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 the true picture. Let us begin in the north of this immense country of 2.5 million square kilometers. The North consists in large measure of the Sahara and the Sahel, which we associate with a boundlessness of sand and weathered rocky rubble. Northern Sudan is sand and rocks, but it is not only that. As one flies over this part of Africa from Addis Ababa to Europe, an extraordinary view presents itself below: passing through the golden-yellow surface of the Sahara, which stretches as far as the eye can see, is a great, shockingly green band of fields and plantations—the shores of the Nile, which flows here in wide, gentle semicircles. The border between the deep ocher of the Sahara and the emerald of these fields is as sharp as if it had been carved with a knife: there are no intermediate shades here, no gradations. Immediately beyond the last little shoots of a plantation begin the first small clods of the desert.

Once upon a time, these riverine fields supported millions of Arab fellaheen, as well as nomadic peoples who now and then stopped here. With time, however, and especially since the middle of the twentieth century and independence, the fellaheen started to be ousted by their wealthy kinsmen from Khartoum, who, together with the generals, and with the help of the army and the police, gained possession of these fertile lands along the Nile, creating on them gigantic plantations of export crops—cotton, rubber, sesame. Thus came into being a powerful class of Arab landowners, which in alliance with the generals and the bureaucratic elite seized power in 1956 and holds it to this day, waging a war against the “Negro” South, which it treats like a colony, and simultaneously oppressing its fellow ethnic countrymen, the Arabs from the North.

Dispossessed, dislodged, deprived of land and cattle, the Sudanese Arabs must find someplace to go, something to do, a means of livelihood. The Khartoum oligarchy folds some of them into its ever larger army, others into the ranks of its vast police and bureaucracy. But the rest? That multitude of the landless and uprooted? These the regime will try to direct toward the South.


The inhabitants of the North number around twenty million, those of the South around six. The latter are composed of dozens of tribes, speaking a host of languages, adhering to various religions and cults. In this multitribal ocean of the South, two groups nevertheless stand out; together they make up half the population of this part of the country. They are related (although sometimes also mutually embattled) peoples: the Dinka and the Nuer. You can mistake one for the other at a distance: they are both tall (around six feet), slender, with very dark skin. A beautiful, well-built, dignified, and even somewhat haughty race. Anthropologists have long wondered how they came to be so tall and thin. They subsist almost exclusively on milk, sometimes supplemented by the blood of their cows, which they raise, worship, and love. Killing cattle is forbidden, and women cannot touch them. The Dinka and the Nuer have subordinated their lives to the needs and requirements of their animals. They spend the dry season with them near the rivers—most importantly, the Nile, the Ghazal, and the Sobat—and in the rainy season, when grass turns the distant plateaus green, they leave the rivers and head upcountry with their cattle. The lives of the Dinka and the Nuer pass in this immemorial rhythm, this pendulum-like, almost ritualistic wandering between the river banks and the pastures on the plateaus of the Upper Nile. To exist, they must have space, land without boundaries, a wide, open horizon. Hemmed in, they sicken, turn into skeletons, wane, die.

I do not know how exactly the war began, it was so long ago. Did soldiers from the government forces steal a cow from the Dinka? Did the Dinka set out to retrieve it? Did shooting break out? Were there casualties? It must have happened something like that. Of course, the cow was just a pretext. The Arab lords in Khartoum could not tolerate the shepherds from the South having the same rights as they did. The people from the South could not accept as their rulers, in an independent Sudan, the sons of slave traders. The South demanded secession, their own state. The North decided to destroy the rebels. Massacres began. The war is said to have claimed a million lives by now. For the first ten years, a spontaneous, poorly organized guerrilla movement, Anya-Nya, operated in the South. Later, in 1983, a Dinka career colonel, John Garang, organized the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which now controls most of the region.

The war flares up, dies down, then explodes again. Although it has gone on so many years, I have heard of no one trying to write its history. In Europe, there are shelves of books dedicated to every war, archives full of documents, special rooms in museums. So far as I know nothing of the kind exists in Africa. Here, even the longest and greatest war is quickly forgotten, falls into oblivion. Its traces vanish by the day after: the dead must be buried immediately, new huts erected on the site of burned ones.

Documents? There never were any. There are no written orders, no ordnance maps, cryptographs, leaflets, proclamations, newspapers, letters. The custom of writing memoirs and diaries does not exist (most frequently, there is simply no paper). There is no tradition of writing histories. Most importantly—who would do this? There are no collectors of memorabilia, curators, archivists, historians, archaeologists. It is actually just as well there are no such people nosing about the battlefields. They would be quickly spotted by the police, imprisoned, and, suspected of spying, shot. History in these parts appears suddenly, descends like a deus ex machina, reaps its bloody harvest, seizes its prey, and disappears. What exactly is it? Why has it chosen us to cast its evil eye upon? It is better not to think about it. Better not to pry.

The war, which began with lofty-sounding slogans, the drama of a young state (the North: we must maintain the country’s unity; the South: we are fighting for independence), with time degenerates into a war waged by various military castes against their own nation, a war of the armed against the defenseless. For all this is occurring in a poor country, a country of hungry people, where someone reaching for a weapon, for a machete or a machine gun, is doing so first and foremost in order to grab some food. It is a war over a handful of corn, a bowl of rice. All thefts are easier here, in this country of enormous distances and roadless expanses, of poor communication and transportation, of a small and scattered population—conditions under which robbery, pillage, and banditry go unpunished, if only for lack of any sort of control or supervision.


There are three types of armed forces conducting this war. There is the government army—an instrument of the Khartoum elite—commanded by the president, General Omar al-Bashir Hassam. Cooperating with the army are numerous official and secret police units, Muslim brotherhoods, the private regiments of large landowners. Opposed to this ruling force are the guerrillas of John Garang’s SPLA, as well as various units in the South that have broken away from the SPLA.

The third and final category of armed combatants are the countless so-called militias: paramilitary groups of young people (often children) of tribal origins, commanded by various local or clan chieftains, who, depending on the situation and the benefit therein, will cooperate with either the army or the SPLA (African mili-tias are a product of recent years, an anarchistic, aggressive, and expanding force, which destabilizes states, armies, organized guerrilla groups, and political movements).

Who are all these armies, divisions, legions, posses, and corps—so numerous and so long embattled—arrayed against? Sometimes, it is each other. But most frequently it is members of their own nation they are fighting, in other words, the defenseless—which means, in particular, women and children. But why are they against women and children? Could it be that these armed men are governed by some kind of biological anti-feminism? Of course not. They attack and rob groups of women and children because women and children are the targets of international aid: it is they for whom the sacks of flour and rice are intended, the boxes of biscuits and powdered milk, things of no consequence in Europe, but here, between the sixth and twelfth degrees of latitude, priceless. One doesn’t always actually have to dispossess the women of these treasures. It suffices simply to surround the delivery plane as it lands, confiscate the sacks and boxes, and carry or drive them over to one’s regiment.

For years now the regime in Khartoum has availed itself of the weapon of hunger to defeat the South’s inhabitants. It is doing today with the Dinka and the Nuer what Stalin did with the Ukrainians in 1932: it is starving them to death.

People are not hungry because there is no food in the world. There is plenty of it; there is a surplus, in fact. But between those who want to eat and the bursting warehouses stands a tall obstacle indeed: politics. Khartoum restricts the number of flights bringing supplies for the hungry. Many of the planes that reach their destination are robbed by the local chieftains. Whoever has weapons, has food. Whoever has food, has power. We are here among people who do not contemplate transcendence and the existence of the soul, the meaning of life and the nature of being. We are in a world in which man, crawling on the earth, tries to dig a few grains of wheat out of the mud, just to survive another day.

—Translated from the Polish by Klara Glowczewska

Copyright © 1998 by Ryszard Kapuscinski

This Issue

April 26, 2001