Civil war turns against Khartoum

The conflict in southern Sudan, Africa's longest-running civil war, has acquired a new and deadly momentum. The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) has scored a series of punishing victories against the numerically superior and better equipped government forces. In the capital, Khartoum, the dreadful reality is at last hitting home.

"We in the north are feeling the war in the south for the first time," says Hamid, a former civil servant who, like most critics of the government, only expresses his views behind closed doors. "Now, finally, the bodies are being delivered to our own doorsteps."

The Islamist regime of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir keeps a tight rein on information relating to the war, refusing to release casualty figures. Hospital wards containing the wounded are closely guarded. The only television pictures are of fresh-faced young warriors, chanting lines from the Koran before going to the front line.

But reports of battlefields littered with the corpses of government troops are now beginning to circulate in the capital: in one engagement at Aswa, near the Ugandan border, 2,000 government troops are said to have died last month. In memoriam pictures of young volunteers have started to appear with increasing frequency in the back pages of the government-controlled press. Nearly everyone professes to know of a family which has lost a son in the fighting. Last week the President's younger brother was killed in fighting.

In the years following its advent to power in 1989, Lieutenant-General al-Bashir's regime notched up victory after victory against the rebels, driving them out of the southern towns and ever deeper into the bush. By last year, the SPLA, divided and demoralised, was in retreat towards the Ugandan border, its dream of a united but secular Sudan in tatters. The Arab north seemed closer than ever in its crusade to impose Islamic law of Sharia on the Christian and pagan south.

The turn in the rebels' declining fortunes coincided with their acquisition of considerable quantities of new weaponry. Chief among the countries backing the SPLA is the United States, long opposed to the Khartoum government which it accuses of sponsoring terrorism against the West and its allies.

Since the attempted assassination of the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, in Ethiopia last year, Sudan's neighbours have been demonstrating increasing support for the SPLA and other opponents of Khartoum. Eritrea has been providing arms and training for the SPLA while Ethiopia has helped rebel operations from behind its border with Sudan.

The enormous cost of feeding the Khartoum war machine - estimated at about $1m per day - is reflected in soaring consumer prices. With the purchasing power of the minimum monthly wage equivalent to a mere 20 loaves of bread, survival has become difficult.

The cost in terms of manpower is even more shocking. In recent weeks advertisements have appeared in the newspapers ordering men between the ages of 20 and 45 to register for military training. Buses travelling into the city centre have been stopped and young male passengers made to line up for identity checks. Only students or those in "essential" employment are exempted from conscription.

A rare glimpse of military training was granted to the Independent in a visit to Markhiat, a Popular Defence Force (PDF) camp on the outskirts of Khartoum. As the sun sank towards the horizon and the end of the daily Ramadan fasting approached, new recruits sang enthusiastically of Jihad - holy war - and the victorious spread of Sharia rule. The verses were punctuated with raucous cries of "Allahu Akbar!", "God is great!" Nearby a drill sergeant barked commands at a platoon of marching men.

"I have come to train with my brothers," said Abdul Azim Ali, stepping forth from the ranks of young men in civilian clothes. "This is my first day. I have chosen to come here. I want to fight for my country."

After 45 days at Markhiat, Abdul Ali and his PDF comrades will be dispatched to the vastness of southern Sudan to fight alongside regular army units. But if they had heard the rumours of ever-rising PDF casualties, they were showing no concern for their fate as they sang of Allah and the battles to be fought in his name.

"These young men are nothing but cannon fodder," says Abdul, a young lawyer, several of whose friends have died in the south. "They have ridiculous dreams of martyrdom implanted in their heads. They are sent into battle ahead of the regular troops and are just wiped out."

To the charge that civilians are being forced to sign up, Captain DH Mohamed, who arranged the Independent's visit to Markhiat camp, has a short answer: "Bullshit". Only volunteers are being engaged, he insists.

But the evidence suggests otherwise. Frank, a young southerner working for an international aid agency in Khartoum, has this story to tell.

"I was going to work recently when my bus was stopped by soldiers on the street. There were about 50 young and middle-aged men on the bus. We were made to line up and our ID cards were checked. I'd forgotten mine and I and some others were taken to military headquarters. We were told we would be leaving for a training camp in the south that day. Luckily a friend was able to bring my ID card to show I was a student and that I had a job. A soldier friend told me that if I ended up at the front line I could consider myself khalas - finished."

Popular unrest is kept in check by those instruments of coercion favoured by tyrannical regimes everywhere: intimidation, imprisonment and torture. But as brutality of everyday life hits home with ever increasing force, there are signs that a breaking point may soon be reached.