Life goes on despite airstrike furor Khartoum: For the ordinary people of Sudan's capital, missiles exploding in the back yard have little to do with day-to-day survival.

Sun Journal

August 30, 1998|By ANN LOLORDO | ANN LOLORDO,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KHARTOUM, Sudan -- At Khartoum's outdoor market, Hawa Sabboon leans listlessly against a pole. Her trays of watermelon seeds and dates remain nearly full. As an ocher sun wallows in the dust-filled sky, she assesses the day's trade.

"No customers. No buying. No selling," says the 18-year-old street vendor, who, at dusk, will board a crowded bus for the 1 1/2 -hour ride home.

Sabboon knows little of the United States' military strike that destroyed a Khartoum pharmaceutical plant Aug. 20 and focused the world's attention on her African homeland.

The mud-brick home in which she lives with her mother, five sisters and a brother has no electricity or running water, let alone a television.

She measures her life by the number of nickel bags of seeds she sells. A good day means $5 in sales. This day fell short.

That night, yet another group of Sudanese gathered at the El Shifa Pharmaceutical Industries Co., a factory the United States alleges was manufacturing a chemical weapons component.

As if on cue, as foreign journalists walked toward the plant, the crowd, mostly children and their mothers, chanted "Down, Down USA!" Once the journalists passed, they stopped their refrain and sat quietly on the road.

The United States hit the plant and terrorist bases in Afghanistan in retaliation for the Aug. 7 bombings at two American embassies in Africa. Sudan's Islamic government challenged U.S. claims that it is involved in chemical weapons production and sponsors terrorism. It demanded an international inquiry and last week filed a lawsuit against the United States to seek damages.

The political wrangling between nations, the claims and counter-claims involving a terrorist network backed by Saudi multi-millionaire Osama bin Laden, have little effect on daily life here.

Khartoum, Sudan's dusty capital, lumbers on.

At the confluence of the Blue and White Niles, the city takes its name from the shape of the tract of land on which it sits -- khurtum, which means an elephant's trunk.

The city has the feel of a frontier river town, awash in the muddy tones of the Nile. The splashes of color in this city come from the fruits for sale on its streets (largely grapefruits and limes), the battered yellow taxis chugging along its roads, the traditional dress of its women. And the mint-green trim on its mosques and minarets.

Although Arabic is the language here, the music on car radios has a decidedly African beat.

Open-backed Toyota pickup trucks packed with passengers share the roads with long-eared goats and bony donkeys.

In the central market, street vendors in white robes and turbans sell watch bands, toothbrushes, roasted corn, pita bread, clothing, leather bags, sponges and a cherry-like fruit called nabak. Cellular telephones are in use here, but many in this city of 6 million don't have a telephone. And electricity is not a given.

As the sun goes down, Mohammed Suleiman stands in the courtyard of his family's home and cranks up the generator. It will guarantee electricity beyond the four hours provided by the government. The 16-year-old lives with his parents, four brothers and sisters, widowed aunt and her family in a high-ceilinged, white-stucco house in north Khartoum.

Suleiman attends an English-language school in Khartoum. He wants to attend Cambridge University in England and study to be a doctor. He has already begun preparing for the entrance exams -- although they are two years off.

It's a priority for Suleiman. To attend Khartoum University, he would need a Sudan high school certificate. And to get that, he would have to serve in the Army -- which could send him to Sudan's languishing civil war or tribal skirmishes in the west.

"They say you only have to go into training camp for five or six months," says the teen-ager. "But I have a cousin who was enrolled, and his colleagues are being sent to another camp. This means they are going to be taken to the war fields immediately."

Rather than let him risk a stint in the army, Suleiman's relatives have kept his cousin at home. "Now he can't get the certificate for the university," he said. "Of course it's better to stay at home than die."

Civil war, a famine in the south, a depressed economy and a

repressive security apparatus are the problems facing the people of Sudan, conditions as abiding as the creaking steamer boats that traverse the Nile.

The ideological father of Sudan's Islamic government conducts the business of state behind the walls of a white stucco compound in downtown Khartoum.

Hassan al Tarabi, the speaker of the Parliament and a Sorbonne-educated lawyer, receives his visitors in a spacious office. He is dressed in an immaculately pressed white gown known as a jalabiya. A white turban adorns his head, white leather slippers cover his stockinged feet.

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