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May 2, 2000

With a former rebel driving, food aid enters rebel-held area

Tenth in a series

By Andrew Maykuth

YEI, Sudan - Ater Awan was 12 when war broke out in Sudan in 1983. Two years later, he said, his father was arrested, accused of supporting the rebels, and executed.

Deprived of his father's financial support, Awan could not afford an education, so he joined the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army. His life as an infantryman was cut short when he was partly disabled after an ambush.

So he learned to drive a truck.

Yesterday, Ater Awan (pronounced Ah-tare Ah-won) climbed behind the wheel of a battered Hino 10-wheeler, one of a fleet of rebel transport vehicles captured from the government. He departed Koboko, Uganda, with 14 tons of American sorghum grain. The rest of the original shipment of 35 tons went on another truck. The relief food, donated by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is destined to feed people displaced by Sudan's 17-year civil war.

Near the Ugandan border, children play on a tank abandoned by the government of Sudan when the rebels took control of the area in 1997.
*View more photos from Day 10
Gears grinding, black diesel smoke belching, and wheezing like a two-pack-a-day smoker, Awan's truck quickly took on additional cargo as it rattled toward the border: More than 20 passengers heaved themselves atop the bags of grain to hitch a ride into Sudan. There is no bus service into impoverished rebel-held territory, so almost every vehicle moving into Sudan is packed with passengers. Awan shouted angrily to try to limit the crowd forming on the back of his vehicle, but people kept climbing aboard.

"I'm very happy to take this food to our people," said Awan, 29, who has four children and two wives - not unusual for a Sudanese man. "We're really suffering. We're really eager to get this food in."

Awan's mission will be to deliver the sorghum to a feeding center operated by the humanitarian organization Norwegian People's Aid in the town of Tali. The town is 270 miles inside Sudan, a three-day drive if all goes well.

But the perils Awan could face were apparent yesterday. Just a few miles after crossing Uganda's border with Sudan, a Sudanese air force bomber appeared from the east, flying at a high altitude.

Although the Khartoum government announced two weeks ago that it had suspended most air raids on rebel-held parts of southern Sudan, nobody here trusts the government. Awan pulled the truck over in the shade of a towering mango tree to see if he had become a target. His passengers scattered.

When the Russian-made Antonov bomber did not return, Awan resumed his clattering journey down the dirt road. His aging truck was having a hard time. Every few miles, Awan stopped the truck so that one of four assistants or "turn-boys" could climb up on the truck's hood to slosh a few gallons of water into the radiator.

A mere eight miles into Sudan, through rolling terrain that Awan said often contained anti-personnel mines, the driver again stopped under the broad shade of a mango tree, this time to replace a leaky oil line.

The Sudanese civil war is one of Africa's longest-running conflicts, pitting the Islamist government against animist and Christian rebels in the south. Sudan has traditionally been dominated by northerners, who derisively refer to black African southerners as "slaves."

The long neglect of southern Sudan was evident the instant Awan crossed the border. It's a very poor area, with almost no commerce - one of the few places in Africa where you can't get a soft drink at a roadside stand. The dirt road rapidly deteriorated, and the roadside was littered with debris from past battles.

The Sudan People's Liberation Army controlled the area between the border town of Kaya and Yei from 1990 through 1993, when the government of Sudan retook the region in a major offensive that triggered a huge refugee outflow.

The rebels recaptured the border region in 1997, opening up most of the countryside to road traffic that allowed food aid to come in by truck rather than the more expensive airdrops. Although the government still controls several large cities such as Juba, most of the countryside is effectively under rebel control.

Awan says the risk of attack is small when he drives, although he did hit an antitank mine near the border in 1997. Fortunately, it struck the rear wheel, so it destroyed the truck and Awan survived without significant injury. "If it had been the front wheel, you wouldn't be talking to me now," he said, speaking in Dinka, the language of the Dinka tribe, one of southern Sudan's major ethnic groups.

Awan also is familiar with the difficulties of driving on southern Sudan's badly maintained roads in the rainy season, which is beginning now.

Last July, he got stuck in mud with a full load of grain - all the wheels were up to their axles - and waited for help. When it failed to arrive, he and his crew jacked up the truck and wedged logs under the wheels to extricate themselves. They were stuck for two weeks.

Shirtless yesterday in a cab roasting at 93 degrees, Awan said he had grown up in the capital, Khartoum, where his father was a police captain.

He moved back to his home region, Bor, when the war broke out in 1983 and the government declared Islamic Sharia law in the south.

"The people in Khartoum want us all to be Muslims," said Awan, a Catholic who has a cross mounted on the paint-chipped interior of his cab.

Awan fled to Ethiopia with relatives when the army from the north put down an uprising in Bor with a massacre. In 1985, Awan said, his father was suspected of supporting the rebels and killed by government interrogators.

"I was bitter about the death of my father, so I wanted to help the movement in any way I could," he said.

So now he is a truck driver. He describes his work driving for a company owned by the rebel movement as "voluntary." He depends upon his two wives to raise cash by selling traditional beer, made of sorghum.

"You are asking a lot of questions," he said. "What are you going to give me?"

*On to Day 11

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