Sudan starves as old allies wage war among themselves: Khartoum is making big military gains as tribal rivalry divides its opponents in the south, writes Richard Dowden in Kongor

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DENG REC was dead when we lifted him off the plane. Shortly before, as we came in to land, one of the nurses had offered him a drink. He had smiled and motioned 'no' from where he was lying squashed together with three other wounded in the back of the tiny aircraft.

As we left Kongor, the local commander had begged our pilot to take some of his wounded troops back to the Red Cross hospital on the Kenyan border. We were already taking a woman with a compound leg fracture, but the pilot agreed and Deng and two of his companions were carried from the fighters' camp to the airstrip. One had a bullet-shattered arm, the other was paralysed by a bullet in the head, and Deng had a bullet somewhere in his lower back.

They were clearly reluctant to come because, as one of their officers said, 'they might miss some fighting'. But they did not appearto be in pain and they waved goodbye to their comrades as they were loaded into the luggage compartment, naked except for their badly tied bandages which were already dark with blood and covered in flies. The rotting flesh on the woman's leg stank, and the pilot was worried about the extra weight. It was not a pleasant flight.

At Lokichoggio, when we lifted Deng's tall, deep black body into the ambulance, his eyes were staring and his body limp. There was no pulse. We covered him in a blanket and sent his body to the hospital.

The hospital has about 260 wounded, most of them from last week's fighting around Duk. Many have had limbs amputated, for by the time they get to the hospital they are either dead or gangrene has set in.

Deng did not die fighting for a free southern Sudan. He did not give his life to stop the age-old domination of the black African south by the Islamic Arab north or to stop his children being forced to learn Arabic and become Muslims. He died in a tribal war that has torn apart the movement fighting for freedom in the south. The war has set apart the two biggest groups in the south, the Dinka and the Nuer. Deng was a Dinka, killed by Nuers because he was Dinka. The disputed territory between Kongor, Waat and Ayod in Upper Nile has become a triangle of starvation.

The split in the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) occurred in August 1991 when several senior members rebelled against John Garang, the former scholar and soldier who had led the movement since it began in 1983. The rebels accused him of being dictatorial and of imprisoning opponents within the movement. Led by Giak Machar, one of the young commanders, they said the movement must be democratic and stand for human rights.

There were also policy differences. Mr Garang's SPLA stood for a united but secular Sudan in which the south would have greater autonomy and southerners in the north would not be subjected to sharia (Islamic) law. The new SPLA, which has become known as SPLA United or the Nasir faction, wants total independence from the north.

Mr Garang is a Dinka and, although he had representatives of all the other main southern groups within the SPLA, he tended to appoint Dinkas as overlords in the areas run by the movement. This caused resentment among the local people. Most of the professionals in the movement, including at least two Dinka, joined the breakaways. Riak Machar, however, is a Nuer and his fighters are almost exclusively Nuer.

Both Dinka and Nuer are cattle- keepers of the vast plain of central- southern Sudan. Physically they are similar, very tall and very black, but they have different tribal face scars and speak very different languages. They used to raid each others' cattle and fought over grazing rights with spears and arrows, but this is total war, fought with artillery and mines.

In 1991 the Nuer launched an attack on Dinka areas and towns, killing everything they found. Since then tribal war has raged across the plains and swamps of the Sudd. The Nuer massacred people at Kongor, Yirol, Bor and a swath of Dinka settlements in Upper Nile province. Last month the Dinka swept back, retaking Kongor and razing Yuwai and Ayod, Nuer settlements.

In the past two years this war has caused more devastation in Upper Nile than the previous eight years of war against the government. Thousands are starving, but the fighters are well fed. The United Nations, which is trying to feed almost 3 million people in this dangerous land, accepts privately that about 20 per cent of food relief goes to the fighters. The hatred and mistrust between Mr Garang and his former colleagues is too deep to reconcile.

In 1990, before the split, the SPLA controlled all of the south except for Juba and one or two other small garrison towns. The fall of Juba seemed imminent. Then, in May 1991, the SPLA's main supporter, the Ethiopian government, was overthrown. The new government was an ally of Khartoum, so the SPLA's source of weapons was blocked, it was pushed out of its rear bases in western Ethiopia and its radio was closed down.

With the SPLA weakened and riven by tribal war, the Sudanese army, re-equipped by Iran and China, was able to launch a counter- offensive last year. Since then, it has retaken all the key towns in the south. Then, bending to Western pressure for peace, it called a ceasefire with Mr Garang's SPLA last month and has been holding talks in Abuja, Nigeria. It hardly needs to do more. It appears a model of peaceful reasonableness, but needs only to sit and wait and pick up the pieces.

The official line on both sides of the SPLA is that the war between the tribes is a leadership struggle that will soon be settled. But the ordinary fighters see it as a tribal war. They talk of the war against the Arabs in the north as a life-long commitment that will be resumed shortly. But when the Dinka fighters speak about the Nuer or vice versa, a red-eyed hatred boils over and the talk is all revenge. It will take the lives of many more children, as well as young men like Deng, before it ends.

(Photograph and map omitted)