Sudanese rulers accused of atrocities in civil war: Eyewitness testimonies handed to the UN speak of rape, murder and the abduction of children, writes Robert Fisk in Khartoum

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The Independent Online
ON THE STREETS, large banners proclaim Khartoum to be the 'Capital City of Virtues'. Others substitute 'values' for 'virtues', which is not quite the same thing; but then nothing in Sudan is quite what it seems.

Nor does the railhead, broiling in the midday heat, suggest an Islamic Republic in the making. Squads of soldiers in jungle green drowse in the shade of a broken station building while two big artillery pieces stand on a freight platform, waiting to be loaded on to a derelict train for the south. The civil war is another of those subjects that simply does not feature in the Sudanese press.

But, come the New Year, the Sudanese authorities are going to have to explain a detailed list of civil war atrocities that has been handed to the United Nations here and which is to form the subject of a UN report in January. Eyewitness testimonies that are now in the hands of the UN - and which have been made available to the Independent - speak of rape, pillage and murder in the province of Bahr el-Gazal, as well as the continuing abduction of thousands of southern children on the streets of Khartoum.

According to the documents, the most recent atrocities occurred in July when the Sudanese army drove a train loaded with locally-hired militiamen through territory held by the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA). Under the orders of an officer referred to in the papers as Captain Ginat - commander of the People's Defence Force camps in the town of Muglad in southern Kordofan and a member of the Sudanese government council in the southern city of Wao - the militias were let loose on Dinka tribal villages along the length of the railway track, destroying every village to a depth of 10 miles (16km) on each side of the line, killing the men, raping the women and stealing thousands of head of cattle.

Evidence taken from tribesmen who fled the villages without their families includes details of the slaughter of a Christian wedding party of 300 people near the Lol river. Documents that have also been given to the UN allege that government troops, along with loyal tribal militias, massacred large numbers of southern Dinkas in a displaced persons' camp at Meiran last February.

The UN has also gathered evidence on the abduction of thousands of southern children - many of them Christians - on the streets of Khartoum. The government says that the police in the capital regularly round up children who are homeless and begging, installing them in camps around the city for their own protection; but testimony given to the UN makes clear that the authorities have specifically excluded northern, Muslim children from these sweeps and that in many cases the detained children come from well-off Christian families and are attending private schools in Khartoum.

The evidence, which in some cases has been taken directly from 10- and 11-year-old boys who have escaped from the camps, states that the children are crowded into detention centres, given Muslim names and forced to learn the Koran before being sent south as auxiliaries to assist the army in its war with the SPLA. One document, made available to the Independent in Khartoum, described how a Christian Dinka boy of 11 was rounded up with 18 other southern children in the Khartoum suburb of Karakala and subsequently detained in the Soba police station.

Here, according to the boy, he and his companions were beaten with camel-hide whips before being taken to a camp at Egir Umdoum in northern Omdurman where they were forced to learn the Koran for several weeks, under orders to speak only in Arabic. The boy said that he was given the name of Mohamed, and that whenever he was caught speaking Dinka he was given a severe beating.

According to evidence taken from other children, at least four such camps are in operation around Khartoum - detention centres in which children are kept 10 to a hut for periods of up to three years. The existence of the camps only became known when wealthy parents of missing children went to the police after a group of boys escaped from a camp in Omdurman and made their way to their homes.

One small boy's account of his flight from the camp, which has been shown to the Independent, tells how an earlier escape attempt was foiled by the authorities and the children whipped as a punishment. The same boy later made his way out of the camp and walked for miles to safety, crawling in the darkness past a military airfield.

Other documents record how southern children have been arrested while returning home at night from the cinema, their captors invariably members of the so-called 'Popular Police', whose bright green uniforms distinguish them from the more orthodox city police.

What is not clear, however, is the identity of the authority behind the campaign of abductions. After receiving a brief outline of the UN's findings, the Sudanese government has denied both the reports of massacres in the south and of the children's kidnapping. But the files are so detailed - some papers even name the camp guards - that the abductions must have had some official sanction.

All of which is somewhat ironic for a country that is slowly convincing its neighbours that Washington's decision to put Sudan on its list of states supporting 'terrorism' might, after all, be groundless. Even Western diplomats in Khartoum are now admitting privately that - save for reports of a Palestinian camp outside Khartoum like those that also exist in Tunisia, Yemen, Syria and other Arab countries - there may be no guerrilla training bases in the country after all. The UN's January report, however, will need some explaining.