Nubians feel 'the politics of stravation' Scorched: Goverment troops calmly torch homes and crops in the Nuba Mountains in a seasonal attempt to convert the dwellers to Islam

June 17, 1996|By GILBERT A. LEWTHWAITE AND GREGORY KANE | GILBERT A. LEWTHWAITE AND GREGORY KANE,SUN STAFF

TENDRE, Sudan -- Here in the Nuba Mountains, a defiant enclave of rebel resistance, we learn the meaning of scorched earth.

This village of thatched tukuls, the traditional round home, is a scene of total destruction, the acrid smell of smoke from the burned buildings and crops still thick in the air after a recent raid.

It is, according to local officials, part of the government's seasonal effort to drive local Nubians from their mountains, which form a natural barrier to outside domination, into the embrace of Islam.

Watching from under a cinnamon tree on the fringes of Tendre, which lies on the arid plain at the foot of the mountains, Isaac Luna, 27, says he saw regular government soldiers arrive in trucks, accompanied by a tank. Earlier, hearing of the army's approach, he had taken his wife and children to safety in the mountains.

Back in Tendre he watched a soldier take a match from his pocket and light the tinder-dry thatch on his tukul. As it flared, the uniformed raider walked to the back of the tukul and set fire to the family's annual harvest, 12 sacks of sorghum. Next the soldier returned to the front and burned the half-dozen jars of sesame seed the family was going to press for oil. The ashes remain in the cracked earthenware pots for all to see.

"I got very angry, but I knew if I came out I would be caught and maybe killed," says the handsome farmer, whose muscular body testifies to his daily labor in the fields around this village where he was born.

"This is my farm. I know that the government is trying to force me to go to a government-controlled area, but I will stay. I just want to build a shelter for the rainy season, and then I will plant again," he says. As he talks, two of his children, Thomas, 6, and Risala, 3, perch on a pile of rubble that used to be home. His wife, Awadia Hamad, 23, is busy rethatching the tukul. The family is surviving on handouts from nearby relatives.

Amar Amun, local planner for the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement, the civilian arm of the rebel army, says: "Every year the government launches a dry season offensive. The burning of grain here is a big problem because the people are totally dependent on what their farms produce. When the enemy burns in an hour all you produce in a year, how can you survive?"

Says Caroline Cox, an English baroness who campaigns with Christian Solidarity International, a Swiss-based humanitarian group that has brought medicine to the beleaguered Nubians: "It is the politics of starvation."

The Nubians, like the Dinka tribe 300 miles to the southwest, face the brunt of the Islamic fundamentalist government's jihad, or holy war. Here, too, raiders ride off with captives.

A tall, fierce-looking Muslim militia major we encounter trying to negotiate a peace accord with local rebel commanders tells us what can happen to the captives the raiders take.

He refuses to give his name for fear of being identified by the government, but strangely poses for a photograph and readily describes the scene when the raiders return: "When they come back they celebrate. First of all, they report to the army garrison, and then they divide the loot. They divide the women. They give half to the army and half to the militia.

"The officers come first. They select the beautiful ones to be their wives. The others are taken to the 'peace camp,' where the soldiers come by night and take them to the barracks and private houses just for the night. They do it every day. They don't see it as bad behavior. They see it as something pleasant."

The government, he says, told his tribe "that our Islam, our religion, is in danger so we have to defend our religion. We have to defend our country. We have to defend ourselves as Arabs.

"Now the Arabs neighboring the Nuba Mountains are fed up with this war. Now the people have decided they are not going to fight anymore."

Yousef Kuwa Makki, the rebel commander in the Nuba Mountains, thinks it's unlikely the fundamentalist Islamic government will give up its mission to impose religious rule on the land.

"With this government, it is very difficult to reach political agreement because it thinks what it is doing is blessed by God," he says. "If they kill or are killed, they go to heaven."

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