The following article ran as part of an eight-part series by Jon Sawyer, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch January 16-February 6, 2002.
Rebel commander Peter Malueth points with pride to his recent victories in repulsing attacks on four villages in this region. "We killed 51 of the murahaleen," he boasts, referring to the bands of irregular militia backed by Sudan's government. "We only lost three of our own."
Malueth's reckoning doesn't include the fact that all four villages were burned to the ground or that families there lost virtually all the cattle they owned.
He doesn't mention 2,000 refugees who are now subsisting on leaves, just a couple of miles away.
And in Gogrial, once a town of 27,000, there is nothing left - not one intact building.
The place today is a vast field of rubble, strewn with bricks, spent shells and bullets, with the occasional bricked-in machine-gun nest or bomb shelter.
Several dozen rebel soldiers march through Gogrial's former main street, a good half-mile long with nothing but piles of bricks on either side."Liberation is coming!" they shout and sing. "We'll fight - 'til the whole country is free!"
If freedom means Gogrial, then Sudan faces nothing but trouble ahead.
Some 2 million Sudanese have died during a civil war now in its 19th year. The conflict has displaced 4 million people - more than in any other country.Rebels in the southern part of the nation are battling the government, a Muslim-dominated dictatorship whose commitment to peace has rarely been sustained or serious.
Special envoy John Danforth, on two peace missions to the region on behalf of President Bush, has not yet succeeded even in winning commitment from Sudan's government to stop intentional attacks on civilians. Danforth is a Republican former U.S. senator from Missouri.
Yet two trips by St. Louis Post-Dispatch staffers over the past month through rebel-held territory in southern Sudan show that the obstacles to peace aren't coming just from the government side.
Again and again, leaders of the Sudan People's Liberation Army and other rebel groups dismiss the sort of negotiated compromise that Danforth and U.S. diplomats view as essential to forging peace. Many of them say outright that they have no interest in shared power. What they want is full independence, they say, and the military hardware needed to bring it about.
Their record is littered with human-rights abuses, moreover, including their own scorched-earth raids on villages and abductions in areas deemed disloyal to the rebel movement.Meanwhile, it is the ordinary people of Sudan, especially in the south, who suffer most.
The challenge looms large even where resources are ample and intentions good.Consider Nihal Deng, a camp for demobilized boy soldiers.
United Nations workers tout establishment of the camp as a major triumph in the effort to persuade rebel leaders to meet world standards of behavior in wartime.The Sudan People's Liberation Army agreed in 2000 to release children under the age of 18 from its army units. UNICEF estimates the total at 12,218, almost all of them boys.
Last year, the rebels released 4,200, with most of them passing through camps operated by UNICEF and private relief groups in Rumbek, the administrative center for the rebels in southern Sudan.The group waiting at Nihal Deng to be reunified with their families and communities is now down to about 300. Those who remain are among the toughest cases, boys from places like Gogrial or Western Upper Nile, where fighting has consistently been fierce and many families remain lost.
The boys here, ranging in age from 7 to 17, are truly on their own. They live by twos in small mud-walled huts. They tend communal vegetable plots and head for the forests early each morning; some gather grasses and others process charcoal, both of which are sold in Rumbek's market for food.
Distributions of food from the U.N. agencies stopped in November, at the time of last year's harvest. Production was poor, however, and the food from the harvest is now all gone. The boys are getting by now on peanuts they grew on a communal plot.
"It's a big problem," says the camp director, Marial Amuon. "The peanuts are not a basic food and they are very cheap. To get one bag of sorghum meal at the market you must have two bags of peanuts."
Turalei, administrative center for the next county north from Gogrial, escaped the attacks that ravaged Gogrial. The People's Liberation Army has controlled this town and region throughout the war, in fact, beginning in 1983.Yet over that period, the rebel administrators in charge here have never held an election. This county of 526,000 people does not have a single secondary school and the great majority of girls stay home.
Officials here blame the war, of course, but they appear to think the answer is yet more of the same.
"The way that the Americans are pushing the peace process now will never lead to peace," said Alfonse Anei Deng, a local official. "They must support the (People's Liberation Army) in our fight against the government. That is the only way to get peace."
Dialogue is no answer. The only solution is to fight the enemy.
In Gogrial, too, those who wield the rifles appear undeterred.
"Gogrial is safe now," said Malueth, the local People's Liberation Army commander. "We will not let this town be captured again."
In his red beret and fatigues, Malueth is the very picture of military braggadoccio. He makes the boast standing on a pile of rubble, literally nothing behind him but acres of brick-strewn field where a thriving, densely populated town once stood.
He appears to miss the most obvious fact about Gogrial: It no longer exists.