Dumped in the desert with the city's sewage

Mary Braid sees Sudanese 'apartheid' in action at a vast camp near Khartoum
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The Independent Online
Father Paul Boyle nervously shifted down a gear before throwing the pick-up into open desert, tyres crackling across a terrain seemingly too hard-baked and unforgiving for human life.

But within minutes the vast camp shimmered into view. Even with warning, the scene took the breath away; tens of thousands of pathetic dwellings stretching as far as the eye could see, fashioned from crooked wood and scraps of fluttering hessian, threatened by the slightest breeze and offering no protection from a wicked sun.

At 11am the camp was deserted, the daily battle to survive long begun. "Everyone is out looking for food," said the young Scottish priest bitterly.

"They have been shoved out here though there is no food, water or means to make a living."

Twenty kilometres north-west of Sudan's capital Khartoum, this is where the city dumps its sewage. Now it has also become the dumping ground for the vast numbers of human beings expelled from Khartoum.

In Sudan's long civil war between the Arab, Muslim north and the south, where a mixture of Christianity and traditional African religions hold sway, hundreds of thousands of black southerners have fled north to Khartoum to escape the war. They have then been forced out here to live, in effect, on nothing. From a lusher, greener land and with no experience of desert, theirs is a harsh fate.

"These people are considered the scum of the earth," explained Father Boyle, 34, eyes searching for security police, as he skirted the Al Salam camp, closed to outsiders, especially foreigners.

The war in Africa's largest country has been waged for 30 of the last 40 years, almost from the day Sudan won independence from Britain. In a continent where countries were created by colonialists armed with measuring sticks but little sense, Sudan brings together the Arab world and black Africa to disastrous effect.

Since 1956 southern rebels have fought for autonomy. Though this drip- drip war has claimed far more lives - up to two million - it attracts none of the attention focused on the rebellion in neighbouring Zaire.

More than a million southern Sudanese are estimated to be living around Khartoum in camps similar to Al Salam. The government paints a rosy picture; individual plots, running water, housing, schools. Small wonder visits are discouraged. Conditions are appalling and racism and forced removal are the twin determinants of people's lives.

Camp residents describe what is in effect a system of apartheid, Sudanese- style. Al Salam - Arabic for peace - was named by the government. The people prefer Jabarona - They Forced Us.

"When I first came to Khartoum I lived in a rented house," said Rose, 26, a mother of four, at the neighbouring camp, Dar El Salam. "But the government destroyed it." She and her neighbours were given four days to dismantle their homes or watch them bulldozed. On demolition day resistance was brutally quelled; nine men were killed and many women imprisoned.

The people lived in the rubble for four days until officials transferred them to the desert. The few charities still operating in Sudan had to pick up the pieces.

Dr Hassan al-Turabi, leader of the National Islamic Front, a radical minority movement that seized power in 1989, insists Sudan is tolerant and those in the camps are treated like any other citizens. He denies the NIF's call for a jihad (a holy war) to spread Islam has further alienated the south, and emphasised the second-class status of its people.

Rose, however, says there is continual harassment of those who go to Khartoum in search of food and work. "They say we are pagans and call us dirty names," said Rose. The Arabic for pagan is kafir. The word made its way south, becoming a term of abuse adopted by white racists throughout the colonies, and across South Africa.

Although Rose says it is her colour northerners hate most, her religion - she is a Christian in a country that is 80 per cent Muslim - is also a focus of abuse. In the camps, Christianity has become intertwined with the politics of independence and racial inequality. Ironically Mr Turabi's push for Islamisation has caused a Christian revival and a modern day holy war is under way.

This Easter Father Doyle will baptise 80 adults.While he insists most conversions - usually from African animist beliefs - are genuine, he admits Christianity has become a badge for southern resistance. "Even non-Christians wear crosses in the camps."

While mosques mushroom in Khartoum it has been 20 years since permission was granted for a new Catholic church. Relations between the government and the Vatican grow more tense. While the Church piles in priests as reinforcements the government has paraded two Sudanese priests on television "confessing" to be terrorists, trained by Rome.

"In the camps people are told they must convert to Islam to get services," said a leader of an aid organisation, who also claimed that when the rebels win a victory punishment is meted out in the camps around Khartoum.

The injustice spurs on Father Boyle, raised on Irish rebel songs in working- class Coatbridge, who believes his childhood fitted him uniquely for Sudan. It gave him a burning sense of injustice; and an almost unpriestly appetite for a scrap. His willingness to stick his neck out - no one else would take foreigners near Al Salam - has led to endless harassment and arrest.

For him it is straightforward. The southern Sudanese have been underdogs since the 19th century when the advance of commerce from the north turned them into slaves. Years of subservience and the dislocation of war have caused widespread alcoholism in the camps.

Father Boyle is trying to restore a broken people. "I say look the Arabs in the eye when you talk to them. You are as good as they are."

At Dar El Salam Father Boyle has built a handful of schools and started numerous child feeding programmes. But conditions remain hard. Between Al Salam and Dar El Salam a multitude of little hillocks is all that marks the graves of those who have died from hunger and disease.

Shelia, 24, says many children in the camp go hungry. She fled to Khartoum when government troops razed her village after taking it back from the SPLA.

"If you are an Arab you get the job," she says. "Even on buses we must stand to give Arabs a seat."

The government's strategy, says Father Boyle, is to keep the southerners too busy trying to survive to pose any threat.

Dr Turabi refers camp critics to Bishop Gebrial Roreg, a southerner and government minister whose unholy combination of politics and religion is said to be an embarrassment to the Anglican Church. In the camps he is despised as a man not content to wait for reward in heaven.

In his air-conditioned office the bishop says the government is moderate and tolerant of religious differences. He can see no evidence of discrimination.

He should get out a bit. The measure of southern desperation can be found in a squatter settlement on the outskirts of Khartoum. For a year thousands of people have lived among the rubble of their bulldozed homes, spurning government offers to move them to a desert camp.

There is no food or running water. People fight with goats for scraps on a mountain of garbage. Stalls sell rancid meat. But they prefer it to the desert. At least there is the possibility of work, and escape from segregation.

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