THE bulldozers that rumble through Khartoum's squatter communities nearly every day flatten more than just buildings. Relief workers say they have crushed the hopes of millions of displaced people.
Almost all of them are non-Arabs who have fled to the capital region from the south and west of the country.
''Suddenly one day a big bulldozer came, and they told us to vacate the house immediately,'' says a veiled woman carrying her seven-month-old daughter across the bleak, arid outskirts of Khartoum. ''Some people get new land and others don't. This is a government decision.''
Since the late 1980s, Sudan's Islamic regime has demolished shantytowns that ring the city. It sells the land and moves many of the residents to remote desert areas.
Charges of abuse
Government officials say the moves are an urban renewal project aimed at legalizing land ownership. But the scheme's critics say they are a bid to rid Khartoum of non-Arab, non-Islamic residents. They describe the program as one of the largest and most abusive relocation efforts in modern history.
The project has also left humanitarian groups here wondering if their willingness to provide for the displaced and restrain their criticism of the government makes them accomplices in a devastating policy.
''Some international organizations say this government can't be criticized because [it is] Muslim, and [it] should be allowed to be different,'' says Alex de Waal, co-director of London-based Africa Rights. ''But the vast majority of Sudanese detest what is going on.''
Sudan, Africa's largest country, is a microcosm of the continent. Northerners are largely Arab and Muslim. Southern residents are predominantly black and practice Christianity or traditional African religions. The country covers a swath of territory as large as the United States east of the Mississippi River.
Squatter villages are not an unusual phenomenon in the capitals of the developing world. But Khartoum's population stands out. Some 2 million displaced Sudanese came north in the mid- and late-1980s. Many fled the 12-year-old war in the south. Others escaped drought in western Sudan. On the flat, dusty edges of the sprawling capital, they live in makeshift mud houses and stick hovels, largely without services.
In recent years, bulldozers from the capital have rolled into the shantytowns nearly every week to demolish squatter homes, while soldiers or police clear out the residents.
The government's motives are complex. Sharaf-el-Din Ibrahim Bannaga, the minister of housing for Khartoum state, claims the demolitions revive the city. ''The scheme is to improve the environment and legalize land tenure,'' he says.
Other officials argue that security is the key reason behind the relocations. They say that if a spontaneous uprising against Sudan's Islamic government began in the capital, the squatter communities would soon join in.
Some human rights groups say the policy is specifically designed to remove non-Arab southern Sudanese and maintain Khartoum's predominantly Islamic character. Economic concerns are also likely to be behind the relocations. Selling land is a source of income. Sudan's government is essentially bankrupt, and property is one of the few payments it can offer supporters.
Workers have qualms
Once their homes are demolished, displaced people who arrived in Khartoum after 1983 are sent to what the government calls ''peace villages.'' Those who arrived earlier are eligible to purchase small plots. Minister Bannaga says neither religion nor ethnic origin is considered when land is sold. But he concedes that most of the displaced who came before 1983 - and are thus eligible to buy land - are northerners.
A handful of Western relief workers have set up programs in the displaced settlements. But many agencies say they have moral qualms about working with a government that blatantly abuses the rights of its citizens.
Mr. De Waal says the cooperation of the United Nations with the Sudanese regime amounts to tacitly condoning the relocations.
While some UN officials say their role has lent Sudan's government credibility, they say their hands are tied.
''Be realistic. We're not going to force the government to change its political stance.
''The one thing we can do is mitigate the problems by seeing that these people have access to clean water and education,'' says a UN official who doesn't want to be identified.
John Prendergast, director of the Horn of Africa Project at the Washington-based Center of Concern, says relief groups aren't eager to protest.
''If you do press the issue to the wall, you may end up with a situation where the Sudanese government says, 'OK, leave, good-bye.' ''
''I don't think we're ready to do that on humanitarian grounds. There's a belief that a little aid is better than no aid at all,'' Mr. Prendergast says.
Prendergast says the international community lacks the political will to change the situation of the displaced, so it substitutes humanitarian aid.
''They're unable to deal with the fundamental political problem of a government that moves hundreds of thousands of families... [and] forcibly destroys their property and assets without due process and compensation,'' he says.
But Bannaga, the government minister maintains that the urban renewal is unfairly maligned because it is the policy of an Islamic government. ''Is bulldozing only done in Sudan?'' he asks.
''There is bulldozing going on everywhere - in Europe, South America. Wherever you have illegal buildings, you have to demolish them because you cannot leave anyone to grab a piece of land.''
So for now, at least, the displaced in Sudan look out for bulldozers on the horizon.