THE single dirt road into Tambura is lined with small, empty shops. Markets that once teemed with goods and customers are barren. The Arab traders that ran them have gone. Residents seem wary.
Fear of abuse and a broken economy - these are the legacies of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army, which took over Tambura more than three years ago.
Since the SPLA's arrival in this remote farming and trading center in the southwest corner of Sudan, locals have faced forced conscription into the rebel army, a mandatory food ``tax,'' occasional beatings by rebels, and food robberies by the SPLA and others in the area.
Residents are too afraid to discuss SPLA abuses. ``I might be arrested if I talked about that,'' one says.
But reliable experts outside the country familiar with events here have provided details of mistreatment. ``As in any invasion, the occupying force will be seen as exploitative,'' explains one analyst familiar with this area.
In some areas of southern Sudan, local tribes have joined the SPLA in genuine support for its war against the government in Khartoum. Since 1983, the SPLA has fought for greater political clout in the mostly non-Muslim south and freedom from Islamic laws.
But in other areas, such as Tambura, ethnicity and economics have divided the locals from the SPLA. The Dinka, the backbone of support for the original SPLA and the south's largest tribe, are not particularly welcome here, where most residents are members of the Zande group. But in 1990, after defeating government forces here, the Dinka-led SPLA tried to take charge.
The Zande, one of the largest in southern Sudan, made little effort to join the SPLA's war. Deep mistrust remains between the two tribes. In the 1800s and early 1900s, the Zande fought with the Dinka: ``We were the toughest people before,'' boosts one local Zande.
Perhaps because of their reputation for toughness and sizable numbers, the Zande have not experienced the extremes of abuses the SPLA has carried out in other southern areas, as cited in an October Africa Watch report. The report, which is also highly critical of the Sudanese government's abuses, accuses the SPLA, which has now broken into two factions, of carrying out ``scorched earth practices, indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population, looting of cattle and food, and burning of villages.''
Although a Zande SPLA commander controls the primarily Zande area, both Sudanese and other analysts say his powers are limited by having mostly Dinka SPLA officers under him.
The local chiefs have lost most of their authority to the SPLA. ``At the moment, it's the [SPLA] army'' in control, Zande Paramount Chief Samuel Babbe Ranzi Tambura says. His father was the last in a long line of Zande kings.
``There's not really a civil administration. There is nothing now which we [chiefs] do. We are quiet,'' he adds.
SPLA Cmdr. David Manyok greeted several journalists on a recent visit here, assuring them the area is ``100 percent secure.'' But he assigned SPLA intelligence agents to monitor most interviews to ``protect'' the journalists.
He left little doubt as to who was running the show. ``I'm commander of the army and am county commander,'' he says. As county commander, he is in charge of civil affairs.
Economically, the area has collapsed under SPLA control.
Plenty of problems existed when the northern, mostly Arab government was in charge here. It neglected the area's development, and farmers were exploited by Arab traders.
But the fighting the SPLA has brought to the region has impacted on trade with government-held towns to the north. Trading once linked the region to other areas: The shops, though mostly Arab-run, were open, and markets were crammed with goods.
Life was ``nice,'' says a Sudanese who grew up in the region but left the country in 1990.
``During the old Sudan [pre-1990], things were there [in the markets],'' says one resident. ``But after liberation, all these disappeared.''
Another resident complains: ``We have no cloth, no salt, no saucepan for cooking, no blankets. I'm poor.''
Commander Manyok blames unresponsive donors for the poor economy. And the SPLA says several SPLA soldiers were executed recently after stealing international relief food from storehouses.
But Manyok presents no evidence of SPLA efforts to revive the economy. And outside analysts say farmers hesitate to grow more crops, even when they have the necessary seeds and tools, for fear that the SPLA will steal them.