Bittersweet Homecomings in War-Weary Sudan

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
January 5, 2004

KAUDA, Sudan -- His journey took him from Nairobi's throbbing urban streets to Sudan's shrubby plains. He carried only what he needed: his faded memory of his mother's face, a few pairs of jeans and two hip-hop cassette tapes.

His voyage was strenuous, he said, with little water and less food. He jostled for rides, squeezed onto the backs of lopsided, vibrating trucks and rattled through the countryside. When there were no cars and no roads, he tromped through tall stalks of weeds where land mines lay hidden like deadly insects waiting to strike.

At the end of a four-day journey and a 14-year absence, James Badradin, 24, returned home last month to the Nuba Mountains in central Sudan. At first, he was startled at the beauty before him, the golden grasslands of Nuba's many hills.

But the novelty soon wore off. He couldn't find his mother. There were no jobs. He did not know how to farm the steep, rocky land. He was tired of the mosquitoes, the flies, the pounding sun and the lack of electricity. He was of marrying age, but he couldn't flirt with women. Not without asking the girl's father to set up a supervised tea on market day, he lamented, his eyes rolling, his head shaking.

As many as 4 million Sudanese have been displaced in 20 years of fighting. Now, with a peace accord apparently within reach, hundreds of thousands are returning to homes across southern and central Sudan that they fled beginning in the late 1980s. In the Nuba Mountains alone, an estimated 150,000 people have made the journey back from Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda since a cease-fire was declared in the region last year.

The future of Sudan can be seen in the triumphs and challenges of those who have come home. Like Badradin, some are finding the return as disorienting as the exodus. The battles of the war -- for control of commerce, religion and culture -- are reflected in the stories of those who are trying to return to a life they don't seem to recognize.

"It's nothing like Nairobi," Badradin said recently as he watched the market scene: barefoot women collecting water from a muddy stream, a camel strutting past a goat, a goat lounging in the lap of a drunk village elder. Badradin adjusted his baggy jeans and took out a cigarette.

A few days after he returned, he said, he sat down in the soft grass, placed his head in his hands and began to weep. He was home. But it was unrecognizable.

Two Cultures

Behind Sudan's war is the story of two cultures trying to share one country, of people as different as chalk and cheese, as the Sudanese like to say. They reflect Sudan's unique place between black sub-Saharan Africa and Arab North Africa. Even the landscapes seem to clash, almost as different in appearance as the inhabitants.

Southern Sudan's flat, bushy terrain is populated with some of the darkest-skinned tribes on the continent: the tall, willowy Dinkas and Nuers.

In the northern desert, where the capital, Khartoum, is located, the government has been dominated by Arab elites, most of them light-skinned, who have backed a policy that treats southerners like second-class citizens, limiting their access to jobs, education and development.

Although fighting has gone on for all but a decade since Sudan's independence in 1956, the current civil war began in 1983, when a group of southerners formed the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) to fight the northern government and its imposition of Islamic law.

About 2 million people are estimated to have died, many of starvation and disease, during the past 20 years. The government bombed civilian areas in the central and southern regions and backed the killing of local officials believed to be supporting the rebels, according to human rights groups. Soldiers on both sides were accused of raping and looting.

The SPLA is still the main rebel force in the war and controls large areas of the south. The government holds some of the major southern towns and cities.

Caught in the crossfire are the African people of the Nuba Mountains, a buffer area between north and south. Some are Christian. Some are Muslim. Many follow traditional beliefs. But all believe they represent a distinct and rich culture, famous for wrestling and an isolated lifestyle in landlocked villages.

In 1992, the government declared jihad on the Nuba, taking land and conducting slave raids. People were rounded up and put into camps, where they were forced to convert to Islam and give up African customs.

A recent round of talks in Kenya has brought the country close to peace. Under pressure from the United States, the two sides have agreed that the south will vote for self-determination after six years of rule by the central government.

After a peace deal is signed, millions of southern Sudanese -- from inside the country and from its neighbors -- are expected to return to their homes in a new Sudan.

Standing Out

"You want me to marry, who?" James Badradin protested. He had been home for 10 days and had already been introduced to four girls. But his hipster jeans and his music, items that would appeal to women in Nairobi, caused no ripple here in the isolated Nuba Mountains. And there was another problem: None of the girls could read or write.

"No," he said, recounting his argument with his father. "I just can't marry someone who doesn't know words."

"Don't you want a woman who will carry water?" his father asked him.

His son, wearing a muscle shirt and jeans, just shrugged. "So there's still no running water," he said with a sigh. "I forgot."

Badradin is tall, lean and muscular. He speaks perfect English, and when he stands at the market in Kauda, about 400 miles south of Khartoum, people with shorn heads and dressed in old, torn clothing stare at him.

"I guess they have never seen MTV," he said with a laugh.

What brought him into contact with the outside world was something he doesn't like to talk about: war. At the age of 10 he was taken to fight with the SPLA. He was strong, and the commanders sensed he was bright.

"My mother cried," he recalled. "We were too close. Now I am here, and she is in Khartoum. Imagine me going up there. Me, a former SPLA guy? And besides, she won't recognize me. She wouldn't know if this one were James, or another one were James."

He said he may try to send word that he is home. But he would be sad to tell his mother of his life as a soldier.

Badradin didn't much care for being in the army. "I like words and talking," he said. "I'd be a lawyer if I could. I don't like the hiding in bushes with weapons or taking orders from the old men."

Still, he said, he had been an obedient soldier, and after several years, SPLA commanders picked him to go to school, as they did with many of the brighter boys, to be trained for a leadership position in the army.

He was sent to Uganda to study. He never rejoined the army. A French man he met in Kampala, the capital, heard his story and offered to sponsor his schooling.

"They tell you to go to the bush and fight. You cannot refuse. Someone else tells you they can pay your school fees, and man, you cannot refuse," he said, shrugging and smiling.

He did so well that he earned a scholarship to the University of Nairobi and was off to East Africa's teeming capital, where the ambitious pack the city to make money. He finished his course work in liberal arts and worked odd jobs at hip-hop discos. Soon after, he heard a cease-fire had been declared in Nuba.

So he came home. But now he doesn't know what to make of it. He said he was disgusted when he saw his family sleeping with animals -- goats, dogs, chickens -- inside the house. Several aid groups are considering hiring him as a translator or perhaps to work with computers.

"I would be with the outsiders," he said, looking down. "Isn't that something?" And he walked off into the market.

No Land to Farm

Dressed in a white robe, Saed Doaa, 39, lounged at his neighborhood mosque in Kauda and lamented that fellow Muslims had taken his land, his farm and his home.

"Why even bother returning?" he said he complained to his imam. "These people are not Muslims. They have taken everything." When he arrived back in Nuba a year ago, he discovered that his fruit farm, nestled among the most fertile hills of Nuba, had been seized by the government.

He fled to Ethiopia 15 years ago, walking the entire way, with others who were leaving Sudan. "We walked from nowhere to nowhere and then walked more," he said, as his friends shook their heads in sympathy. He lived as a refugee in Ethiopia, sometimes begging in the streets, sometimes finding work cleaning floors.

Now there is a cease-fire, but he has no land to farm. "Where do I go? How do I feed them?" he said, pointing to a line of his children waiting in a straw hut nearby. He has nine. In Nuba, losing your land is like being fired from your job.

But the problem has become a familiar one. Sixty percent of the fertile land in Nuba has been taken over by the government for mechanized state-run farms, according to local and international reports. The government told the residents of Nuba that the land belonged to God, according to human rights groups and dozens of people who testified to losing their property.

Nuba is the breadbasket of Sudan, with some of the country's most fertile land. The local governor, Abulaziz Adam Alhilu, says that land re-allocation is the single biggest issue in the region.

"Without backing and determination to solve these problems, war could explode again," he cautioned.

Doaa's transition to his old life in Nuba has been marked by anger at times and depression at others. He built a mud hut on a friend's land and lives there with his wife and children.

"I used to cultivate my trees," he said, folding his hands over his eyes. "Now, I am nothing."

A Father and Son

On an afternoon thick with heat last month, a wrinkled father, Obala Omar, cried as he clutched his son, Anthor Omar, in his thin arms. They had not seen one another in years. They shared hours of warm conversation. A ram was slaughtered for an evening feast.

The son praised the father for surviving the war, the bombing of hospitals and schools, and the slave raids. The father marveled at how fat his son had grown working as a tailor for rich Arabs in Khartoum.

But tensions surfaced as soon as the father brought out the homemade sorghum brew called marissa. With a smile, he swigged a long gulp from a round brown bowl. His son refused: He was a Muslim now, one of many African Sudanese who converted in response to a government campaign. His father was still Christian.

"Why did you leave?" his father sobbed, for the second time that day. "Who are you now?"

Anthor Omar, 35, tried to explain why, as a young man, he had left this place: to find a better life away from the war. It was the spring of 1989. Bombs were falling. Northern soldiers were coming. An ethnic cleansing campaign was underway against the people of Nuba, forcing them to leave their land and abandon their rich culture.

His father, a farmer who used to work in the fields naked, could have left, too. But "he didn't want to," his son said. "My father and his generation were without clothes. Now I am a tailor. The world changes."

In Khartoum, the son lived in one of the many refugee camps, where Arabs came around and pressured people to convert to Islam. He didn't mind much.

"It's not a bad religion," he said, as his father cleared his throat and stomped the dirt out of his sandals as he listened. "A lot of things make sense."

"Sharia law, though," his father pointed out. "We don't like it."

"It's not all bad," his son said, laughing.

Anthor Omar said he believed he had to adjust. He wanted to make money. So he started sewing for the workers at the camp and later for the wealthy. He made enough to marry a second wife -- his first was a Christian and the new one was Muslim. He planned to go back to Nuba.

But the years passed quickly. Once, eight years ago, his father went to Khartoum and begged him to come home. His son refused.

Eventually, though, Anthor Omar felt guilty, so he gathered his family and made the week-long journey by truck. His younger wife, Harfa Abdrham, 24, is trying to learn farm work. She is from the Nuba Mountains but grew up in Khartoum.

Anthor Omar is also adjusting. His sewing machine is set up under a shelter made of dried sorghum. Goats wander nearby.

On a recent day, his father was tipsy on homemade beer.

"Please, join me," he pleaded with his son once again. "You married a Christian and a Muslim. We can all be friends."

His son waved his hand at his father and took a sip of the warm brew. "Just a little," he said.

His father touched his heart. "My son," he said, taking another gulp. "You are not an Arab."

Then they both laughed, slapped hands and hugged.