A Divided Country Where Twain Rarely Meet, Except in War

Sudan's southern rebels have been fighting off the Arab north's attempts to impose an Islamic state on the whole country.

ELECTIONS that took place in the north of Africa's biggest country over the past two weeks were news to Angelica Poni and many other villagers living deep behind rebel lines here in Sudan's southeast corner.

Like many supporters of the insurgent Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), what is decreed by the northern government in Khartoum is of little relevance. The south is another world in this divided country where rarely the twain meet, except in battle. The two have have been fighting for 13 years.

"Elections? I never heard about this," an irritated and bewildered Mrs. Poni said about the two-week poll that ended on March 16 and never reached this small town of thatched mud huts because of the civil war. "It doesn't affect my life."

"These elections are not a democracy, they are a mockery," joins in her friend Elizabeth Achol. "They are dropping bullets, not ballots."

The elections were the first time the Sudanese have voted directly for president, instead of indirectly through parliament, as they did in 1986. The vote was widely regarded as window dressing. The country has been ruled since 1989 by military leader Lieut. Gen. Omar Ahmed al-Bashir, who took over in a coup and is expected to have won the election.

Groups in the black animist and Christian south have been sporadically at war with the Islamic north since 1955, when it stared trying to forcibly impose upon the whole country its religion and customs.

The differences between the two halves of the country are palpable. In the strict north, women must be covered head to toe in Islamic purist tradition; in the south, they walk around bare-breasted as elsewhere in black Africa. In the south, English or local tribal languages, not Arabic, dominate.

At least here in Chokudum, the only armed people are the rebels - often only boys - who strut through the bush with Russian-made AK-47 assault rifles. The only signs of the government Army are the craters of bombs from aerial strikes.

Various guerrilla movements have come and gone, but the SPLA has been the main one since its formation in 1983 by John Garang.

Since 1991, there have been at least five breakaway movements, most notably one led by Riek Machar that devotes most of its energy to battling Mr. Garang and holds little territory.

This vast arid expanse is also the venue for an ongoing humanitarian morass. Brought back from the brink of mass starvation in 1992-93, when a quarter of a million people died, war and periodic drought continue to wreak havoc.

Aid groups estimate that more than 3 million Sudanese were displaced, 1.3 million died from war or famine, and countless numbers have been tortured since the civil war restarted in 1983 after a brief attempt at democracy.

Some victims have suffered at the hands of the rebels in cases widely documented by London-based Amnesty International and other human rights organizations.

But the repressive Khartoum government has committed its own share of abuses, having outlawed all forms of political, press, and religious freedom, and declared war on the people of the south in a religious crusade.

This has alienated Western nations and Sudan's neighbors, Eritrea, Uganda, and Ethiopia, which accuse Khartoum of promoting terrorism and Islamic militancy across its borders.

The SPLA - once reviled by some Western countries during the cold war for its ties to leftist regimes - is mustering greater support as the international community increasingly rejects Khartoum.

"The elections were a blessing in disguise," says Elijah Malok, shadow public services minister of the political arm of SPLA, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). "They helped reinforce the international view that these people don't know what democracy is." He hopes the questionable elections will move the United Nations closer to sanctions against Khartoum.

Last year the SPLM intensified a diplomatic drive that included Garang's visit to Washington in December and the winning of observer status at the UN.

The desire for legitimacy is nowhere more evident than at SPLM's administrative center in New Cush, a well-fortified village nestled in hills about 100 miles from the border with Kenya. Here, the SPLM's 183-member parliament and 16 "ministers" from around the country meet to plan their political future in a mud hut.

But their political future is linked to military success. In October, the SPLA made its biggest advance in four years, capturing the towns of Parajok, Palatoka, Magwe, and Aswa.

"We are fighting to force Khartoum to negotiate with us," said Chokudum's acting base commander, Samuel Mathiang.

The offensive has stopped for now, but commanders say it will resume when they are better prepared to take Juba, the traditional capital of the south, which has eluded them.

In the meantime, the war is at a stalemate, with the government controlling several key towns like islands in the south and the rebels in control of the vast bush surrounding them.

Numbers may be on the side of the rebels, who claim that one-third of the estimated 10 million people living in the south are involved in the resistance effort, including children gathering water and women cooking for troops.

But the government, which has perhaps as many as 120,000 men in its Army and armed civilian militias, is far better armed.

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