FIGHTING among rival rebel groups, and not drought, is the main cause of the alarming levels of death and malnutrition in parts of southern Sudan, according to officials of the United Nations World Food Programme providing famine relief here.
The infighting is strongly condemned - by the UN, the United States government, and the human rights group Amnesty International - for adding to the misery of civilians in the region. But the leaders of both sides, interviewed in this rebel stronghold in the far south and in Nairobi, Kenya, say they are prepared to keep on fighting each other for supremacy.
"It will only be a short time when we shall move," says Faustino Atem Gualdit, a leader of a breakaway rebel group, warning of an imminent attack on the main faction of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), a largely non-Muslim movement based in the south of the country, which has fought the Islamic regime in the capital Khartoum since 1983.
Southerners fought Sudan's central government from 1955 until 1972, when the government granted the south more autonomy. The SPLA was formed to resume the battle in 1983, after autonomy was weakened and Islamic law or sharia was imposed throughout the country.
But since 1991, the rebels have fractured into several rival groups, which have clashed occasionally. The frequency of such battles has increased in recent weeks as three breakaway groups have begun to work together, announcing their formal unity April 5 under the name SPLA United.
Interviews with rebel leaders and with independent, non-Sudanese church and academic analysts provide new glimpses into the inner workings of the SPLA. It is a world where dissident rebels allegedly suffer long imprisonment in darkened, tightly packed cells in the bush, and where SPLA leader Col. John Garang has lost considerable support amid criticism that he is a dictator and a poor military strategist.
And in an important political development, the rebel dissidents have spoken out in favor of an independent southern Sudan. "We are for independence, through negotiations - or fighting," an SPLA United leader says.
Colonel Garang, who was educated in the US, has long favored a stronger role for the south in a united Sudan free of religious laws.
Recently, however, he has begun to speak of two confederated states, one in the north and one in the south "sovereign in their constitution."
The few people who have analyzed the SPLA say that, for the most part, Garang's army has shown little concern for the people it claims to represent: the civilians of the south.
"I have found very few SPLA people who really care about their people," says a church minister in Nairobi who spoke on condition of anonymity. Two exceptions, the minister says, may be prominent SPLA United leaders Lam Akol Ajawin and Kerubino Kwanyin Bol. Garang, the minister adds, is definitely in this "for his own power." Personal rivalries
The splits "probably begin with ... rivalries in the movement" based not on political differences but on "very personal motives" says Francis Deng, a Sudanese who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Their motives are cloaked in ideological justifications such as furthering democracy and human rights, he adds.
Garang and SPLA United leaders have "lost all credibility in the West" for pursing their rivalries while people are starving, says history professor Robert Collins of the University of California at Santa Barbara.
James Michel, acting administrator of the US Agency for International Development, recently blasted the fighting among the rebels as "a callous disregard for human life among those who claim to be fighting for the people of the region."
Last November, Amnesty International accused the Nasir faction, one of the SPLA breakaway groups, of killing "over 2,000 Dinka civilians in an assault [in January 1992] on Bor, the home area of John Garang." That, and an attack in the Bahr al-Ghazal region, sent "tens of thousands of civilians" fleeing for safety and food, according to the human rights group.
The rival rebel leaders "have no vision about where [their organizations] should go," said Professor Collins in a telephone interview. "This breeds contempt in Khartoum and Washington," he said, citing conversations with some members of the US Congress and Western relief officials.
Garang's Chief of Staff, Salva Kiir Mayardit, dismisses the breakaway group as "not a threat to our movement."
Collins predicts the unity forged by the breakaway factions will disintegrate, following a historic pattern among the chiefless people of this Nile region of not uniting between or even within tribes. Sudanese war and politics are based largely on tribalism, and many southerners fear potential domination by the Dinkas, the largest southern tribe.
But leaders of the SPLA United and several church sources in Nairobi say unity will eventually prevail, if for no other reason than to allow free movement of cattle across tribal boundaries.
For now, fighting continues, with the sides recently clashing near the town of Ayod.
In an interview in Nairobi April 12, the SPLA United's Mr. Kerubino predicted that Garang would continue to lose support within the SPLA now that "we have emerged," referring to himself and two fellow escapees from Garang's prisons, Arok Thon Arok, and Mr. Faustino.
Sitting on a bed, for lack of chairs in a house they recently moved into, the three endorsed the idea of a "collective leadership" in the SPLA United, as opposed to what Kerubino described as Garang's attempt to run a "one-man show." Imprisoned by Garang
When first detained in 1987 after policy disputes with Garang, the three were put in holes in the ground and held for several days, Faustino says. Then, for more than three months, he says, they were held in a container only 5 feet by 7 feet, packed with other prisoners. There was room for only a few at a time to rest.
They escaped, he says, by convincing the young guards that their imprisonment was not fair. The guards then escaped with them.
Asked to describe the prison conditions in which the three were held, Mr. Salva Kiir of Garang's group said only: "They were taken good care of. Nobody tortured them."
During his imprisonment, Kerubino says, four of his sons - Daniel Malang, 16; Aguak, 15; Stephen Dumbaai, 12; and Lokoni, 11 - were sent by Garang, along with other children, for military training in Cuba and have now been returned, against his will, to southern Sudan. He claims they are being held hostage.
A senior SPLA commander, contacted in Nairobi, acknowledged that the children had been returned from Cuba, but said the International Committee of the Red Cross was free to go pick them up in southern Sudan. He did not say why they were not returned to Kerubino in the first place.
Even if the southern rebels work out their differences, the war in the south against the Khartoum government is likely to go on for at least another decade, according to Collins, church sources, and key rebel leaders on both sides.