Khartoum Squatters Forcibly Displaced
At a crossroads between sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, Sudan has tried for more than 30 years to reconcile its Muslim, Christian, and animist faiths. Now Sudanese in the north and south face an oppressive campaign by an Islamic fundamentalist regime.
KHARTOUM, SUDAN — HOT sand and dust sweep across this pathetic sea of shelters called the As Salam, or "Peace Camp," well beyond the edge of Khartoum.
The blowing clouds of grit often hide the extent of the human tragedy here - this time created by Sudanese government design, not by war or disaster.
Since November, the Sudanese Army - with bayonets fixed on assault rifles - has used a heavy hand to evict 425,000 people from their hovels in shanty towns and garbage dumps inside the capital. Most had jobs and access to food and water.
The government is moving the displaced to five sites some distance from Khartoum so that it can form what Western diplomats call a cordon sanitaire around the capital to preserve security. It plans to move at least 1 million more to new camps.
Since 1984, at least 12 percent of Sudan's population has been displaced by either famine in the west or war in the south. An estimated 2.5 million Sudanese - mostly Christian and animist - have settled around Khartoum.
Along the edges of the capital, vast bare plots attest to the thorough destruction of the homes the displaced had left behind.
"Now there is no chance for us to live," says one Muslim from the Western Kordofan Province who asked not to be named. "This new war we're facing from the government is destroying our soul and our spirit." A hard-line regime
The Islamic military regime of Lt. Gen. Umar Hassan al-Bashir, which overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi in June 1989, is by all accounts a regime of action.
General Bashir has instituted a high-risk economic policy that includes a severe currency devaluation - from 15 Sudanese pounds per United States dollar to 30 pounds per dollar last October, and then down to 90 pounds per dollar in February.
Inflation has skyrocketed as the government has printed money to finance the $12 billion national debt. And the on-going civil war consumes about 60 percent of Sudan's gross domestic product annually.
The way is clear, diplomats and economists say, for an explosion of prices and discontent in the coming months.
As tensions grow, the government seems aware that the 16-year regime of President Jaafar Muhammad Numaryi fell in 1985 to civil unrest that started in Khartoum's squatter camps. Burlap shanties
The people sent to Peace Camp were unceremoniously dumped in the sand an hour's drive west of Khartoum in January, and told to get on with their lives. No preparation had been made for their arrival. The government appears to have created overnight a new batch of refugees, in desperate need of relief food, water, and jobs.
Western relief agencies and embassies quickly gathered together 20,000 blankets, but were reduced to issuing burlap sacks for "housing."
The stick and burlap shelters of Peace Camp emerge surrealistically from the desert like the unlivable Ethiopian camps thrown together during 1984-1985 famine. In Africa, there is no worse comparison.
"If they rise up in the middle of the desert, they can howl all they want," says a senior Western diplomat. "If they want to march on Khartoum, they will die of exposure on the way. The Army won't even need to be there."
As if to underline the extreme hardness of the place, during a recent visit of Western donors to the camp, a young man on the road to Khartoum - just half a mile from Peace Camp - collapsed from heat exhaustion in the path of the British ambassador's vehicle.
In late December, residents of the Kurmata area, south of Khartoum, decided to take on the guns and bulldozers of the Sudanese Army with sticks and stones. They didn't want to leave their homes or the security of the 200 water pumps that the United Nations Children's Fund had finished installing three months earlier.
At least 20 were killed in the ensuing battle, relief officials say, and today the pumps stand untouched among the demolished houses.
"We're not applying any Western standard of judgment to these horrid conditions," says US Ambassador James Cheek. "Any Sudanese - Muslim or Christian - would be more appalled than us, because these are their own people."
But the government seems to show pride in its work. The home-demolishing project is spear-headed by Minister of Housing Sharaf Bannaga, who stills hands out business cards for his previous job: a UN regional development planner.
It is no secret here that Dr. Bannaga hopes to win a medal of distinction at the "Earth Summit" in Brazil this June for his contribution to "environmental protection and urban renewal."
"Imagine someone living in a garbage dump with no facilities. They are using the soil indiscriminately and ruining the environment," Bannaga explains. "Our idea is to take them to a clean site with ample space, where they can breathe fresh air."
The housing minister says he is simply adhering to an urban-renewal plan commissioned by Khartoum State two years ago - and to be financed by the World Bank - which suggests thinning the squatter and displaced population by moving them to well-placed sites.
The plan warns, though, of the "futility of oppressive approaches" which "threaten political and social stability."
The World Bank has not approved the renewal plan, and in a letter to diplomats and the UN a month ago, clarified that "the bank in no way endorses the policies and actions of the Khartoum State authorities in relation to this issue."
Nevertheless, the Housing Ministry insists that the forcibly removed squatters - though angry at first and forced to buy trucked-in water - are given a choice where to go. They even held a parade in one camp recently, Bannaga says, to thank the minister for his kind help. Guns and cattle prods
The ubiquitous security forces in the camps, however, apparently sense danger in presenting the camps to the Western media.
Traveling at the personal invitation of President Bashir, this reporter visited Peace Camp with Dr. Bannaga, the British ambassador, and representatives from the European Community and the UN.
The security forces in Peace Camp carried Uzi machine gums, electric cattle prods, and truncheons. They were young and mostly out of uniform. They clearly instilled fear among camp-dwellers.
The security men refused to allow photography of the poor conditions of the 60,000 inhabitants - one-third of the planned total of this camp.
Demonstrations of feeding, medical, and educational programs of the Islamic relief agencies - foreign agencies are not permitted direct access, despite government claims - were obviously set up for our party to see.
One bore hole has been dug, but it is not yet producing water. The nearest food was at a market four miles away.
Peace Camp, like the other four sites, is too far from Khartoum for people to maintain a job in the city.
"In any other country there would be a revolution," says one diplomat. "But people here are so battered now, they're finished."