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Story Publication logo January 27, 2002

Mission to Sudan: Refugees Escape War, in Camps



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.

For 13 years, families have clung to the squatter camp of Shikla, a place where toddlers suck on hypodermic needles they fish out of stagnant pools of sewage and trash.

Their housing is mud-brick adobe, scattered willy-nilly across several acres of red dirt off a highway in North Khartoum.

The men of Shikla work as day laborers, washing cars and digging ditches for wages that usually top out at $3 a day. Women make extra money to pay for school for their children by brewing beer and alcohol -- and routinely end up jailed for their efforts.

"I cannot make beer, so what should I do -- to get my children back in school?" wonders Awan Madut, a square-faced woman struggling to care for her daughter and two dependents despite being jailed 10 times, once for 7 months.

Madut and the others here cling to Shikla because they know the alternative is worse -- relocation to camps far out in the desert and miles away from jobs and the urban life of Khartoum.

They are among an estimated 4.5 million people whom Sudan'scivil war has displaced. As rebels and government troops vie for control of villages in southern Sudan,families are caught in the crossfire, unable to farm or move their cattle, even if they manage to avoid the gunfire and bombs.

Many have come north to the relative safety of Khartoum, where the fighting has not reached and where government services are available. The refugees' presence has helped to transform this traditionally Arab capital into a sprawling metropolis 6 million strong, at least a third of whom are now darker-skinned Africans from southern Sudan.

In Shikla, Deng Ngor is one of two chiefs from the Dinka tribe of southern Sudanwho lead the community. He says they named it in memory of the lush green forests of home. In his tribal dialect, Chan said, Shikla means "little trees."

In Khartoum's Shikla of today, there are no trees.

Ngor wears a cloth fedora. It gives a debonair look to a situation that is anything but -- especially as he joins fellow chief Santino Chan in meeting with two visiting American journalists who they mistakenly believe could be a pipeline to U.S. government money to help improve living conditions in the camp.

The sight of the two proud chiefs, kneeling as they beg for help, is poignant testimony to the human cost Sudanhas paid for nearly two decades of civil war.

"They say this country is ours," Ngor says. "Then why should some be happy and others suffer?"

Magnet, or trap?

Sudanese officials make the point that government coercion cannot explain a mass migration that has brought some 2 million southerners north to Khartoum in the past 20 years.

Many of these migrants are drawn by jobs and the prospect of access to schools and decent medical care, they say, the same magnets that have made mega-cities of places like Manila, Lagos and Mexico City. If the government here were as repressive as critics allege, they add, the influx would stop.

"Compare this to the war in Kosovo," said Mustafa Osman Ismail, Sudan'sforeign minister, referring to Serbia's 1999 war against ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo.

During that conflict "not a single Albanian migrated to Belgrade," Serbia's capital, Ismail said. "Here, they all come to Khartoum."

Government officials here say the real problem for southern Sudanese isn't discrimination but underdevelopment, which they trace to the years when Great Britain ruled Sudan-- from the late 19th century to 1955. Educational opportunities were withheld from the south in that period, for fear that it would lead to rebellion among the region's assertive tribes.

"When the British left there were not five university graduates in the whole south," Ismail said.

The Islamic-based military dictatorship that took power in 1989 has done much to rectify the imbalance since, he added -- opening three new universities in the south and giving 8,500 southerners the opportunity to earn college degrees.

In communities like Shikla, it is the imbalances that still loom large.

As in the rest of Khartoum, the police assigned to Shikla supplement their wages by raiding home breweries, extracting fines from women on the threat of jail in this Muslim-dominated country that bans the sale or use of alcohol.

The loss of income means that most families end up withdrawing their children from school. The fees -- from $20 a year for primary and secondary school to $400 and up for university -- are simply beyond their reach.

Toby Maduot, a local physician active in human rights, dismisses the government's argument that economic opportunity is driving the movement of people north. It's more a case of economic desperation born of war -- a search for security, shelter, food and education by people who can no longer find any of it in their home communities down south.

The stakes are larger still, he says.

"The south has been fighting a war not just for itself," he claims, "but for Africa and the Western world as well. We are preventing the penetration of Islam and Arabic culture into Africa. And in doing so we represent the culture of Europe and America."

Miles from nowhere

To understand why people fight so hard to stay in places like Shikla, all you have to do is visit the "official" camps the government has created over the past 15 years.

Many of them are in the desert, literally -- 15 or 20 miles outside of Khartoum, in places like Al-Salaam to the west and Jebel Aulia to the south, parched tracts now home to hundreds of thousands of people from southern Sudanwho fled the war.

Abas el-Jack, deputy director of Sudan'sCommittee for Voluntary H umanitarian Relief, proudly takes credit for the decision to "collect" displaced people and place them far from Khartoum's center."

At that time, back in the mid-'80s, a lot of people objected," Jack recalled. "They said these people should be closer to jobs, closer to Khartoum and blah, blah, blah."I said, no -- that they were living in very bad conditions, in the garbage dumps of factories and markets, with many diseases spreading among them. And so we started moving them out."

The government bulldozed whole neighborhoods of squatters, with Shikla among the few where residents managed to rebuild and hang on. Most gave in. The result: vast exurban camps an hour or more by bus from Khartoum's core commercial districts.

Women care for their children in one- or two-room huts, minus electricity or running water. They cook over fires from charcoal that costs some 50 cents a day. They haul water from taps at government wells -- or pay 20 cents per five-gallon bucket from the water man who makes his way through camp on a donkey-harnessed cart.

Small market streets dot the camps, but the stalls here feature only the basics. At Jebel Aulia, a grocer named Abel stocks bars of soap, bags of charcoals and an eclectic mix of skin creams, raw onions and sweets. What he doesn't have are meats and vegetables and fruits. Finding those staples means a three- or four-mile hike out to the main road.

Abel snorts at the naivete of a reporter who wonders why he doesn't tap into that market himself.

"In the first place, I don't have the capital," he says. "And in the second, it requires a license from the government, which I can't get. I never ask because I never think about it. I know what the policy is."

At the Al-Salaam camp you can get a haircut at an open-roofed adobe enclosure, with a stool for the customer, an oversized mirror and a couple of pairs of scissors for barber Soleman Abbas. On the wall there's a poster collage of movie stars centered on Sylvester Stallone and a stand-alone tribute to the Backstreet Boys. Asked about his choice of decorations, Abbas says he has no idea who any of these people are.

Camp residents have access to basic health services, thanks to the presence of half a dozen or more international aid groups.

A typical example is the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic in Al-Salaam, presided over for the past four years by a genial physician named Mohammed al-Mahdeni Khalid. Six days a week, from 8:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., he wades through a steady stream of patients -- generally 65 to 80 a day -- who come for help.

The complaints range from malaria and cholera to anemia, chest infections and sexually transmitted diseases (although not, as yet, a heavy run of AIDS).Conditions here are "normally not bad," Khalid says. "Sometimes we run short of medicine. We have more patients than medicine."

In the cool dark of an adobe hut at the camp in Jebel Aulia, a young mother named Christina, 20, explains the long shadow of Sudan'swar on her family.

She belongs to the Zandi tribe, located on the border with Zaire in southwestern Sudan.She hasn't seen her hometown, Yambio, since the early 1980s, when the family made its way to Khartoum to escape the war.

Christoph, her father, spent most of the years since -- 19 in all -- as a draftee in Sudan'sgovernment army, fighting against his own tribe and others from the south. He finally left the service two years ago hoping to get his family home to Yambio, which he believed was peaceful enough to return to. He traveled through Congo's capital of Kinshasa, but from there couldn't get through the battle lines in southern Sudan.

Now he's displaced again, sharing space with his sister at Jebel Aulia -- hoping that a peace settlement will finally permit them and others to make their way home.

"There's no comparison," he says, when asked to describe the differences between the camp at Jebel Aulia and his hometown.

"Yambio is a green land full of water," he says, sitting on a cot next to his daughter and granddaughter."Here, it is like the desert."

Hopes -- and prayers

Special envoy John C. Danforth visited Sudanthis month, the second of two trips aimed at assessing whether the United States can prod the many factions in Sudantoward serious talks on peace.

He has done his best to tamp down expectations, saying repeatedly that success is a long shot at best. Achieving peace depends not so much on outside parties as on Sudan'sgovernment and its opponents, he says -- neither of which has shown much stomach for compromise.Yet among the displaced people of Khartoum, and among their compatriots across a broken land, millions yearn for peace.

In the camp at Al-Salaam the primary school's very name -- Peace and Love -- gives voice to the dream.

Teachers here work with virtually nothing. No class has access to books of any kind; pencils and notebooks are scarce. In a first-grade class of 65 only 10 have notebooks, for example, and no child has a pencil. The children sit at crude metal tables, in mud-brick adobe rooms with floors of dirt.

Yet when teacher Mayor Bec puts a question, they are all up-raised hands and snapping fingers, eager to perform. The first-graders recite a poem about farmers hoping for rain. The fifth-graders are practicing their English, while in the fourth grade, students pore over shared copies of a faded mimeograph that explains how the brain processes sights and sounds and senses.

All 20 of the students in seventh grade say they intend to continue next year in secondary school. Two boys say they intend to become teachers themselves. Two others are set on becoming doctors. A girl named Ismahan, shyly standing at the rear, says she wants to follow in her uncle's path and become a police officer.

Vice Principal Hamad Asso says the odds against them are long. Many won't even finish the year, he predicts. If they don't go out and work, their families won't eat. For others there is no prospect of raising the tuition to continue in school."

Some of these students will have to go to work to support their families," he said. "Some of them will leave the camp entirely." The reason, he said, is grimly plain: "Because their parents cannot feed them."

Back in Shikla, on the dusty plain of "Little Trees" that aren't, some two dozen residents follow behind as journalists tour the site.

"Our visit gives them hope," says Gabriel Matur-Malek, a longtime human rights activist who has worked for years to keep the Shikla community intact.

"They think that you will leave and that right away something good will happen," he says.

"I told them no, that now they must pray."

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