Squatters in Khartoumby
Black clouds off the Nile River hang low over Mandela Camp, ushering in the storms that bring misery to an already wretched existence on the outskirts of Sudan’s capital. The clouds soon open up over the sprawling squatter settlement, and the rain begins its relentless fall. Barnaba Marial Marol, his cheeks hollow with hunger and his eyes heavy with sorrow, begins his story.
“We ran away naked,” says the lanky Dinka. “We had nothing. Nothing. We left our cows in the war zone, and we came with our hands empty.”
Barnaba rode a truck with 75 other people from his hometown of Rumbek to Wau, about seven hours away on bad roads. From Wau, a city on a plain of grass and bush in southwestern Sudan, he boarded a rickety train north to Khartoum, arriving eight days later to join hundreds of thousands of others ﬂeeing the civil war’s ﬁghting and famine. He went to one squatter camp near the capital, then another. In time, his mud hut was demolished by bulldozers -- part of a government policy to raze settlements it considers illegal -- and, in 1995, he moved to Mandela, a camp named for the former South African president in an ironic gesture of hope.
His wife left him two years ago. “She wants to eat and I’m jobless,” he says. “How is she going to stay with me?” His trials, Barnaba adds with a hint of melancholy, have taken their toll: “I’ve become very old.” He is 33.
Sudan’s Internal Exiles
Barnaba counts himself among a group the United Nations calls “war-displaced,” exiles within their own country with no right to own land, no right to build a home and little, if any, prospect of a future. There are 4 million displaced in Sudan, the most in the world, scattered across a country that, one third the size of the continental United States, ranks as Africa’s largest. More than a million displaced live as squatters like Barnaba in the camps around Khartoum. Most are housed in mud huts or tukals, wigwams made of sticks, cardboard and sacks of plastic that litter a moonscape stretching to the horizon. They have no access to health, education or sanitation. In good areas, blue, rusty tanks pulled by donkeys deliver water. Malnutrition runs rampant, especially among children, and malaria can become endemic when the rains from May to October produce ﬂoods that wreck the shoddy houses and leave stagnant pools in which mosquitoes breed.
The UN describes the situation of the displaced as an emergency, but their crisis has the feel of permanency. They live in a settlement the size of a large city with nothing -- no work, no services and no government -- that a city usually offers. The UN has conceded their predicament is one of its biggest failures in Sudan, and its ofﬁcials in Khartoum say the suffering could endure indeﬁnitely. In that, it is perhaps not unusual. On the surface, little distinguishes their plight from that of the millions of Afghans expelled by war or of the 350,000 Palestinians in Lebanon who have no right to live outside a dozen camps.
But the politics of this crisis -- with its mix of war, environmental disaster and the autocratic zeal of the Islamic state -- set it apart. Sudan’s government has stated repeatedly that it will expel the squatters as part of its campaign to open up the land around the capital for development. To achieve that objective, it has torn down the houses and huts of as many as 50,000 people in a matter of hours, occasionally using bulldozers that plow everything in their path. Since 1990, dozens have been killed in clashes over the demolitions.
The struggles in the squatter camps date back to the mid-1980s, when a series of famines in western Sudan began driving people from their homes. The civil war with southern rebels, which ﬂared anew in 1983 after a decade-long hiatus, accelerated the exodus. Ofﬁcially, the government maintains that the destruction of the houses at Mandela, Angola and other camps is motivated by a desire to relocate the displaced to more habitable locales where water, health care and electricity are available. But UN ofﬁcials, aid workers and the inhabitants themselves say the government is fulﬁlling only half the plan -- wrecking their homes without providing anywhere else for them to live.
For Barnaba and others in Mandela, the threat of dispossession and the politics behind it infuse daily life with a lurking insecurity. Barnaba is a Dinka, the largest ethnic group in southern Sudan and a dominant force in the now-fractured Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Race has long played a role in the civil war. Since taking over in a coup in 1989, the Islamic government in the Muslim, Arabized north has emphasized its religious overtones as well: The conﬂict with the SPLA is a jihad, it says, a contest between an enlightened Islam and a backward south that is a stooge for Sudan’s many enemies. To many, the threat of demolition and dispossession is but another facet of the war, a way for the regime to contain the ethnic and religious groups it fears will serve its enemies.
“If you meet the family of your enemy, will you help them? We are the family of their enemy,” says Barnaba, sitting on a ratty mattress in a hut of cracked mud walls, its window and door covered by burlap. Near his bed, a boy urinates on the dirt ﬂoor. “If the government cares, then why are we like this?”
No Escape Routes
Like Islamist movements everywhere, the Sudanese government is obsessed with the idea of its own modernity, framed either as an alternative to the West or as an Islamized copy that is somehow removed from Western culture and morals. As part of its vision of a more modern capital, the government unveiled yet another urban replanning scheme in 1992. The core of the plan stipulated the demolitions and the forced relocations to make way for farms, roads or authorized housing projects. Unlike refugees, who receive protection and assistance under international law, Khartoum’s squatters enjoy no ofﬁcial status. Dependent on the government for assistance and guarantees of rights, they resist the demolition policy at their own peril.
The government has brought the ruthlessness and insensitivity of an autocratic state to its modernizing mission. In one month in 1990, it relocated 50,000, according to UN statistics. An entire settlement, home to at least 10,000 families, was demolished in December 1991. More than 21,000 were forced to move in March 1992, 23,000 in March 1995, and so on. Ghazi Salah al-Din al-Atabani, the government spokesman, was asked whether those whose houses were demolished would receive compensation. “No,” he replied. “Normally, they use very cheap material for building.”
The shortsighted demolition policy ensures permanent crisis for the displaced. Farmers are made refugees, children are kept illiterate, and survival itself is made possible -- barely -- by aid delivered through relief agencies unprepared for the scenario.
Michael Ashanding is one of those farmers, the Mandela camp’s everyman. Like others there, he grew maize, sorghum and cassava in southern Sudan, crops that were abundant in tims of plenty in the reddish-brown soil of the savanna. In the camps, sprawling across the desert, there are no farms. There’s simply no land to cultivate. “If there’s work, I work,” Michael says in his tukal of soggy cardboard bound loosely by twine. “If there’s no work, I sit.”
He ﬂed ﬁghting in Bahr al-Ghazal province in the south in 1995. The journey, in driving rains, lasted ﬁve days. He brought his wife and three children -- “I didn’t bring anything else,” he says. He has had another child since.
His children will not learn to farm like their father, he complains, and they will probably not go to school to pick up the skills that might secure them a job in the city. Like their father, they will survive doing casual labor -- digging trenches for the phone company, making bricks along the Blue Nile or working seasonally in cotton ﬁelds to the south. Condemned by place and circumstance to an impoverished adulthood, they will stay in the Mandela camp, if they can.
Staying in Mandela is a frightening prospect. For many former farmers, Mandela’s landless, jobless, uncertain existence is quite literally the end of their world, and the government’s urban replanning schemes threaten them with even greater calamity. Inhabitants like Michael want to escape to a more secure life. But where? For a time in the late 1990s, his home in Wau, where 80 people were dying daily in a spreading famine hastened by war, was another apocalypse. In our era of televised disaster, the scenes of horror were almost clichéd: a woman grabbed a bowl of porridge from her child. An emaciated man sat oblivious next to a corpse. Flies covered a scarce plate of food like a black napkin. To Michael, though, anything is preferable to Mandela, even Wau. “In Wau, I can farm. I can eat what I grow, beans, anything. Not like here,” he says. “Here if I don’t make money, I don’t eat. If God gave me the money, I’d go.”
Candidates for War
The displaced of Mandela look warily to the government as the sole guarantor of their rights. But the government, trying to people militias long on religious indoctrination to ﬁght in the south alongside the more experienced and better trained government troops, often treats those in squatter camps less as citizens than as cannon fodder for periods of intense ﬁghting.
Under cover of darkness, security forces snatch youths of draft age from the streets, from buses and at trafﬁc roadblocks, pressing them into military service without telling their families. Reports of desertions are rife. In one of the most disturbing incidents, at least 52 recruits died when their boat capsized in the Blue Nile in April 1998 as they tried to ﬂee a camp named Aliafoon, about 15 miles southeast of Khartoum. Opposition groups claim the death toll was much higher -- at least 129 -- and that soldiers beat and shot the recruits as they tried to escape.
Jibril Hussein, a 15 year-old newlywed, is, in the government’s view, draft age. His hands are still colored by black with henna to mark his marriage to his 14 year-old bride. To give them time together, his mother and brother sleep outside on straw mats tossed in the dirt. Like most in Mandela, the new couple’s future is bleak. Jibril can neither read nor write. His father, a perfume seller, died when he was two. And he is a young man in a militarized society -- a candidate for war.
Jibril is a Muslim from the drought-stricken west, and thus escapes government efforts in the camp to convert Christians and animists from the south. (Those attempts -- the suggestion that government aid agencies favor Muslims, for instance -- are subtle and ofﬁcially denied.) Jibril, though, fears the government’s reach just the same.
All young men must undergo two months of military training. For the men in the camps, that is followed by 18 months of military service, with likely duty in the south. Elsewhere in Sudan, mandatory service is vastly unpopular. In the camps, with the threat of press-ganging in times of crisis, it is unpredictable, too.
“They call you a holy warrior and send you to the south, but I don’t want to go,” Jibril says outside a hut roofed with straw, hastily built after the government demolished another hut because it blocked a new road. Without proof of service, he cannot get a job other than day labor. His passport will be invalid, an exit visa to leave the country and work abroad impossible. Jibril will live as a sort of fugitive, dodging the draft until he is 40 (or at least until a new government is brought to power) and condemning himself to idleness. He doesn’t care. “I could lose my leg or both legs. Or my arms. Is that a future?” he asks. “I could die. Is that a future? That won’t do, that won’t do at all. I don’t want to die.