"This place is ours. We are never leaving," said a young Sudanese rebel after he and other soldiers captured the town of Kapoeta in southern Sudan earlier this month.
The Sudanese National Islamic Front government in Khartoum (NIF) says the rebels must give it back, citing a Bush administration framework for peace that rebels, and increasingly U.S. humanitarian workers, say is flawed.
The capture of Kapoeta (pronounced "ku-pwe'-ta") is a major victory for southern rebels, who have been fighting a civil war with the radical Islamic government based in northern Sudan for 19 years. Kapoeta is a city far to the south near Sudan's border with Kenya and Uganda. It was a strategic garrison for the National Islamic Front government, its headquarters for the Eastern Equatoria province, and center for military activity in the far south.
Government soldiers took the town from southerners in 1991, destroying a Catholic mission and routing villagers from their homes (they used the bricks from the church to build a mosque and military fortifications). On June 8 the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army, or SPLA, by turn took the government soldiers by surprise in a battle that was "swift and decisive," as the rebels put it.
The SPLA captured Kapoeta in just over an hour, having first eliminated a dozen outlying guard posts. Of 3,000 government soldiers stationed there, more than 200 were killed, including garrison commander Salah Ahmed Hassan el-Haj. SPLA forces report they took 36 soldiers prisoner; the rest of the government troops fled in disarray. The SPLA also captured a substantial haul of weaponry: heavy field artillery, tanks, small arms, and ammunition. Government forces killed 13 SPLA soldiers and wounded 38.
"It is a major victory for the SPLA-but a major defeat for the government," said SPLA commander John Garang as he toured the battle site.
Nor did rebels stop with Kapoeta. On June 17 the rebels downed a Sudanese army helicopter gunship just south of the oil-rich region near Bentiu-a decisive blow given that the government has few reliable air forces and the rebels have none. The assaults should help rebels cement control of the country's southeasternmost province.
They also serve as retaliation for repeated attacks by government forces on civilian villages and humanitarian projects throughout the south this year. In February, government helicopter gunships strafed civilians waiting in line at a UN feeding center, killing 17 and wounding many more. On May 22 they attacked another relief center near the oilfield region at Rier, killing 15 and wounding nearly 100.
"Those who beat the drums of war must be prepared to dance to its music," said SPLA spokesman Samson L. Kwaje.
The rebels, who are fighting on behalf of persecuted Christians in south Sudan, as well as other disenfranchised Sudanese, also want to signal the international community-and the United States in particular-that they still have some fight in them. Since the appointment last September of John Danforth as U.S. special envoy to Sudan, the Bush administration has been prodding both sides toward a ceasefire and negotiated settlement to end the long-running civil war.
Using the former Missouri senator's framework, which includes ceasefire, an end to attacks on civilians, and international monitoring, NIF spokesman Ahmed Dirdeiry said the United States must pressure the SPLA "to forgo any military gains which it made," specifically Kapoeta.
But rebel leader Garang told WORLD his movement has no intention of negotiating with a leopard who has not changed his spots. "You cannot be too cautious about the Islamic government in Khartoum. For five years it hosted Osama bin Laden. It participated in the assassination attempt on [Egyptian president] Hosni Mubarak. The same people who supported bin Laden are still in the government. And they are the same people who have declared jihad on us. The only thing new since Sept. 11 is they are afraid to be treated like the Taliban."
Under current U.S. policy, however, no one in the Bush administration is targeting Sudan in the war on terrorism. Rather, the Bush administration appears determined to improve ties with the Khartoum regime despite reports that al-Qaeda continues to operate terrorist training camps in government-controlled areas of Sudan.
On May 30 President Bush appointed a new charge d'affaires to Khartoum, Jeffrey Millington, a career diplomat who becomes the highest-ranking U.S. official to take up residence in the capital since President Clinton severed diplomatic relations in 1996. The White House has also pressed lawmakers to shelve the Sudan Peace Act, a bill passed overwhelmingly in the House prior to Sept. 11. It would prohibit overseas oil firms doing business with Sudan from listing shares on U.S. stock exchanges. Oil production in southern Sudan is under government control, robbing south Sudanese of the revenue while at the same time financing Khartoum's military machine.
Despite Sen. Danforth's request that both sides end attacks on civilians, government soldiers are attacking unarmed villages.
In a remote area of eastern Upper Nile, 350 miles north of Kapoeta, government forces carried out a ground attack in early May against thousands of villagers from the predominantly Christian villages of Yawaji, Kawaji, and Dengaji. Armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, soldiers ambushed villagers and set fire to their homes at dawn across an area where the population is estimated to have been between 10,000 and 20,000.
No one, even rebel leaders, knew about the attack until relief workers reached the area nearly a month later and found 300 displaced survivors.
Caroline Cox, a member of the British parliament, who was delivering medical care and supplies in the region with Servant's Heart director Dennis Bennett, estimated the dead from the government attacks "at hundreds and hundreds." Survivors reported that the government forces destroyed all three churches in the area, which had been established in the 1960s by Sudan Interior Mission.
"The villages and surrounding area have been essentially depopulated, and those civilians not killed by the NIF [government forces] have been left with nothing-not even breast milk for their babies," Ms. Cox said in a written report co-authored with Seattle-based Servant's Heart.
Ms. Cox, who has made 28 humanitarian missions to Sudan, told WORLD: "The SPLA is creating civil society in areas under its control while ceasefires are violated by the government with impunity." She said the Danforth proposals will succeed "only depending on how robust the Bush administration is in not tolerating violations."
So far there has been no effective policing of U.S.-led peace efforts. An international monitoring team called for by Sen. Danforth has not been named. Congress approved $10 million for an early-warning system to assist in monitoring Sudan's remote areas, but so far the State Department has allocated none of the money for the system. Instead, survivors of the eastern Upper Nile attacks walked 13 days before they found someone to tell.
Humanitarian workers in the region are increasingly critical of the Danforth approach. They say he based his report only on two trips to the region. Both tours featured the most stable parts of south Sudan, far from displaced camps and war atrocities.
"The overall danger and weakness in the approach going on right now is its attempt to create reality out of fantasy-that the government of Sudan will be an honest broker," said Ken Isaacs, international director of Samaritan's Purse. "History would indicate otherwise."