Bitter fruits of Sudan's war within a war: Richard Dowden meets victims of a split in the Sudan People's Liberation Army

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The Independent Online
TOY taste like bitter chestnuts. Boiled they turn dark and taste a little sweeter. They are not common in southern Sudan. Villagers have to walk miles across this endless arid plain to find the thou tree which bears these almond-sized nuts and then have to crack their hard shells between stones. Toy are what the people here live on when there is no food - an event which has not occurred in living memory.

A handful of people have returned to this settlement after it was attacked and burnt on 16 April by a rival faction of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). Since then they have lived in the bush, surviving on toy and whatever they can catch or find and thousands are thought to be still out there, too frightened to return. Returning villagers say 25,000 people lived in and around here but there are fewer than 200 now.

Those who returned are very thin and their children's stomachs bloated with hunger. They found their mud and grass homes reduced to circles of ash, the result of being attacked with shells and mortars.

Those who were unable to run away were killed, according to several witnesses, and the victims included several children and disabled people. The people have started to gather dried grass to rebuild their homes.

In the United Nations compound you can still distinguish the frame of a storage tent and a blackened fridge. Amongst the scorched medical sachets lies an unexploded mortar bomb.

This was a Nuer village attacked by Dinka fighters in what has become a tribal war between the two factions of the SPLA. Timothy Taban, the local commander at the time, says the attack started with a shell landing close to the United Nations compound. Fortunately the UN staff had already been evacuated. 'They attacked the village on three sides and we were not ready. We could not fight because there was a danger of killing our own people in crossfire. We ran away but those who could not run fast were killed. They did not take any prisoners. They caught some people and got them to give information and then finished them off.'

The raiding party was taking revenge for the destruction of the Dinka town of Kongor two years ago. It razed Ayod to the west before heading east for Waat, the headquarters of the SPLA United faction. It was repulsed and is now engaged in skirmishes to the south.

The UN is flying to Yuwai to assess how many people need feeding but it suspects that the local relief committee, the Relief Association of Southern Sudan, is exaggerating the figures. The association is the humanitarian wing of the SPLA United faction and there is a suspicion among UN staff that it will bring people to the village in order to force the UN to supply food, which it will then take to feed the fighters.

The UN accepts that 20 per cent of the food will go this way and that it is better to have the fighters fed rather than hungry but it still argues about the figures. It can only pay flying visits, feeling the area is too insecure for staff to stay overnight; this prevents the UN getting a clear picture of where people are and how many need feeding. The flights are often hampered by a shortage of planes and bad weather which stops them flying for days at a time.

At present it is flying about 100 tons of food into southern Sudan daily but it is in this region between Ayod, Waat and Kongor that the hunger - and the fighting - are at their worst.