A Fighter's Story: Window on Sudan's Costly War

The black-and-white portrait of the young Sudanese martyr hangs alone on the wall of the family home.

Al-Fateh Omar Hussein, an ambitious university student, stares out of the picture in jacket and tie. A color tint was added at the studio.

But instead of working as an engineer in Khartoum after graduation, Mr. Hussein volunteered to fight in Sudan's war against mostly Christian and animist rebels in the south. He fought for God, his family says, and to defend his Muslim religion and the unity of his country.

Tears of mourning at Hussein's death five years ago have turned to tears of pride for this family. His story helps explain the often mysterious religious nature of Sudan's civil conflict, which is officially cast by the Arab and Islamic northern regime as a jihad, or "holy war." Sudan's long famine, which threatens some 2.6 million people by some estimates, is largely attributed to this conflict.

In kind, the southern rebels also invoke their religious faith in battle. But unlike Hussein and other northern zealots, few in the south use their religion to justify and ensure their own deaths.

"He was really on a mission and determined to be a martyr," remembers Hussein's sister, Amel Omer Hussein.

Before his second tour of duty, Hussein reminded his family of the line in the Koran: "Don't think those who died for the cause of God are dead."

To Ms. Hussein's thinking, "this is the highest aspiration of the Muslim, to die a martyr, a shaheed," she says.

Hussein was a volunteer in the Popular Defense Forces (PDF), a semi-trained militia created by the fundamentalist regime of President Omar al-Bashir to complement the armed forces on the front lines of the civil war.

Dismissed as "atrocity battalions" by Western diplomats years ago because of human rights abuses - a practice that all sides in Sudan carry out against civilians - today the PDF plays a significant role in the fighting. They often charge into battle in human waves, clutching talismans of their faith and with prayers on their lips.

Not all are volunteers. But for true believers like Hussein, the PDF helped form and carry out his wish to be a martyr.

"Nobody pushed him to join," says his sister. "Even my mother resented the idea at first. But since we were kids, I can tell you he was different. Our grandfather brought us up reading the Koran and to live in the right way, and that inspired al-Fateh."

For his mother, Zeinab Abu al-Gassin, some details of his death, retold by witnesses, are the most important things he has left behind - and underline the religious significance of his actions.

During a 17-hour melee near the Sudan-Uganda border, Hussein ignored the advice of others in his trench and ran to help a man critically wounded by a mortar shell. But another shell tore away Hussein's leg and implanted his chest with shrapnel.

"When he was hit, he shouted 'Allah hu akbar!' [God is great], and clenched his fist above his head," says Mrs. al-Gassin, holding her arm aloft to illustrate.

The Bashir regime, backed by hard-line Muslim leaders bent on making Sudan an Islamic state, transformed the 15-year civil war soon after taking power in a military coup in 1989. From the Western viewpoint, reliance on religion to motivate fighters often translates into a "religious war," which many northern Sudanese insist their civil war is not.

"The tricky thing is that in Islam there is no separation of church and state," says one Sudanese analyst. "So what is seen as nationalism in a Western sense, here it is seen in religious terms."

Hussein's sister elaborates, saying that imposition of Islam upon the south - the reason the rebels are fighting - is contrary to Islamic practice.

"The aim is not to bring Islam to the people of the south, but to use religion [to fight] the war," she says. Before this government came to power, she says, "generals ordered to the south would take off their epaulets" and refuse to go.

Now, however, "the reward is very high." Senior government officials - even the brother of the president was killed this way - have sought to boost their careers by a stint with the PDF along the front lines. Several have died.

"Religion in this war is not the core subject," says Ms. Hussein. "But when they say it is a jihad to defend your family, your government, and your people, fighters will be motivated by the religious reward."

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