The Magazine


Jun 28, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 39 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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Yei, Southern Sudan

As the chartered Twin Otter carrying an American congressional delegation begins its descent over the lush green scrub-covered plain, the mood on board becomes quiet. The plane has entered a combat zone and is about to land on a narrow dirt strip in Yei, the capital of "New Sudan." Yei was once a humming Sudanese border town rich in customs revenue from trade with neighboring Uganda and the Congo. Today, it is a taut, frightened place, a bombing target for Russian-built Antonov-32 transport planes, sent by the government of Sudan in Khartoum. As the Otter makes its hasty approach, Dan Eiffe, an Irishman who is leading the group, remarks, "If ever there was a moral war, this is it. These people are fighting to protect their own land and their people."

"These people" are not, at first, visible. But as the Otter discharges its passengers and immediately prepares to take off again -- the Antonovs would love to catch an unauthorized visiting aircraft on the ground -- some officers of the Sudan People's Liberation Army appear, ready to take us into town. For 16 years now, the SPLA, a modest-sized military force, has been fighting for survival in this "moral war," the most brutal, destructive, and longest-running civil war of the second half of the twentieth century.

It is little short of scandalous that this catastrophe has been ignored by the civilized world. For 32 of Sudan's 43 years of independence, civil war has ravaged the country. The current war broke out in 1983, when Khartoum abolished autonomy for predominantly Christian southern Sudan, then sought to impose Islamic law, or sharia, on the entire country. The Khartoum government's deliberate policies of food deprivation, ethnic cleansing, and bombing have resulted in the deaths of almost 1.9 million Sudanese, the overwhelming majority of them civilians. An estimated 5 million Sudanese have been displaced from their homes, and thousands more have been raped and tortured. Sudan has a population of only 30 million.

Sudan's civil war turned genocidal in 1989 when the National Islamic Front, led by Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, overthrew the elected government in Khartoum. The NIF has sought to turn Sudan into a base camp for the Islamic radicalization of Africa. Sudan backed Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War in 1991, played host to international terrorists Carlos and Osama bin-Laden in the 1990s, and provided a safe haven for Islamic fanatics who tried to assassinate Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 1995. The NIF regime currently supports a truly sadistic gang of Ugandan bandits called the Lord's Resistance Army, who have been preying on civilian communities in both Sudan and Uganda. Such affiliations have led Washington to list Sudan as a state that supports terrorism, a status that comes with mandatory trade sanctions. John Garang, the U.S.-educated commander of the SPLA, described the situation: "The governments that have come and gone in Khartoum since 1976 have been fundamentalist and Islamist. The essential difference today is that the National Islamic Front is internationalist."

As the American group bumps and lurches along pitted roads around Yei, there is some nervous speculation about the NIF's "internationalist" involvement. The Antonovs are said to be piloted at times by Libyans and mercenary pilots from the former Soviet Union. They fly at around 25,000 feet and higher, out of range of normal anti-aircraft guns, wreaking havoc with complete impunity.

There is no bombing today, but evidence of the destruction from previous raids is apparent all around. The town's hospital, hit directly three times since 1997, shows clear shrapnel damage on several outside and inside walls. Local staff seem agitated. A nurse looks at her watch, observing that it is close to 10 A.M., a popular time for Antonovs to make bombing runs, frightening those on the ground for several minutes with the noisy drone of their twin turboprops. "If the Antonov comes," warns George Githuka, administrator for Norwegian People's Aid, a non-governmental charity, "go to a bunker and lie flat on the ground." But the bunkers are not impregnable. Last year, nine people were killed and several others injured when the main hospital bunker took a direct hit.