Mark drove me back from the party on Street Thirty-one in his new Land Rover. We took a wrong turning on Sharia el Nil, the road that runs along the Blue Nile behind the Presidential Palace, and found ourselves driving down an unlit street near the United Nations building, when we just missed running over the leg of a man sleeping in the roadway. There were two or three dozen bodies lying half on and half off the sidewalk, long-limbed, dark-skinned, wrapped in blankets against the cold. They were Dinkas from the South, street hawkers, hungry and homeless. Each of them had a cardboard suitcase full of cigarettes for sale – red and white Bringi or Bensons in gold packets, the high-tar version they sell in the Sudan. During the day they plied their trade in the arcades between the Acropole, the relief workers’ hotel, and the old Excelsior. At night they dodged the police patrols, snatching sleep between alarms, eyes half open, watchful, like a herd of antelope.
Mark and I were working for one of the myriad relief agencies that had come to the assistance of southerners displaced by the five-year civil war. I had just arrived in the Sudan to report for the agency’s London office on their operations in Khartoum and points south. Mark was a field officer in the far west, on the front line of the famine. We were spending a week in Khartoum, where half a million or more of the displaced lived in camps and shanty towns. Then we were heading for Abyei, a government-controlled Dinka town on the border with the South, six days’ journey by land in the dry season, 500 miles by air.
In early 1988, 20,000 southerners had sought refuge in Abyei – four times the normal population of the town. In May that year the first report from Abyei appeared in the western press. It was by Carol Berger, a Canadian journalist I first met in the early eighties, when I was doing fieldwork in Dinkaland and she was a freelance in Khartoum. ‘Abyei’s muddy streets,’ she wrote,
are crowded with people near death. Women, children, teenage boys and the elderly – many no more than skeletons – have taken refuge in a virtual Auschwitz … But more appalling still is the backdrop to the death scene – Arab merchants and their strong sons carrying out business as usual … For the past two years, Dinka men found among the town’s destitute have been killed as collaborators or suspected rebels. Their throats are cut and their bodies dumped outside the town.