Even if they have to beat schoolboys senseless the rulers of Sudan will have their new society: Julie Flint in Khartoum on the reign of terror that is isolating a dictatorship bent on the total control of the people

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IT WAS 8.30 in the morning when security officials came to the house and asked for the son. They said there had been some trouble at his school - nothing serious - and they had a few questions. It wouldn't take long.

Ten hours later, three men emerged from the office where the family had been waiting all day, and tossed an inert form into the back of a truck. 'You can take him home now,' they said.

When he was able to talk, the boy said he had been taken into a room where 11 other youths were lined up against a wall. Three men came in and went down the line, hitting each in the stomach. The boys were then stripped and lashed with split bamboo canes before being made to stand in the yard for five hours, staring into the sun. If they closed their eyes, they were beaten. They were given no food or water and the torment stopped only when their guards stopped to pray.

Their 'crime' had been not to enroll in the Youth of the Nation, one of the many semi-Islamic groups taking shape in Sudan.

On hearing this, the father returned to the security office in fury. 'I have never wanted to believe these stories,' he remembers saying. 'But I do now. If my son is permanently injured, I will kill you. The only thing you have achieved by this is alienating 12 northern Muslim families.'

Sudan's Islamic dictatorship has alienated almost everyone in the four years since a military coup, led by a fundamentalist general, Omar Hassan el Beshir, overthrew the elected government of Sadiq al-Mahdi and began delivering the country into the hands of Hassan Turabi's National Islamic Front. Purges of the military, the civil administration, universities and trade unions have isolated it from the educated classes.

With inflation running at 20 per cent a month and the annual salary of a doctor only pounds 240, even middle-class people can barely feed themselves. Southerners see their African, predominantly Christian culture in danger of annihilation by the Arab, Muslim north, and believe that separation is the only solution to their 10-year-old civil war. Even the Islamic movement is divided. The fundamentalist Muslim Brothers finds Dr Turabi's NIF 'un-Islamic', and moderate Islamic parties accuse it of building up a 'network of intelligence organs that have the psychological dispensation to be like wolves'.

Ordinary people live in fear. In Khartoum, former trade union leaders arrive 24 hours early for an interview and depart the following day, lest watchers in a white Toyota connect them to a journalist. Should the link be made, they say, showing cigarette burns and lash marks accumulated in jail, they would be 'liquidated'. In the southern garrison town of Juba, where rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army murdered scores of troops last year in an abortive incursion that prompted barbarous reprisals, a uniformed officer whispers: 'I am afraid to talk. We have suffered very much. It is not over.' The Catholic Archbishop of Juba, Monsignor Paulino Lukudu Luro, never travels by night and never alone by day. 'No one trusts anyone,' an intellectual says sadly. 'It is the first time in Sudan.'

Political parties have been banned and 'participatory democracy' set in motion to 'give power back to the people'. This process will ensure a stranglehold on a National Assembly expected to be in place by 1995.

'This whole system is a means of controlling the people, not one of the people participating in government,' says a Western diplomat. 'Even excluding all the coercion, there are so many appointees at different levels that by the time it comes to the National Assembly, the majority will at some time have been voted for by an appointee.'

Dr Turabi disclaims any direct involvement in government and cites his detention immediately after the coup as proof of this. His role, he says, is as 'Sudan's foremost Islamic thinker - not so interested in Sudan these days: more interested in Africa'. (Not surprisingly, perhaps, since the Arab world has united against Sudan, and Iran has proved a disappointment, more concerned with the former Soviet republics.)

Old allies claim Dr Turabi's imprisonment was window-dressing to make the army appear above politics. There is, they say, a precedent. 'In 1966 we were approached by the organisers of the 1969 coup,' says a veteran nationalist. 'They proposed a leftist coup. They said, 'We will pose as independents and arrest you, and then we will release you. The people want an army that is above politics.' We refused. But this was the scenario followed by Turabi. His main concern is state power . . . The core of the military organisation is the core of the NIF, and has been since secondary school. Under Omar el Beshir, the army is Sudan's strongest political party. It is the military wing of Turabi's party.'

Under cover of the Transitional National Assembly, the regime's rubber-stamp, the military dictatorship is dismantling the old state and creating a new, Islamic model that is enriching NIF supporters even as it shows what appears to be genuine concern for the poor. 'I do believe they think they are building a better society,' says a Western diplomat. 'But if they have to kill everyone to do it, they will.'

Islamic banking has been introduced and Islamic law enforced. (The regime concedes that sharia law will not be applied in the south, but people are worried that this promise is not yet enshrined in law.) Arabic is being advanced as the language of instruction in the English-speaking south, and Islam promoted in every field - relief, rehabilitation and worship - at the expense of Christian churches.

As the economy collapses, crippled by a chronic shortage of hard currency and a fuel crisis, this alienation is finding its first, extremely tentative expression. Army troops shot dead 10 people, including five children, in the town of Gedaref in January, after women and children took to the streets to protest at the doubling of bread prices. Late last month, dozens of al-Mahdi's supporters were rounded up, after he called on the army to go back to barracks and permit a return to multi-party democracy. In an apparently unrelated incident, the government last week claimed to have broken up a conspiracy and paraded 10 alleged plotters, shackled and bruised, on television. The group included at least five retired officers - among them a general, Major-General Fathi Mohammed Abdul Aal, and two colonels. Initial reports suggest the 10 are part of a far larger haul.

Even the government itself seems to be losing direction. The Foreign Minister is unhappy with Sudan's stubborn support of Iraq, an alliance that has cost it dear. The Justice Minister, Abdel Aziz Shiddu, acknowledges that 'there is no smoke without fire', and whispers: 'We can give this system a try. If it does not succeed, we can always go back to yours.' Dr Turabi himself admits that 'things are not going very well'.

Despite these rumblings, few believe the government is in its sunset days. 'People are against this regime, but haven't yet decided what the alternative is,' says a veteran politician who is watched night and day. 'There is always the vague hope that a good officer will come up, but this officer is not there now. And if he is, he's in the street, not in the ranks.'

Since the military seized power in June 1989, 3,000 to 4,000 officers, 500 NCOs and 11,000 of the rank and file are estimated to have been purged. University lecturers have been dismissed or given the choice of collaboration, resistance, silence or exile. The old unions have been replaced with sham ones answerable to the NIF. Leaders of the powerful railways syndicate were detained until the new 'elections' were over.

'The only lawyers who have seen the rules of the new Lawyers' Association are NIF members,' says one of the old school. 'The others were taken by surprise and appealed. But they were told this was not in the rules. We are witnessing an Orwellian transformation of society.'

In the rail sector, says a former union leader jailed in or confined to Khartoum for 29 of the past 34 months, '70 per cent of the workers were dismissed before the elections. But even the remaining 30 per cent were not given the freedom to elect: the candidates list was prepared by the NIF.'

Old democratic institutions have new Islamic rivals. At least two security services directly responsible to the NIF have joined the official Sudan Security, creating what a former minister calls a 'dictatorship without a dictator, a hydra with many heads'. The paramilitary Popular Defence Forces have been empowered and expanded, with compulsory conscription for all students and government employees - including ministers. The Popular Police Forces are portrayed by the government as a kind of neighbourhood watch, but viewed by foreign diplomats as a rival to, and check on, the regular police. Ordinary citizens fear the PPF will be a mirror image of Saudi Arabia's Mutawa, a specifically Islamic force.

Underpinning these structural changes is a reign of terror unprecedented in Sudan. Even those who have suffered under it apologise for it. 'What has happened is horrible,' says an ex-minister who was tortured for nine months and locked in a room the size of a cupboard, his hands tied to the wall so that only one foot could reach the ground. 'It has nothing to do with the Sudanese tradition.'

Deafened by a chorus of international protest that has made urgently needed development aid conditional on respect for human rights, the government has recently changed its tactics. The norm now is not imprisonment and torture - although this is still thought to be the fate of political opponents suspected of conspiracy - but day-long detention for weeks and months. A unionist who suffered this routine for seven months is now confined to Khartoum, far from his home. 'I cannot work anywhere,' he says despairingly. 'I have sold everything I have to sell. I can no longer afford to put my sons in school. Let all trade union organisations know the new trade unions are based on intimidation. The world should not recognise them.'

As the economic situation goes from dire to catastrophic, with export earnings no longer covering even oil imports, the government is seeking to refurbish its image, in hope of getting the capital inflows on which its ambitious economic reform programme is predicated. Pope John Paul II was welcomed in Khartoum in February, and a glossy Conference on Religions organised last week to show there is no religious discrimination - 'not necessarily to promote dialogue,' critics say, 'because, according to their definition, it already exists'. UN relief work in rebel-held areas has been facilitated and Western aid agencies have promises, if not yet proof, of better co-operation in government-controlled areas. There is new emphasis on peace talks with the SPLA.

'The problem in the south is draining our life and our energy,' says the Foreign Minister, Hussein abu Saleh. 'We know it.'

But economic aid will not be forthcoming while allegations of 'ethnic cleansing' in the Nuba mountains cannot be disproved and schoolboys are beaten unconscious in the name of Islam. 'Sudan is getting a lesson in political economy right now,' says a Western diplomat. It is a lesson that could be the downfall of Sudan's Islamic experiment.

(Photograph omitted)