BY modern standards, the seven villages of Lafon weren't much.
The hundreds of small, round, dirt-walled and thatch-roofed huts that once nestled around a giant outcropping of rocks here were family homes. Couples married, settled into them, and painted the smoothed mud walls with designs. Children grew up in them.
But earlier this year, in attacks that have come to light only in recent weeks, almost every house was burned down, and about 320 villagers were killed by a Sudanese rebel group that suspected the villagers of supporting a rival rebel commander.
As fighting flares up again in southern Sudan's prolonged civil war, the destruction and killing in Lafon are examples of how Sudanese civilians are subject to human rights abuses and internecine fighting. The abuses usually occur when the rebels or government troops move into an area they consider enemy territory, often an area populated by an ethnic group different from their own.
Other excesses include forced provision of food and cattle to rebel commanders and enslavement of women and children by government or government-backed militias to become wives and child laborers, according to human rights organizations, Western diplomats, United Nations officials, and villagers.
"The human rights situation [in Sudan] is very, very serious," a Western diplomat said in a recent interview. "On both sides of the SPLA [the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army] behavior is very bad, and the government is very bad."
In a statement last November, Amnesty International said: "Over the past year, thousands of people have been victims of extra-judicial executions by the government or deliberate and arbitrary killings by the SPLA. Both have shown a callous disregard for the human rights of civilians."
The current phase of the war began in 1983, as southern-based rebels sought greater regional autonomy and freedom from Islamic laws that the northern-based government wanted to impose nationwide. The rebels split into two groups in 1991, with one group seeking independence from the government and another content to demand more regional autonomy.
THE conflict is also an ethnic one. The north is mostly Arab; the south is mostly Dinka. The Dinka people have provided the main support for Col. John Garang, a Dinka who is commander of one of two factions of the SPLA. His main rival, Riek Machar, who broke from Colonel Garang in 1991, is a Nuer and draws his main support from other Nuers, as well as from some other minority tribes and even some Dinka.
Amnesty International has accused Mr. Machar's forces of killing some 2,000 Dinka as they moved into Dinka territory in 1991, though there have been few similar reports against his rebels since then.
The Western diplomat accuses the government of systematic "massacres" of the Nuba people, a central Sudan tribe, some of whom have joined the Garang rebels.
In a recent Monitor interview, Commander Bior Ajang of the SPLA admitted Garang's men attacked Lafon twice earlier this year, when they went looking for William Nyong, a commander who had broken away from the SPLA. But Commander Ajang denied any wholesale slaughter of the villagers, saying only that those who died were caught in a "cross-fire." He also denied Garang's men burned down houses in Lafon.
But interviews with villagers and independent sources familiar with events in Lafon, and an examination of the ruins offered little evidence to support Ajang's contentions. For example, because every house is solidly contructed of mud and because they were gutted from inside, it appears unlikely that the houses could have been burned unintentionally. The destruction is almost total. Roofs are gone; remaining walls are only waist-high, at most.
"They were burned down systematically," says a source in Kenya who is familiar with events in Lafon.
One resident says that "during the attack, some houses burned due to shelling. But for the rest, they were set on fire." And there doesn't appear to have been much cross-fire.
Villagers say they were poorly armed. "You run, thinking you will die," says Ben, who coordinates relief efforts here. "How could I defend myself with a spear?" [Full names have been withheld to avoid possible reprisals.]
"In the disarray, you couldn't even get your children," says James. "I lost two children," he adds, standing near the ruins of a family member's house destroyed in the second attack.
The first attack, according to James, began at 4 a.m. on Jan. 4. "They surrounded the seven villages and started firing artillery and machine guns," he says.
People fled to the bush. But Garang's forces sent out word that the attack had been a mistake and told them to return - or risk being tracked down and killed.
But on Feb. 10, Garang's forces struck again. This time the troops not only fired on the villagers, they burned down the houses, villagers assert.
Regina, a resident, recalls the second attack. "I ran away. I could see our houses burning. My brother died. My step father, blind, was burned to death."
After the second attack, most villagers fled to the bush where temporary villages have been built until the grass grows long enough late this year to allow them to gather thatch for roofs to rebuild.