Death in Sudan

Sudan was the first country in Africa to gain independence after World War II. Prior to that it was a British colony, distinct entities artificially, bureaucratically glued together: the Arab- Muslim North and the black-Christian (and animistic) South. A longstanding antagonism and hatred existed between these two populations, because the northern Arabs for years had invaded the South, captured its inhabitants, and sold them into slavery.

How could these two hostile worlds coexist in one independent nation? They could not—and that is exactly what the British wanted. In those years, the European powers were convinced that they could formally give up their colonies, while continuing de facto to govern them—being needed in Sudan, for example, for continual reconciliation between the Muslims of the North and the Christians and animists of the South. Before long, however, these imperial delusions lay in tatters. As early as 1962, the first North–South civil war erupted in Sudan (already preceded by earlier revolts and insurrections in the South). When I was traveling to the South for the first time in 1960 I needed in addition to a Sudanese visa another special visa, on a separate piece of paper. In Juba, the largest town in the South, a border patrol officer took it from me. “How can you do that?!” I snorted angrily. “I need it to reach the border with the Congo, which is still two hundred kilometers from here!” The officer pointed at himself and said, not without a measure of pride: “I am the border!” Indeed, beyond the town’s tollgates unfolded an expanse over which the government in Khartoum exercised no significant control. It remains thus to this day: Juba is protected by an Arab garrison from Khartoum, and the province itself is in the hands of the guerrillas.

The first Sudanese war lasted ten years, until 1972. During the next ten years, a fragile, impermanent peace prevailed, but in 1983, following an attempt by the Muslim government in Khartoum to impose Islamic law, or sharia, on the entire country, a ghastly new chapter of the war began, and continues to the present day. It is the longest and largest war in the history of Africa, and probably the largest in the world right now, but because it is being waged in the most remote backwaters of our planet, and does not directly threaten anyone in, say, Europe or America, it does not arouse much interest. Moreover, the theaters of this war, its vast and tragic killing fields, are for all intents and purposes—both because of the region’s inherent impediments to communication and Khartoum’s draconian restrictions—inaccessible to the media. The majority of people in the world have not the slightest idea that a great war is being fought in Sudan.

It is being fought on many fronts, and also on many levels, and today the conflict between the North and the South is not even paramount. In fact, that old divide can confuse and distort …

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