military has been reinforced to between 15,000 and 20,000 troops.)
In one of Juba's endless neighborhoods of conical mud and grass huts, a farmer named Gabriel Lado was left with nothing but the tattered cotton shorts he was wearing the night armed SPLA rebels raided. While they looted 38 houses and rounded up residents to carry goods back to the bush, there was no trace of the Sudanese Army, which is garrisoned about three miles away.
Mr. Lado and his neighbors complain that they never would have abandoned their village to come to Juba in the first place, if the Army had protected them from the rebels. ``Now it's the same thing here,'' he said bitterly. ``The Army and the police patrol here during the day. But during the night we are left all alone.''
Inside the leafy town, the Sudanese military seems relaxed, although the rebels are believed to be camped only 12 miles north of Juba's center. Government soldiers pedal rattling bicycles through dusty streets and stroll along roadsides in plastic flip-flop sandals.
It is rare to see an armed government contingent stationed between the vulnerable townspeople and the rebels, who make regular forays in from the bush. In practice, the destitute residents of displaced camps are left to hold the front line alone against rebels raiding Juba.
(Juba's military commander, Major General Alison Monnany Magaya, would not comment on Army strategy here.)
This apparent indifference of the northern-dominated military has only intensified the South's longstanding charges of neglect and ethnic persecution by Arab and Muslim rulers from the north. For centuries, the only outsiders the African people of southern Sudan encountered were Arab traders who pillaged the continent for slaves and ivory.
Chaplain Karayokoju, an official of the government Ministry of Information, said angrily, ``Our people have sent memos to the prime minister, asking him to declare this a disaster area. But no food has arrived in the volume that the flood assistance arrived in Khartoum. It's a genocide. They are `disappearing' a whole people.''
Juba's outspoken Catholic Archbishop Paolino Lukudu also accused the government of an ``extermination program,'' which was presaged in a 1986 meeting between prominent church leaders and Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi.
``The prime minister himself told us if John Garang does not stop this war, the north will exterminate the south,'' Archbishop Lukudu said.
``This extermination program is what we see in the south - displacement, hunger, insecurity, breakdown of social life,'' he added.
Even General Magaya sees the war as disastrous for the south: ``The only possibility is a political solution,'' he said. ``The people should sit down and agree among themselves.'' But as for peace talks taking place up north, he paused and shook his head. ``It's still premature to talk about peace.''