A Piece of Sudan History

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[Reflections From History]

In 1970 when Sudan's then President Jafaar Numeiri had been in power less than nine months, I witnessed the incipient stirrings of the first revolt against him.

I was living in a small village called Rufa'a set away on the edge of the desert on the east bank of the Blue Nile. Rufa'a, with its mud walled single storey houses and sand splashed streets might have been insignificant to look at, but it contained all the explosive contradictions that were to combine together to set off the events that were to lead to the eventual destruction of the nation.

The village was divided over education, alcohol, women's rights, and the coming clash between conservatism and socialism. Rufa'a had always been perceived, even applauded, as a hotbed of religious conservatism yet it was also marked out for praise because one of its sons had pushed for the first secondary school for girls in the country to be built there back in the twenties.

Indeed his supporters, backed by the British Administration, had erected a statue of the man in his honor. The statue was intended to acknowledge this man's forward thinking, his determined march towards modernism, his contribution, but, of course, the sight of it was anathema to the conservatives.

The head was removed from it within days of it being put up. All those years later, the stone trunk still stood, but no-ne knew if this was in defiance or in defeat. What remained though gave out a message; a grim reminder of what might have been, or was it an explicit warning not to meddle with tradition?

At night the village changed. The dogs that lurked around the souk --market-- and kept out of the way of camels and meat traders, came into their own. They were vicious beasts, dogs, desperate for food and territory and unafraid of the odd villager who might venture out abroad.

But even the dogs kept away from the curious monster that was said to be visible on the edge of the village in the early evenings an hour or two after the sun had set across the river. It was true, something was happening out there, beyond the remit of the flickering electric lamps powered by the village generators.

I went to see for myself. I reached the edge of the village where the mud houses were swallowed up by the vast desert gloom and for sure I could hear a humming noise. As my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, I could make out a huge white, throbbing blanket that spread across the desert floor.

It looked and sounded like an enormous creature, warm and throbbing and menacing. But it wasn't an animal. It was the entirety of the village's Muslim Brotherhood, praying. Praying for what, I asked? And, anyway, why not do this in the mosque? I was told they were making their plans to resist the new government, to put this upstart in his place, to restore the old ways, to send home the hundreds of communist advisers who had suddenly appeared in the country. Now, that made sense.

On a number of occasions I had been stopped and asked where I was from. Moscow or East Berlin were the favourite guesses. Numeiri's revolution and immediate purging of the army and ministries had left him with a skills gap. Subsequently he imported the "experts" to advise him on how to progress the revolution. This mini invasion of fair-haired youngish men and women from eastern Europe had infuriated the Sudanese middle classes.

Their discontent was taken up by the mosque and was disseminated throughout the north of the country. Khartoum, the capital, though less than three hours bus ride away through the canals of the cotton-rich Gezeira, could have been another continent.

Certainly there was an extraordinarily yawning cultural chasm between the lives of those in the city and those in Rufa'a. There were nightclubs in the city where over-the-hill Hungarian dancers took off their clothes and the men who watched them paid £5 Sudanese for a bottle of Johhny Walker. You could in fact get a drink in Rufaas though a degree of subterfuge had to be employed and the end result, a warm bottle of clear though by no means pure alcohol spirit wrapped in a old newspaper, was never satisfying.

Khartoum, the seat of the president's power, was seen as an evocation of all that was worse about the great power blocs: the city had been corrupted and was being run by the infidel for his own selfish purposes. The murmur in the night soon became a roar.

The rebellion was centred on the most revered place in the country, Abba Island on the White Nile near Kosti, the spiritual home of the nation's greatest warrior, the man who had humiliated the British and, even better, the Egyptians--he was Muhammad Ahmed ibn Abdallah, the Mahdi. Thousands had gathered there prepared to march on Khartoum just as the Mahdi had done 90 years before.

The problem was that while Numeiri had the luxury of modern weapons, the Mahdi-ists were armed with swords and home-made carbines. The battle would be uneven, and in fact it was never fought.

That was not to say there wasn't a massacre. The two Folland Gnat trainers belonging to the Sudanese Air Force that repeatedly flew over Rufa'a were viewed with as much excitment as fear. They were, I was told, on their way south, just a couple of hundred kilometres, nothing for a fast modern jet like them, to bomb and straff the rebel army.

No-one ever knew how many were killed. Some estimate 60,000. I expect Numeiri knew.

Astles was an advisor to Uganda dictator Idi Amin Dada. The movie "The Last King Of Scotland" was loosely based on his life.

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milton@blackstarnews.com for publication.

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