Out of Sudan: Long walk back to age of barbarity

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The Independent Online
NIMULE - 'At Nimule we touched the telegraph wire again and from the Reuters accumulations which I studied I learned that parliament would not meet again until 19 January. This gave us 10 days more rope . . .'

In 1907 a young MP was travelling down the Nile from Uganda to Cairo. Nimule is where the series of cataracts begin. The 33-year-old MP, whose name was Winston Churchill, was slightly apprehensive about leaving the comfort of the small river steamer and having to hike six days over the hills to Gondokoro where he could pick up the regular steamer service down the Nile to Cairo.

His fears were groundless. The road was excellent. 'Ten or eleven years ago this journey, which I was now able to make so easily, so prosperously, so comfortably, would have been utterly impossible,' he wrote. 'The Dervish empire, stretching from Wadi Halfa to Waddelai, interposed a harsh barrier. (It was) in the embrace of devastating barbarism.'

That Dervish empire, the rule of the Mahdi, had been smashed at the battle of Omdurman nine years before - at which Churchill had been a young cavalry officer in Kitchener's army. The battle was in part a British revenge for the death of General Gordon, who had ruled this part of Africa in the name of the Khedive of Egypt until he was killed when Khartoum fell to the Mahdi in 1885.

There is nothing left of Gordon's 'empire', known as Equatoria, which he established to stop the Arab slavers raiding Africa for men, women and children, but on a steep hill here overlooking the Nile, as it winds across the vast plain like a slow silver snake, are the remains of a stone house which local people say was built by Gordon. His war against slavery, however, continues - fought by the southern Sudanese against the northern Arabs who still refer disparagingly to their tall black African countrymen as abayid: slaves. There are numerous instances of the abduction and enslavement of southerners by their northern neighbours.

The Reuters news agency wire at Nimule disappeared long ago. The road over the hills is now a rough track. Nimule can only be reached by dirt road from Uganda or by small aircraft which fly to the bumpy grass airstrip from Nairobi. The pilots do not register Nimule on their flight plans. The flights into rebel-held territory do not officially happen.

The 'devastating barbarism' has returned and it is far worse than anything Churchill could have imagined. The war against domination by the Islamic north, fought for the last 10 years by the Sudan People's Liberation Army, has driven the south back to the iron age. But the split in the SPLA, two years ago, tipped parts of the south over the edge, into famine and a tribal war of terrible savagery.

One of the victims is Reuben Akaw Yon who lives in a makeshift hospital at Choi 50 miles north of Nimule. He looks like E T. That sounds callous but it accurately describes his long thin arms and legs, his huge hands and feet, and his tiny trunk covered in hard black cracked skin - and his gentle unassuming nature. Reuben suffered from the water-borne disease bilharzia and severe malnutrition when he came into the hospital a few weeks ago. Now he is on the mend. He is 14 and speaks good English. Reuben and his family walked 300 miles to Choi from their home near Bor to escape the fighting.

'My father and my mother died on the way,' he said, 'then my uncle and aunt. Now we are three, me and my two brothers. I am the eldest.' I asked him where he will go from here. He laughed and looked down at his grotesque body. 'I cannot go home yet. I must stay here. Only God knows what will happen now. Perhaps I will be a doctor when I grow up.'

The hospital at Choi is full of patients from the three refugee camps in southern Sudan near the border with Uganda. Thousands of people like Reuben fled from Bor early last year to escape tribal massacres. Bor is the home of John Garang, the SPLA leader, and the Dinka heartland and when the Nuer fighters of the breakaway movement of Riak Machar attacked the area, they did not bother with 'ethnic cleansing'. They killed every Dinka they could find. The Dinka took their revenge in April this year at the settlements of Ayod and Yuwai.

In one of the refugee camps, Abe, the survivors have gathered in relative safety and already they have built thatched huts and planted vegetables. In the feeding centre run by the Irish aid agency Goal, rows of naked children line up with bowls waiting for a slop of gruel from a red bucket.

Outside under a tree a young woman kneels grinding sorghum between two stones. Three of her children died on the long march but all she wants to do is go back. 'What does she hope for the future?' The translator and the crowd cannot find the Dinka word for hope. Perhaps they have forgotten it.