from Vanity Fair Magazine

July, 1993 - pp 80-120

"The Last Place on Earth"
written by Roger Rosenblatt
photography by Sebastião Salgado

If there were such a place as the end of the earth, southern Sudan is how the terrain would look: thorn trees erupting at lonely distances from one another, flattened at the top as if by an invisible hand; Balanites aegyptiacas, desert-date trees, which look like poor relations of weeping willows, overdressed mourners at a grave site; cactus trees – huge, aggressive things – poking their spikes at the sky; trees with thick trunks that appear to be made of cables tied in a Gordian knot. Gray bushes like rolls of industrial wire mix with the tall, gray-silver grass on the yellow land. Dry, dry; cracked pieces of old pottery. The shards of dead branches stick out in frantic directions like bones broken through skin.

What is happening to the people here mirrors the landscape – a continuum of isolations, each causing its own lethal consequences. The sum total of all the isolations is leading to the destruction – the silencing – of an entire civilization. This silencing has been taking place within a region of the largest country in Africa, the region itself larger than Texas, and one of the most inaccessible places in the world. Here the White Nile extends its arms into the Sudd, Arabic for barrier – one of the world’s largest swamps. Only snakes and malarial mosquitoes thrive and multiply. Otherwise, there is nothing but emptiness and danger. If this sounds like Somalia, it is Somalia – with the differences that the Sudan is much harder to get help to, and too few people are trying. Southern Sudan is isolated from everything except the elements that are killing it.

There was a time when the mere mention of Khartoum, the country’s capital, evoked images of billowy tents, Arabian horses, languid evenings, and that strange, flip, Kiplingesque heroism – pith helmets, the white man’s burden, General Gordon, and the unsetting sun. Oppressive as colonialism was, at least it brought the country 160 years of relative stability. Since becoming the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence, however, the Sudan has been at war for 27 of its 37 years of existence. Khartoum and northern Sudan are now ruled by the Revolutionary Command Council of Lieutenant General Omer al Bashir, who seized power in 1989. The government is fighting the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, under Dr. John Garang, which controls the countryside in the underdeveloped southern half of the nation. There are also internecine wars within the S.P.L.A., one of the more brutal being that between the Dinka tribe majority and the Nuer tribe.

No side has a claim on morality in these wars. When military convoys lose vehicles to rebel mines, they usually burn the closest village and murder its inhabitants. Soldiers routinely rape women displaced from their homes by the fighting; the S.P.L.A. has also been accused of rape and kidnapping. Both the government and the S.P.L.A. have menaced relief operations and blown up trucks carrying food and medicine. The government has amputated the limbs of prisoners of war; so has the S.P.L.A.

Yet nearly everyone agrees that the Bashir government has been the main persecutor in the wars. Muslim fundamentalists armed and inspired by Iran, they are the theocratic cleansers of their country – a twist on the ethnic cleansers in Bosnia. They seek to "Islamize" the Sudan – as indeed Iran may seek to Islamize the entire Horn of Africa – by converting or killing off all the Christians and animists in the South. Their weapons are famine, political repression, the torture of dissident, and outright slaughter.

This latest, four-year phase of the civil war has been the most vicious and costly, with countless numbers dead, their bodies plowed under by bulldozers in communal graves, and a total of four million people displaced. The region is a map of upheaval and uprooting. If a stranger were to take an aerial view of southern Sudan, all he would see would be the continuous movement of children and adults in an anarchic silence.

The central figures in this mass and bewildering migration are the boys of southern Sudan – 100,000 or more, aged 6 to 15, who have embarked on a long, unending journey of escape. The boys were tending cattle in the fields, as is the custom, when the government troops marched into their villages and slaughtered their families. From a distance, some saw their parents and sisters murdered; others learned what was happening, and ran.

From village after invaded village they fled – one, five, hundreds. They banded together in groups of thousands and tens of thousands. They were occasionally accompanied by adults, who were also escaping government soldiers, but most of the time they were on their own. The boys walked barefoot 200 or 500 or a thousand miles for weeks, often months, to find camps where they would be safe – a modern re-enactment of the long marches of exile in the Books of Exodus and Lamentations.

On these treks, which have lasted for four years, the boys sleep under thorn trees or in the high elephant grass, where they can hide. In the daytime they walk in the relentless heat; at night they protect themselves from the semi-desert cold with a single blanket, if one is available, Fur food they eat leaves, roots, wild grass, berries, rats occasionally. One group reports eating wild cassavas, but they didn’t know how to cook them. Boys began vomiting and writhing in pain. Fifteen died and were left on the road.

Many drown attempting to ford the swollen rivers in the rainy season. Many contract diseases from insects and from one another. Many are bitten by scorpions and snakes. Wounds cut to the bone and become infected. Those who do not die en route to the camps often die a few days after they arrive.

When government planes bomb their camps, the boys move on again. The pilots fly at altitudes too high for accuracy, but sometimes the bombardiers get "lucky." Often, the boys – most of them Dinka – are attacked by rival tribesmen. They are also hunted by hyenas, who work in packs to trap a boy; the others scramble up a tree and can do nothing but watch as the hyenas tear at and devour one of their number.

They have fled from villages such as Aweil and Wau in the Southwest, where one of the first government massacres occurred, and from Kadugli in the north of the region, and Ignessana. They have trekked east into Ethiopia, where they encamped until the ruler, Colonel Mengistu, was overthrown. So the boys fled back to the Sudan, to Magus just north of Kapoeta. When Kapoeta was taken by government troops, they fled again.

They went south to Narus, then east into Kenya, where many remain today. Others escaped to neighboring Zaire, Uganda, or the Central African Republic. But most of the boys remained in or returned to southern Sudan, in camps superintended by the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association (S.R.R.A), the humanitarian wing of the S.P.L.A., the largest of which is Palotaka.

Since 1989, these boys have been in continuous aimless motion, like children spun around blindfolded in a party game – living by their wiles, moving from camp to camp, hunted, terrified, hungry, ill, benumbed. It is difficult to say which has been more of a hardship, being refugees in another country or being continually displaced in their own. Philip Thon Leek, the director of the Friends of African Children Educational (FACE) Foundation, observes that "to be displaced in one’s own land is like being lost in one’s own house. You are sure you belong there, but you don’t know exactly where. Or perhaps you are no longer sure you belong there, but you are sure you do not belong anywhere else."

And yet the plight of the lost boys is but one element of the disintegration of the entire region, Wherever one looks in southern Sudan, civilization is coming apart – in the area in which it is said that civilization originally came together. To return to the theme of isolations, the people of southern Sudan have been isolated from their villages, their culture, their education, their sense of hope, community, and dignity. They have also been isolated from the outside world, which hardly notices they are on the brink of extinction.

For years, no protests against Khartoum were made by the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, the European Community, or the U.N. The international press, which fastened on Ethiopian starvation in 1984 and 1985, said almost nothing about the Sudan. The American government has provided only intermittent humanitarian aid to the Sudan, either because it is loath to interfere with a sovereign government (this is how the political situation in the Sudan differs from Somalia) or because there is no obvious geopolitical advantage in doing so in the post – Cold War environment.

Representative Frank R. Wolf (Republican, Virginia) recently returned from a fact-finding mission to the Sudan and reported the contents of a declassified State Department document to the House of Representatives on May 17. He described massacres and the selling of women and children into slavery by Khartoum. Wolf pleaded, "Where’s the Congress on this issue? Where’s the Clinton administration on this issue? Where’s the media on this issue?"

The end product of the Sudan’s isolation is a region in which silence – a vast and consuming silence – is encroaching like a season of its own, on top of the dry and rainy seasons. From time to time the silence of southern Sudan is broken by gunfire or by bombardments, and, at the more benign extreme, by occasional songs of camaraderie and the faint murmurs of individual, if ephemeral, achievement. But the silence is fathomless and overwhelming, this being the end of the earth, and eventually, give or take a few years, unless there is help from the outside, there will be no more sounds from this region.

Southern Sudan is the end of the earth not because the people are forced to eat leaves or live in huts or dress in rags, or because they have no electricity or phone lines or infrastructure, or because they are evicted from their homes or lose sight of their families forever or die of every disease that invades their territory, or because they have no medicine to combat those diseases, no books for their education, or because they often have to crawl on a sere and pitiless earth for a sip of water, or even because they are perpetually hunted by those who want either to own their souls or to bury them. Southern Sudan is the end of the earth because all these things are happening and nobody seems to care.

At the Aswa hospital, someone has painted a sign on a wall for the benefit of the American ambassador, who recently paid a visit. The sign reads, THANK YOU FOR COMING TO SEE US DYING OF DISEASE AND INJURIES.

That fairly well describes the condition of the residents of the Aiwa hospital, which was built in 1983. With a 60-bed capacity, it holds anywhere between 450 and 600 patients, which means that most of the patients lie on straw mats between the beds or sit propped up against the walls of the corridors.

The walls are cracked and yellowed. The roofs leak. Windowpanes are broken. Mosquito netting has been torn out of the windows; so have most of the wooden frames. The water pipes are rusted. The sewage system is broken. Some of the ceilings have been eaten away by termites. The electrical appliances are in general working order, but many switches and wires are missing. Wounds are routinely stitched with strands from the tails of giraffes. Once, a package marked "Sterile" was opened at the hospital and a rat jumped out.

The number of patients at Aswa varies according to the number of war-wounded at any given time, and, of course, according to the rate of the dying. Most of the wounded patients survive, but one person per day dies of malnutrition. Patients come by the hundreds from displacement camps in the villages of Ame, Atepi, and nearby Aswa itself, suffering from malnutrition and a number of related diseases, and from fatigue as well, since many who were driven from their homes have walked as much as a hundred miles to get to the hospital. After the killing of three foreign relief workers and a journalist, only one agency, Norwegian People’s Aid, under the direction of Helge Rohn, stayed to provide food and medical supplies to the hospital and to the area.

A good deal of surgery is performed here, but until recently not by surgeons. The hospital’s first Sudanese doctor was not trained in surgery; he is better at amputations than at abdominal work. He has been joined by a Sudanese surgeon trained in Egypt and by a volunteer surgeon from Norway on a three-month mission. The Norwegian surgeon has just arrived, and while he has served in other beleaguered parts of the world, the look of amazed horror on his cheerful farm boy’s face says as much about the hospital’s conditions as the hard evidence.

At the moment there are 104 war-wounded in the hospital. Each surgeon performs no fewer than 12 operations a day, yet the doctors agree that the wards in which the war-wounded are kept are "by far the hest parts of the hospital." The new Sudanese surgeon points to a corner. "Even he is in better shape than most of the starving." The "he" is a 20-year-old sleeping on the floor, half his head wrapped in gauze to cover the place where a bullet entered his right eye and came out his left ear. "His right side is paralyzed and he will be mute for life, but he will survive," says the surgeon.

An 18-year-old named Atek is on the mend. He was shot in the left leg, which he stretches out in a splint. His black-brown skin gleams and looks healthy against the bright-blue sheet on his cot. His hair glistens with beads of sweat. "First the cows of my village were taken by the soldiers," he says. "Then the houses were burned down. I saw my brother killed, and then my sister – they killed her too. They did not see me watching, so I escaped."

I walked alone. Two months. When I got to the border of Ethiopia, there were many children there. Three hundred of us. But there were troubles for us in Ethiopia as well. They rejected us, so we had to come back to Sudan, to Kapoeta. Then the enemy came to Kapoeta. And again they killed people and took the town."

"How were you wounded?" I ask.

"On the road near here."

"Were you fighting or shot as a civilian?"

"I was fighting." Most relief workers in the area know that the S.P.L.A. is taking teenagers like Atek out of the camps and training them as soldiers – turning the victims of the war into warriors. In the camps themselves, however, there is no evidence of military training.

"So by the time you were 18 you had a gun?"

"Yes. I was taught to defend myself."

"Did having a gun make you feel like a man?" I ask.


"So does having a gun make a man?"

"Yes," says Atek. "Definitely."

Atek is lucky compared with John, who is lying with his back against the wall in a corridor. At the age of 38, John looks to be at least 60, and the position he has assumed gives him the angle of a vacationer lounging on a chaise. I would be surprised if he weighs 80 pounds, though he has to be six feet tall. He is dressed only in a blue bathing suit that might be a small boy’s, and is slipping down at his hips. John’s legs are thinner than most men’s wrists. He complains of diarrhea, chest pains, and weakness. His headaches come and go.

"Do you remember when you felt better, John?" one of the doctors asks.

"I will never feel better," says John, anticipating a placating remark.

The principal diseases in the hospital, and throughout the region, are malaria, typhoid, dysentery, meningitis, and those related to diarrhea. Kalaazar, a wasting disease carried by sand flies, has so far been located mainly north of here, but it is characterized as a spreading epidemic. The diseases that still claim the most casualties are related to hunger.

A few yards down the corridor, a six-and-a-half-month-old baby suckles at his mother’s empty breast. The mother looks at her child in his futile exercise, looks at her own flattened nipple, looks up at me as if to illustrate her plight, then back to the suckling child. His mouth makes a hushed dry gasp against his mother’s breast. The Norwegian doctor tells me the baby is unlikely to survive the week, and even if he should manage to live, he will be brain-damaged from the hunger.

The same prognosis is offered Philip, an orphan of two and a half years whose father was killed in the war and whose mother was killed in a car accident. In spite of his age, Philip is the size of a newborn – but without the fat or the suppleness. People in the West have seen pictures of hundreds of babies like Philip, from Ethiopia and, more recently, Somalia. In person, they appear less like undersized babies than fully formed people of a different, diminished species. His knee joint fits easily in the circle of my thumb and index finger, and his foot measures short against my thumb. But a baby like Philip is also different to the touch. His skin does not feel like a human being’s skin. Drained of normal subcutaneous fat, it feels like paper, heavy typing paper. Rubbing his back is like rubbing a page of a book.

Philip has not been able to take any food for days except sugar and water. His eyes are veiled with a thick film, indicating a constant dizziness. He moves his tongue in and out spasmodically as if attempting to taste the air.

"What you must realize about a boy like Atek," says a man in his mid-50s who is visiting the Aswa hospital, "is that he has lost forever the grounding of his culture."

"And what is that?" I ask.

"Cows. The boy said it himself. Cattle. Cattle in the Sudan provide the basis of families. Cattle connect parents to children. Cattle are pledged in marriage arrangements. Now a boy like Atek thinks that the center of culture is guns. It is all turned upside down." The man looks less angry than wistful. A Dinka, a pastoralist, he has almost an inborn reverence for cattle.

"Life was more serene when you were growing up," I suggest.

"More under control, certainly. I grew up as a Christian in the North, and we were told to be afraid of Arabs, but nothing like today."

"Were you afraid of wild animals?"

"Not all animals. But lions, surely. All the kids were afraid of lions."

"Are there still lions in the Sudan?"

"Of course. But children are a lot more afraid of people today than of lions." He chuckles. "Today the lions are afraid of the people."

It is six o’clock on a Sunday morning in the camp of Palotaka, a three-hour drive from Aswa along a road composed of rocks and potholes, some two feet deep, on which time has no relation to distance. At present there are 4,000 boys in the camp. Girls, too, went on some of the treks, but when they reached places of refuge, they were located by the elders in separate camps; some rejoined their families. Many girls, of course, who were captured by the Bashir fundamentalists when their parents were killed were forced to convert or were killed themselves.

One of Palotaka’s boys, an 11-year-old named (Continued on page 114)

(Continued from page 91) Thon, died last night from diarrhea and dehydration. He will be buried later in the day, without much ceremony. The camp elders do not encourage the younger boys to participate in burials. "It is not useful for them," says Sebit William, the camp’s director, making a subtle and complex judgment.

The Catholic Mass is about to begin in the large brick church. Palotaka was originally a Catholic mission set up by Italians in the early 1930s. While there are more Protestants than Catholics among the boys, the Catholic church is by far the more substantial house of worship. Many of the mission buildings are still standing, some with roofs and walls missing or partly eaten away. Four pillars of a decayed building rise to the sky, their roof long gone, like four symbolic statues. The antique European desolation of these structures stands out in strange relief against the tents, the tin shacks where the cooking is done, and the tukuls, the native huts of mud and wattle, in which most of the camp’s residents make their homes.

The church itself, however, is in remarkably good repair, given the climate and the years. It looks to be 300 feet long and about 60 feet wide, with great high wood beams that still gleam and appear strong. A plaster statue of the Madonna and Child painted gold and a figure of Jesus on the Cross face the large hall of wooden benches. Behind the altar a dome rises, white originally, now yellow-stained; there is a large brown smudge like a cloud in a corner, and a crack in the plaster running like lightning along the arc of the dome.

I sit at the end of the last bench on the left side of the aisle, and place my tape recorder beside me. A boy in the front, wearing a red sweatshirt, begins to beat a drum. In groups of two and three the other boys file in sleepily, genuflect before the altar, and find their seats. Some of their clothes are so torn and shredded that they might have just come from rolling down a hill of gravel. Several turn cautiously in their seats to look at the white man with the machine at his side.

The drummer boy begins a Dinka chant, a hymn, and the other boys join in. They sing not like an English choir, more like boys at a sports rally – a lusty noise to God. A five-year-old, still drowned in sleep, enters wearing a pair of thongs, green sweat-pants with red and white stripes down the side, and a long-sleeved yellow shirt with a large rip in the front. He looks about. I come into his view. He cannot take his eyes off me. I signal for him to sit beside me.

At 6:45 the priest enters. He places a purple stole with a gold cross on each end over his white vestment, and he ties his robe at the waist with a white cord. Many boys are on their knees in the center aisle. From the cadence of the Dinka chant, I surmise that I am hearing the Lord’s Prayer.

The five-year-old at my side still stares at my tape recorder, studying the string of red lights that shorten and lengthen with the volume of the chant. At last he places his mouth close to the machine and makes a hissing sound. The lights respond. He nods, satisfied, and smiles.

A woman in her 60s is walking barefoot on the road leading to the entrance of the camp. She wears a faded blue jumper, and is bent at the waist, perhaps from osteoporosis, so that her body makes a right angle as she moves. Had she not the support of a long pole, she would topple over to the ground. Then she does topple over. At the garden near the entrance, she falls suddenly in a heap, rocks from side to side like a ship on a swell, and finally achieves a steady position on all fours. She searches for her pole, which has rolled out of her reach. She places a hand on her stomach, which is bloated and clearly gives her pain, though she makes no groan or sound of complaint. Her face has the look of a puzzled sheep.

The woman, Laura, has come 12 miles to Palotaka to find a doctor, but there has been no doctor here for a long while. She wants pills for her stomach; they worked before. Carried inside one of the mission houses by two men, she is offered a folding chair, but Laura prefers to sit on the stone floor, to take the pressure off her stomach. She smells sweet, of the earth and her sweat. I notice that her fingernails are perfectly trimmed. She keeps pointing to her stomach, as if it were an external weapon that was doing her harm. "Do you have the pills?" she asks me, assuming that I am a doctor. She is told by one of the camp leaders that the doctor may come today, or tomorrow.

"Her husband and children are dead. She takes care of herself," says a young man named George Okat, who has been translating Laura for me. George also assumes I am a doctor, and he urges me to examine his 10-year-old boy, Cirilio. I explain who I am, but he wants me to see his boy anyway; perhaps I have some useful layman’s knowledge. I do not.

On the way to his tukul, George tells me that he and his wife are worried about Cirilio because the boy Thon died last night and Cirilio has similar symptoms. George leads Cirilio out of the tukul to greet me, which the boy does with as much spirit as his evident weakness allows.

We make small talk. I give him a Polaroid of himself, which pleases him for a moment. George shows me a diagnostic report on an index card filled out by a medical assistant two weeks earlier. I tell George that I can interpret these runes no better than he. "Has Cirilio improved at all since this card was made out?" I ask. George shakes his head no.

I enter the tent where they are keeping Thon, the 11-year-old who died last night. The boy is wrapped head to foot in a green blanket with pink stripes. Sunlight shoots in on the blanket through holes in the tent; the cylinder of the blanket is so slim one would not think it contained anything. I ask to see Thon’s face, which is bound in gauze like a mummy. "For the seepage," explains a man who is attending the body. He refers to the speed with which the eyes and facial tissue fall apart in this climate. Unthinking, I ask how Thon’s parents are taking the death of their boy. The man gestures, indicating all the adults in the camp: "We are his parents."

A boy named John is typical of the healthy boys in Palotaka. He is 15 now. Three years ago he saw his parents murdered by Bashir’s troops in the town of Bor. He ran and found other boys, who made their way south to Mongalla, then west to Maridi, and finally east to Torit. But Torit was taken by the government, so John and the other boys moved on again.

John is lanky, in sandals and a turquoise T-shirt. He sits in a slouch and is polite but terse in his responses, like my own youngest, who is also named John. I ask if he can recall happy memories from Bor. He repeats a story his father used to tell him of a hunt for a hyena and of a clever boy who outwitted the beast. John smiles slightly at this recollection, then retrieves his alert and passive stare.

At 12:30, in the fierce silent heat of the day, two of the older boys in the camp carry Thon out into a field on an old army stretcher. Other boys notice what is happening, but they do not follow. Hens stomp about. Only the sparrows chatter as the boy in the blanket on the stretcher is carried over the field of red soil and rocks. At the grave site, near a grape arbor which is also the cemetery of the former Italian mission, four other boys are taking turns digging Thon’s grave. They use a spade, a hoe, and a shovel with a handle that keeps slipping off. One boy digs until he gets tired, then the next takes over. The air is thick with heat and the thudding of the digging instruments and the heavy breathing of the gravediggers.

A tribal grave has two distinct forms of construction. One, rarely used nowadays, is a large sphere-shaped hole. The body is bound hand and foot, and is buried as if it were a ball.

The other form of grave, the one used for Thon, involves digging a rectangle about three feet deep with a six-inch shelf carved along one side. The body is placed in the deeper part of the hole, then sticks are laid across it, as close as the keys of a xylophone, from the top of the shelf to a parallel ridge cut in the other side of the grave above the body. The sticks are then covered with leaves, and the leaves with the red earth, thus creating a coffin within the grave. That way, it is explained, the body will not expand or explode.

The pastor of Thon’s Episcopal church arrives, a small, neat man named Moses, dressed in a purple shirt and looking no older than 18. Moses stands apart from the others and thumbs through the pages of his Bible. The digging and chopping continue. Not much is said, save for some casual joking, not noticeably nervous. Someone mentions a rumor of a government bombardment near Torit, said to have occurred in the early morning.

The mountains rise like gray animals’ heads in the middle distance, beyond the dry plains of the thorn trees. The deeper the digging, the darker the red earth, from apple to blood to brown. Suddenly the digging stops. Thon’s body is measured with the sticks. The hole is widened by inches.

Two boys climb down into the grave. Two others carry the stretcher to the hole. Thon’s body is lowered carefully so the blanket will not slip; he is placed on his side as if asleep. Then the sticks are laid over him, and the leaves on top of the sticks. The grave looks strangely beautiful, the red earth and the green leaves. Standing at the end of the grave where Thon’s head is, the pastor prays as the hole is filled.

"God, we believe that you are the one who has created human beings and the one who can take human beings away. Our son is now passed back to you. We have no objections."

I ask if a marker will be made for the grave, and the answer is yes – "so if he has a relative, somewhere, he may come to see him."

The silence of approaching death is palpable in Palotaka, and is like the silence of the entire region. But there is another kind of silence in southern Sudan, a traditional and ancient silence, which is connected to the life of the country, and not to its death, and which gives the people a special grace.

Among the children there is play, but no hectic rushing about in the camps. Among the elders everything is done, every step taken, with a stately modesty and self-awareness. Athletes, who learn to fear and revere their bodies, acquire the art of moving very slowly when it is not necessary to do otherwise, to protect themselves from injury. The people of the Sudan, who have to walk their long distances on crippling terrain, have learned that same lesson of slowness and quiet.

They have also learned to stand silently, that is, with the least amount of resistance offered by their posture. Standing in groups, they are like works of perfectly balanced sculpture – mobiles on the ground. If a shoulder slants to the left, a hip is raised to the right. If the back is arched, a leg is drawn beneath it for support. The neck is absolutely conscious of the weight and shape of the head.

There is, in short, a conspiracy, a breathing together, of the land and the people, which, like the quiet of the church in Palotaka, infuses the air with a sense of religion. The silence of the mountains, the trees, the stars, commingles with the silence of the people as they go about their tasks, which, while also silent, are accomplished with total efficiency. It all gets done – the gathering of straw for a tukul, the discovery of a watering hole, the burying of the dead. When the boys walk single file on a long road, they become a vein in the road, a silent line drawn by pen and ink into the earth.

It is this older, traditional silence that seems to be intruded upon these days, to be attacked by the other kind of silence, incurred by the forces of destruction. Silence poisons silence. The men are almost always quiet and polite with one another, but infrequent explosions of temper are enough to suggest a constant smoldering inside, and the capacity for quick, remorseless violence. The boys in Palotaka are noiseless as they go about their work, but they are also joyless; however the camp may resemble a village, it is still a camp. There is a silence in the boys even when they are not technically silent – when they are singing in church or talking among themselves or performing songs for visitors. A song raised in all the camps – "We are so happy to see you today" – has no music in it.

In other circumstances, where the suffering is unavoidable, a certain serenity takes over, as if to confirm a compact between the living and the dead. Among the ill and the dying of southern Sudan, their silence has something of that serenity, but it also has the quality of resentment and bewilderment. These deaths are not the result of a compact with nature; they are violations of nature. There is nothing comforting, companionable, or reasonable about them. The antagonism between the two forms of silence, the welcome and unwelcome, is earsplitting.

Ayen, a woman of 23, lives under a tamarind tree in Nimule, near the Ugandan border. She spends most of her time sitting on a green tarpaulin folded at the corners. Both her children are dead from malnutrition. Her husband is "away." She has tuberculosis and she has been living under this tamarind tree for a year.

The tree fans out over her like an enormous beach umbrella. In its shade she sits cross-legged, wearing a dark-blue dress, over which hangs a light-blue shawl, over which is draped a torn brown blanket. She holds her shaved head bowed most of the time, so it is hard to see her face. When she does look up, she has the expression of someone perpetually about to ask a question.

The tamarind tree rises a few yards in front of the TB clinic in Nimule. It is a clinic with patients suffering from both TB and leprosy, but without a regular doctor. There are more than 120 patients "housed" here, but many, like Ayen, choose to live out of doors. Those who occupy the elongated shack that serves as the clinic’s sole building peer out from its darkness, coughing and staring wildly, their hands gripping the bars on the windows. "This place is for the hopeless," says a guide.

Day and night Ayen lives under her tree, surrounded by her possessions – a tin cup, a plastic bottle of water, a plastic bottle of oil to mix with sorghum, which is her food. Behind her lies a covered orange plastic bowl of tamarind nuts, bitter but rich in vitamin C, and a few large tins used for washing. In the crook of the tree, where the trunk splits into an array of branches, Ayen stores extra clothes and rags. Except for her bowed head and the incessant coughing, she might be mistaken – in her blue dress on the green tarp – for a young woman on a picnic.

"What do you think about, Ayen, under this tree?" I ask her.

"Nothing," she says. Her coughing drives the flies from her lips.

"Do you think about your children?"


"Do you think about your husband?"


"At night, under the tree, do you have dreams?"

She looks up. "Sometimes. Sometimes I have dreams."

"What do you dream about?" I ask.

She bows her head. "Nothing."

Here, in chronological order, are selections from official reports on the conditions in the Sudan since 1988, to which there has been little or no response.

  • From a cable sent to the U.S. State Department by an officer of the mission in Addis Ababa, April 4, 1988:

All [arrivals] were naked through rags around the waists; all had the dull concentration camp stare of the starving.... After visiting [an inpatient medical] unit, UN Sec. Gen Rep. Priestly said it was the worst sight he had seen in 37½ years of UN service.... [The patients] compared poorly with pictures of Nazi concentration camp victims and were as bad or worse as anything seen in Ethiopia during the 1984-6 famine.

  • From a radio message sent by Paride Taban, Roman Catholic bishop of Torit, to a relief-aid organization in Khartoum, September 28, 1988:

This war in the South has become a fratricidal war. We can only compare it to the atomic bomb dropped on Japan or the Vietnam War. Both sides claim to be defending the life and rights of the civilians, but we see that the very civilians they fight for are the victims. Where will our people run to? For wherever they run in the South, their imminent death is waiting for them. Their only chance remains to run to God.

  • From remarks by head of state Lieutenant General Omer al Bashir at a public rally in Khartoum, December 3, 1989:

I vow here before you to purge from our ranks the renegades, the hirelings, enemies of the people and enemies of the armed forces. ... Anyone who betrays this nation does not deserve the honor of living.... There will be no fifth column. The masses have to purge their ranks.... The responsibility is really a collective one. You have authority, and are its enforcers.

  • From Sudan, a Human Rights Disaster: An African Watch Report, March 1990:

The [Sudanese government] has already surpassed its predecessors in its ruthless methods.... Christians and Muslims, northerners and southerners, even brothers from the same family, are to be found fighting on opposite sides of the conflict. It is a civil war that has had devastating consequences for the civil society that will remain even when the war is eventually over.... The current war has been characterized by gross violations of human rights on a scale that is so substantial, it is difficult to convey the true magnitude of the tragedy that is tearing Sudan apart.

  • From the testimony of Roger P. Winter, director, U.S. Committee for Refugees (U.S.C.R.), before two House of Representatives hearings on African affairs, March 15, 1990, and October 25, 1990, and before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on African Affairs, May 14, 1991:

With the rains already beginning in Equatoria, there are no buffer stocks of food in any of the areas I visited.... I consistently examined storage areas in each of the towns I entered. Nothing!... I could routinely see old women forty feet up in the tops of trees, picking leaves to eat.... I must tell you in all sincerity that I am scared. In Sudan today, we are confronting the possibility of preventable human death on a massive scale.... I believe the United States needs to fundamentally reconsider its posture regarding Sudan.... Our policy needs to be people-friendly, not government-friendly.... I spent much of last week in Ler... [where] I visited a Sudanese doctor who performs surgery, including amputations, with the door off an abandoned refrigerator as an operating table. He often performs such operations at night with flashlights his only source of light.

  • From a U.N. General Assembly resolution on the Sudan, December 2, 1992:

The General Assembly... noting with deep concern reports of grave human rights violations in the Sudan, particularly summary executions, detentions without trial, forced displacement of persons and torture... calls on the government of the Sudan to comply with applicable international instruments of human rights.

  • From a letter to Pope John Paul II from Philip Thon Leek, director of the Friends of African Children Educational Foundation, February 6, 1993:

Your Holiness... over 1.5 million lives have already been lost and at least 4 million people from the Southern Sudan and the Nuba mountains have been internally displaced and over 1 million are refugees. Certainly more people will continue to die of starvation, diseases, and the government policy of ethnic cleansing conducted by the Muslim Fundamentalist forces.... We wonder how the international community can afford to passively look on while these atrocities are being committed against their fellow human beings in the Modern Century!

  • From a statement by U.S. representative Frank R. Wolf on February 14, 1993:

The Khartoum government conducted high altitude bombing on [Kajo Keji] when there was no military presence. I saw bomb craters where they hit huts and destroyed the market place.... Our government must work for relief from the Khartoum government. Pressure must be put on them to stop the bombing and stop the killing.... Failure to act soon will surely result in still more tragic loss of life and possibly the loss of an entire culture.

  • From Situation Report No. 2, Agency for International Development (A.I.D.), February 19, 1993:

Conditions for the estimated 10,000 people in Kongor are believed to be the worst in Sudan. The resulting damage of four separate Nuer raids in Kongor from September 1991 to June 1992 and more recent counterattacks by the SPLA/Garang faction has caused "absolutely catastrophic" damage.... There are no children under five in the area, as they have all died.

In the huge displacement camp of Ame, 40 miles to the west of Palotaka, the leader of the camp describes his realm. Jurkuch Barac is a wiry man in his early 40s, with a black goatee and a tough, tight face. He looks curiously, almost accidentally, elegant in a tie-dyed Arab shirt with an intricately embroidered collar, but his manner of speaking is direct, unemotional:

"We have one clinic here. We go days without getting drug supplies. Right now, we have the meningitis. People are dying at a very high rate. We are getting no immunization program, no vaccinations, no food. Water is becoming a big problem. The people flock to the few hand pumps we have in the area. The hand pumps are not providing enough water for the population, and the streams are polluted. You can get diseases from such water. Diarrhea. Dysentery."

"How many doctors do you have in the camp?" I ask.

"We don’t have any doctors, only medical assistants."

"You mean, there is not a single doctor in the camp?"

"Medical assistants only."

"How many medical assistants?"

"Six or seven. For 42,000 people."

"How many cases of meningitis?"

"Of meningitis? Well, it is rampant. There are many, many cases. Four deaths reported today."

"These people died last night?"

"One was this morning." He leans forward. "So this is the situation of the camp."

The ill at Ame are segregated according to gender, disease, and imminence of death. The tents in which they are housed are so dark inside it takes a full minute for one’s eyes to distinguish between people and shadows.

Rebecca, one of the relatively healthy residents, came here from Kongor last year. A woman in her 50s, she stands nearly six feet tall, and has high cheekbones and a gap in her front teeth, one of which is yellow. Regal in her print dress and white kerchief, she carries a tall wooden cross with her, and is known to be deeply religious. Her father was slaughtered with other villagers in Kongor, and buried by a bulldozer.

Her voice is weak. She looks down over the length of her body, as if she were examining a stranger.

"I was not like this when I grew up in Kongor. We had meat there, and fish. But here, the water... "

"How did that happen to your arm?" I ask, referring to a long network of scars below her elbow.

"That was shrapnel from the enemy planes," she says, staring at the wound. "My arm was cut open, and this is the way it healed. They tell me that my bone chipped. I thought my life would be different," she says matter-of-factly. "I wanted an education. I wanted to learn to talk better, in English. Then I would not need to talk to you in translation, if I had been to school."

I point out that I have been to school, yet I need to talk to her in translation.

"What would you have liked to do with your education?" I ask her.

"Politics. I would have liked a life in politics."

"Do Sudanese men like the idea of women in politics?" I ask. The men sitting around laugh wholeheartedly.

"They may not like it," says Rebecca, "but they will learn." Then she looks away. "But politics will not be for me. I have dysentery from the water. And amoebas. I will never leave Ame."

"What do you think about when you’re alone?"

"God. I think about God. And America, of course. I think about America."

"Why America?" I ask.

"Because America brought God to our people. And where would we be without Him?"

The numerous diseases suffered by both children and adults in southern Sudan are all traceable to malnutrition. As explained by Matthew Naythons, a physician and photojournalist who founded a medical team in the Third World, malnutrition begins a chain of breakdowns. The absence of food means that the body shuts down protein synthesis. When protein synthesis stops, immune globulins (antibodies) – the patient’s first line of defense against infectious agents in the environment – are no longer produced and the immune system is weakened. One of the first immune globulins to go is IgA (immune globulin A), and its loss is compounded by depletion of vitamins, which are necessary for protecting the skin, the functioning of the nervous system, repair of damaged body tissues, and the integrity of various mucosal linings such as the stomach and the intestinal tract.

When the immune system is weakened and immune globulins are low, even the most minor disorders can become life-threatening. The individual is exposed to, and ravaged by, every virus, bacterium, and parasite that exists in the contaminated environment. For the starved child, a diarrheal illness is no mere inconvenience. Unable to ward off or eliminate intestinal parasites, and lacking mucosal immunity, the child develops a chronic infection as the gastric tract grows inflamed and ulcerated.

Tuberculosis, often "contained" by a healthy immune system, or limited to the respiratory tract, spreads throughout the body in both children and adults. In most infants, its spread to the brain leads to coma and death.

While a person in reasonably good health may merely get sick from malaria, these people die. The anemia from the malaria is compounded by anemia from hookworms, which are endemic to the Sudan, and anemia from chronic infection. Moreover, the patients lack the dietary protein and iron to replace red blood cells destroyed by the invading malarial parasites. Thousands are dying from diseases one could cure in America by going with a prescription to the corner drugstore.

The body also does a strange thing in the presence of chronic infection; it hides iron stores. It does this because bacteria and parasites thrive on iron, and the body attempts to deprive them of an element they need to reproduce. Thus the parasites lack iron, but so does the body.

No food also means no fat. If there is no fat in the diet, there is little vitamin A (a fat-soluble vitamin). Blindness due to measles (a complication resulting from vitamin-A deficiency) is commonplace in the Sudan, yet unheard of in the developed world, even in the pre-vaccination era.

The body falls further and further behind in the production of red blood cells, and can no longer deliver oxygen to the heart, the lungs, the brain. The patient soon can hardly move from lack of energy. The skin breaks down and is covered with sores. There is constant pain from dysentery. The stomach bloats, the limbs waste away. With malaria, the brain swells, bleeding increases, the lungs fill up with edema, impairing breathing.

This, in one form or another, is what is happening, or has already happened, inside the bodies of Ayen, John, Philip, Thon, Laura, Cirilio, and Rebecca.

The roads in southern Sudan, few as they are, create a clumsy and confusing imposition on a terrain that did without them for millions of years, and may do so again. There is no logic to their patterns; they take sudden detours around trees, split off in two or three erratic directions at once, then convene again like participants in a square dance of the mad. Often only a tremor of human instinct tells the driver whether he is still following the road or has now veered off on an illusion of a road, down where no roads go, into the endless flats. Or worse: toward one of the crater like fissures caused by erosion that open their twisted mouths in the earth and wait for a catch. It is somewhere between early and midmorning, the temperature is already above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the Land Rover is bucking its way toward the military encampment of Dr. John Garang, the longtime leader of the S.P.L.A.

A huge black-and-white falcon swoops over the Land Rover like a glider, then hangs motionless in the air, the embodiment of dangerous stillness. The Land Rover spooks cattle occasionally, and the dik-diks, the miniature antelope who flee in serpentine panics, first stupidly into the middle of the road, then into the dust and the helmets of bush. Once, I happen to look over my shoulder and see a baboon glowering at us in a field, his stance and attitude that of a heavyweight boxer ready to knock my block off.

The kings and queens of this terrain live in tall, elaborate castles, but will not show themselves. They are the termite ants who have built their mud hills, like adobe villages, in enormous, imaginative shapes – some like igloos, some phallic. Many of these hills reach over 20 feet in height and have perfectly circular holes in their sides, like eyes. They are everywhere, scattered like the first efforts of a building project that ran out of cash. They are as hard as rocks. Once, a light airplane brushed one of them on the landing field at Nimule and tore a gash in its wing.

One imagines the life in the hills of these termite ants. In a region where there is so little motion outside, what activities, what manipulations and intrigues, occur within these castles?

The road through southern Sudan passes village after abandoned village, the vacant tukuls looking like the straw sparrow nests that hang from the shorn trees. Human life shows itself on the road in the files of the young bearing rifles on their backs or water on their heads. But it is mostly empty, the land empty, the sky empty, painted with the still gray slashes of clouds. Only the hills of the termite ants have life in them. What life?

Like most leaders of people, Garang stands his ground, waiting to be approached by his visitors. Built powerfully, six feet tall, balding, with gray in his beard, he is dressed in fatigues; he carries a small firearm in a leather holster on his right side; his boots are not quite shined. He has smart, calm, tired eyes. Every soldier who approaches salutes him. Armed guards form a loose circle around him. Goats and cattle form a loose circle around the guards.

After the introductory formalities, Dr. John, as he is called, takes his position on a folding chair placed before a card table covered with a red cloth on which sits a word processor and a printer, run by a generator.

"This is my second wife," he says of the word processor.

"It can’t do everything a wife can do," I offer. He almost smiles. "No comment."

Dr. John earned his undergraduate degree at Grinnell College, the small liberal- arts school in Iowa; later returned to the U.S. to receive his doctorate in economics at Iowa State; joined the Sudanese army as an officer in 1972; received military training at Fort Benning, Georgia; left the army in 1983 after attaining the rank of colonel. He has been connected with his own share of war crimes and atrocities to civilians in the 10 years he has led the S.P.L.A., but is by far the lesser of the two main evils in the Sudan’s North-South civil war, and is now looking for a way to stop the fighting. He is also said to be a worn-out figure, and there is talk of his stepping down. In a sense he leads two armies at once: an army of soldiers and an army of shepherds for his displaced countrymen.

"What are your thoughts about what’s happening to your country?" I ask him.

"That’s a very difficult question to answer," he replies coolly, as if it were not difficult to answer at all. "What is the price of freedom? Wars are known through history. The Allied forces fought for freedom, for things they valued. London was virtually leveled. There was lots of suffering. Six million Jews perished. History is very cruel and wars are very bad. Civilizations die."

"What are the elements that define a civilization?"

"Culture. Language. Industry. Education. Health. A sense of history. A sense of belonging. A sense of destiny in addition to the material effects of civilization. The spirituality of it."


"Yes, the sense of belonging to a community."


"That of course is the beginning. We are a family people in Africa. It is peculiarly painful to watch these children who have now lost their families."

"So, is there anything left of civilization in southern Sudan?"

"Nothing is ever completely eradicated. I met a tribe one time that had no names, the people were not given names. ’How can you have no names?’ I asked them. But these people resisted their Arab names. And at the same time, they were ashamed of their African names. So they chose nothing. No individuality. We in Sudan at least still have individuality."

"Is it religion that has gotten Sudan into so much trouble?" I ask.

"No, religion is part of the world."

"So what does one do to moderate feelings that run amok?"

"I believe in dialogue," he says. "It is possible to have dialogue between the religious communities in Sudan. The government people are not just fundamentalists per se. They are, in the first place, politicians. What set of pressures – political, economic, diplomatic, even religious – needs to be brought to bear on these people who call themselves fundamentalists so that they will compromise, will come to their senses? If their interests are threatened by these pressures, they will negotiate."

"What pressures do you mean?" I ask.

"International pressures by governments, the United Nations, by concerned people, journalists."

He bends down and draws circles in the dust with his fingers. "At a meeting with the other side, I presented three models of the Sudanese situation. The first model is where you have Sudan and you have southern Sudan within it. So, let us call this Model One. It is unworkable. It has cost us 27 years of war out of 37 years of independence."

Next, he draws two circles that overlap in a small eye-shaped area. He shades in this area. "Where you have these two circles – this is the North, this is the South – we have things that are common between us. This shaded area is what I call the Sudanese confederation. Anything we don’t agree on, put it on one side or the other. Things we mutually agree on, put them in the shaded area."

He draws two wholly separate circles. "If that does not work, then we will go to Model Three. These are two circles that do not touch and that are only linked by normal relations between independent, completely independent, countries. I call this the separation model."

"You prefer Model Two?" I ask.

"If Model Two can be brought about – that is, if we can establish this commonality as a result of dialogue between North and South to our mutual benefit – yes, this would be the ideal solution." In fact, most authorities dealing with the Sudan believe that the only possible salvation of the country lies in a division of the North and South.

"And while everyone is waiting for Model One, Two, or Three, what is to be done to protect the civilians?" I ask.

"We have called for the establishment of the demilitarized zones," he says, "safe havens or safety zones to protect innocent civilians in southern Sudan while we are working this thing out, so that lives are protected."

This is the solution also recommended by Roger Winter of the U.S.C.R., Helge Rohn of the Norwegian People’s Aid, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (U.N.H.C.R.). The trouble with it is that the terrorizing of civilians is the government’s main strategy. For Garang, the idea of safe havens presents the government with a lose-lose proposition, so he favors it politically. If Khartoum says yes to safe havens, it only helps the S.P.L.A. If Khartoum says no, it displays a barbaric attitude toward world opinion, which it is now courting. (The government has recently hired Pagonis and Donnelly, a P.R. firm in Washington.) The solution needs the active backing of the U.S. and the U.N.– and neither has shown any indication of giving it. Yet the two in concert are the only hope of effectively pressuring Khartoum.

Garang goes on: "The S.P.L.A. can call for a cease-fire to provide a conducive atmosphere for peace talks. We are willing to do this."

I ask him, "What’s preventing you from announcing a unilateral cease-fire right now?"

"We are doing that today." He points to the word processor. "We’re printing it out."

At the end of April, the government and the Garang faction of the S.P.L.A. do in fact meet in Nigeria for talks. But at the same time, the intrafactional wars of the S.P.L.A. intensify. It is expected that the government will take advantage of the rebel infighting and move to close off Nimuie and its airstrip, making future relief efforts nearly impossible. It will also undoubtedly increase the air raids on the boys, forcing them to move again.

"Why do they smile so readily?" I ask Philip Thon Leek, of the Friends of African Children Educational Foundation, who smiles quite readily himself. I refer to the children of the newly established camp at Natinga, but I am really thinking of all the southern-Sudanese children I have seen.

Leek answers, "Because they regard visitors as signs of hope."

"I don’t believe that," I say. "The smile seems too willing, too much a motor reflex, to have something so practical behind it."

"A smile is a strange expression, anyway," says Leek. "It appears and disappears so quickly."

"I have never seen smiling the way these children do it," I tell him. "Never seen anything as giving and wholehearted. What do they have to smile about?"

"Nothing, of course. And if you do not smile at them, they will not smile in return. They are not fools. And they know that grown-ups are dangerous. But if you show them your friendly face, if you suggest that you wish them well... "

"That’s it, then? They see strangers as those who wish them well?"

"Perhaps," says Leek. "Or maybe their smiling has nothing to do with anyone else."

"What do you mean?"

"Maybe their smiling simply makes them feel happy for a moment, the moment of the smile. For that one moment," says Leek, "the children live in a different world – where people smile."

The camp at Natinga has been set up hastily as a security measure. Talk of a forthcoming government offensive persuaded the S.P.L.A. that the former camps at Molitokolo and Brongole should be abandoned for a place with a terrain more difficult for government troops to penetrate. So the boys in Molitokolo and Brongole, who had trekked hundreds of miles to those camps, were sent on yet another trek, of 21 days- and 160 miles. On the way, as usual, they sustained themselves by eating leaves and hibiscus. They eat the same things in the camp, since no food has yet arrived.

No medical supplies have arrived at the camp yet, either. Only five watering holes have been discovered so far; these are not rushing springs, but merely holes where water seeps through the ground and, every few hours, collects. The quality of this water is as yet untested.

The total number who have reached the camp is 3,978, including families and elders who serve as teachers. I ask the leaders if this new migration was really necessary. They reply that they are certain the government will bomb the former camps. But why take the political risk of bombing children, especially after Garang's peace initiative and the U.N. censure? The answer comes that Khartoum, public-relations efforts to the contrary, does not really care about world opinion; its intention is to absorb or eradicate a people. But why children? "Because the child is the heart of the people," one leader says, "and bombardment is terrorism."

The camp at Natinga is, in reality, just the first traces of a camp, the initial efforts of people trying to build a place to live out of rocks, bushes, and trees. Children carry cone-shaped bundles of straw for the tukuls. A young woman uses a thick pole, a lek, to pound grain into meal in a dong, a wooden vessel. There is a rhythmic beating of axes on the trees. Half-completed tukuls stand like hairnets on stilts. Everyone is moving slowly and methodically, as is the custom, but in the leaden evening light, the people seem to be walking underwater, each movement of an arm or leg a ritualistic gesture, like a benediction without a recipient.

A handful of boys gather on a large rock for my benefit. We talk about their ambitions, which are high. One wants to become a teacher; two, doctors. The youngest of the lot says that he will be a bishop. "Don’t you have to become a priest first?" I tease him. The others laugh, but the boy insists, "I’ll be a bishop."

As we talk I watch the elders of the camp as they watch the boys. Neither here nor in Palotaka could I tell how the older men regarded these boys – as objects of affection; as members of a foster family; as wards for whose moral and intellectual education they are responsible; as workers in the field; as future soldiers. There is something equally familiar and formal in the way the boys are addressed by the elders. Perhaps the closest analogy is to English public schools, but without the horseplay, and, of course, without any sense or assumption of privilege.

They certainly do not coddle these boys. A priest at Palotaka told me that he was not in the least concerned with their psychological problems. Sebit William, Palotaka’s director, was definitely concerned, but even as he urges the boys to "talk out" their suffering, in Western psychological terms, he also pushes them to focus on whatever tasks are at hand. "They grow up very fast here," says William. "This is no child’s experience."

The area where the settlers of Natinga have discovered the five watering holes lies at the base of a large rock, at least 60 feet high, which has been whitewashed by the repeating rains. It looks as if it is wearing clown’s makeup. The rock is the kind that boys who live in easier surroundings use for games of adventure. A few of the boys here do play on the rock, but again, every move is slow and studied, and there is never any boisterous calling out. A boy has found his special niche in a large egg-shaped indentation in the rock; he has claimed it as his framework, and sits inside it like a subject in a portrait, distractedly beating a stick against one of its sides.

At the top of the rock, an older boy sits playing a handmade lyre. A triangle of sticks holds the strings in place, and is stuck into an empty oil can, which gives the instrument, called a rabala, its resonance. The song he plays is a repetition of chords strummed at a variety of cadences, and altered subtly from time to time. It sounds more like background music than a piece in itself.

Then, when it seems that the song will consist only of chords, the boy breaks into lyrics. A camp leader translates from the Dinka: "Mother and Father, I leave you now. I have to go away to school. Do not think about me again." Then the boy sings another song, one line of which is "Give me a pen that I may become somebody in the future."

The boy plays his rabala in a sitting position with his legs curled under him, exposing his feet to my view. The feet are long and narrow. They look like leatherworks into which the legs have been stuck like poles. The soles of the boy’s feet are as smooth as rubbed stones. The tips of the toes are tanned marbles. There is a deep, dark crease, like one of the erosion fissures in the road, between the toes and the balls of the feet, which are flattened, showing only the hint of an arch. I think: A perfect walking instrument – as if the boy had made it with his hands, like the rabala.

The sky is blood orange, then dark, and the figures of the camp are gliding like hallucinations among the tents and the tukuls. Talk is sucked into the air; every sentence sounds like a whispered secret. A single star, the night’s first, appears as a pinpoint of unpolished silver. There is an earthquake, barely a ripple, but sufficient to remind us that we are on earth.

The sudden fall of darkness alerts everyone to the necessity of flashlights. The elders of the camp sit on the ground and on benches that were made this afternoon from a tree called kam, used by the Nuer for spear handles because of its hardness. "A girl is straight like a kam" is a compliment. Of kam, they have also made beds for the visitors, though they have none for themselves. The talk is of stories and of storytelling. The telling of stories is not mere entertainment for these people; it is their connection to one another and to the past, a past, as one of them says, that "goes to the beginning of time." Stories cover the entire continent of Africa. Vast regions of deserts, rain forests, mountains, savannas, plateaus, and rocky areas like Natinga are held together by stories.

The main themes of the stories are hunger, danger, trickery, loyalty, custom, and community – especially community. There is a terrible story told of a man named Hornbill who disregarded the customs of his village and refused even to attend the services for the dead. When Hornbill’s own child died, the other villagers would not tell him the location of the graveyard. "Where are the graves?" Hornbill asked everyone he passed as he bore his dead child on his back. But no one would tell him. So Hornbill walked the earth forever, carrying his dead child on his back, and crying, "Where are the graves?"

Every story has a moral, but the morals are not always clear. Stories that seem to have reached reasonable conclusions do not come to an end where one expects them to; underlying each tale is the idea that a narrative, like nature itself, always continues. Yes, this has happened, yet something else, perhaps even more amazing, will happen next.

"Do the boys in the camp still tell stories?" I ask.

The men are not sure about this – so many traditions have been lost in the war years. So we all go over in a group to a place near a fire where many boys have gathered for the night. They surround the elders at once, as if we had brought them a gift. Yes, they do still tell stories once in a while. They warm to the invitation, forming a large huddle. The boy storytellers step forward one by one. Each is accorded great respect and anticipation.

One boy tells of a fox who made a deal with a lion for a rabbit, and who winds up tricking the lion. Another tells a winding tale of a man who pretends to be blind to beg for money, and who, because of his greed and stupidity, is in fact made blind. The most successful story is the dirty one – about a beautiful woman made to dress scantily by her husband to lure and humiliate her lecherous suitors. The teller of this tale is expertly solemn. The boys are beside themselves with laughter.

We deliberately hold our flashlights low, away from the faces of the boys, to enhance the effects of their words in the dark. No one seems to grow tired, though it is clear that these tales have been told and retold before. The boys watch my reaction, and seem as delighted by my pleasure as they are by the stories themselves. I study the outlines of their bodies in the dark, set against the deeper darkness of the mountains behind them and a gray purple sky now splashed with stars.

Then one of the boys invites me to tell a story, but I decline. It is not that I am unable to think of one, but the story that comes to mind is not right for the occasion, is too fragmentary and inconclusive, and, at any rate, is one they all have heard one way or another before.

It is about a young woman of 23 named Ayen, who lives under a tamarind tree in Nimule, and dreams of nothing.

© 1993 Vanity Fair Magazine