Attack forces Sudan refugees to flee camp: Richard Dowden reports from Ame camp where 41,000 Dinka people, families of southern rebels, lived until last week

STILL AND silent under a baking sun, Ame Camp lies deserted. As far as the eye can see in all directions there are thousands of neat little round huts of mud or reeds with conical grass roofs. Last week 41,000 people lived here. Now it is empty. Nothing moves except the kites circling above and the big orange-headed lizards that scuttle away into the thatch.

Outside the huts are cooking pots with food still in them and grinding stones with grain on them. The hospital hut, a long low building of thatch and mud, still smells of disinfectant. The dispensary, which contained 20,000 meningitis vaccines, has been looted and the floor is covered with syringes, surgical gloves and empty cardboard boxes marked 'Unicef'. All the useful medicines have been taken. Outside the huge white warehouse tent are about 50 sacks of sorghum marked 'USA sorghum Not to be sold or exchanged'. There are hundreds more sacks scattered around the camp.

In one corner of the camp there are about 20 circles of black ash where huts have been burnt. On the other side of a dried up water course lies a body of a very tall man splayed out as if still running. The face has been half eaten. Nearby there are spent AK-47 cartridges.

The people who lived here - women, children and old men - are Dinka people from Bor some 200 miles (320km) further north. They fled in 1992 in appalling conditions to escape the inter-tribal fighting that followed the split in the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the southern- based rebel movement.

The men of these families in Ame form the backbone of the SPLA still loyal to John Garang. Now the women and children are on the move again, walking for five days to Laboni, eight miles north of the Uganda border. They are carrying whatever they can on their heads and they sleep in the bush.

Ame Camp is guarded by a unit of the SPLA. The local commander, Ajang Achua, says the camp was attacked last Wednesday morning by a militia loyal to William Nyuong, a defector from the SPLA who is accused of receiving supplies from the Khartoum government. He said seven people were killed and 14 wounded and that SPLA troops, who are not allowed to live in the camp, were only able to reach the camp an hour later and drive off the attackers. Commander Achua said the corpse had the tribal markings of a Nuer man - the same tribe as Mr Nyuong.

A similar story is given by the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association, the humanitarian wing of the SPLA. Mario Muer, its general secretary, said yesterday that the SPLA wanted the people to stay in Ame but they were frightened and insisted on leaving. So did the people at Atepi, the neighbouring camp, where there were 23,000 people. They, too, will go to Laboni where there is water, security and access to food relief, Mr Muer said.

The SPLA are presenting the attack as part of the new offensive by the Khartoum government but there are some awkward facts and unanswered questions about the SPLA's account of the attack and the implication for the evacuation of Ame and Atepi camps.

First, no one knows who the attackers really were. There has never been such an attack before in this area, and reliable sources say that the leadership and tribal splits within the SPLA have created bands of disaffected SPLA fighters seeking revenge on the Dinka-led faction or just looking for food. But even if the attack was not ordered by the government in Khartoum it is a more effective blow to the SPLA than either the bombing raids by the Sudanese air force or the land offensive launched recently.

The camps provide the SPLA with its main source of food and they are also the critical factor in the morale of the fighters. The United Nations and the SPLA pretend there are no guns in the camps but armed SPLA soldiers move freely in and out to visit their families.

They also collect food from their families - propagandists might say the UN is indirectly keeping the war going. The sources say that if the camps are nearby and secure, the fighters are more willing to fight. To be forced to move 63,000 people because of an attack by a small gang - whoever it was - is a serious blow to the SPLA.

Morale is already very low, Mr Muer admits. An SPLA slogan in a village nearby says: 'United We Stand, Divided We Fall.'

'We are falling,' said Mr Muer. 'Our problem is morale, not our ability to fight.'

On the other hand if John Garang survives this assault by Khartoum he will have achieved no small victory and may be able to reunite the movement. In the meantime, the suffering here, as usual in Africa's wars, is borne by the people more than the combatants. The people have established a remarkable success at Ame over the past 18 months. With help from aid agencies they have built schools and health clinics. Malnutrition, which affected hundreds of children here less than a year ago, has been obliterated.

But now the people are on the move again and will have to clear fresh bush to build a new camp and set up structures using only what they can carry. And they will be even further from their homes.

(Photograph omitted)