Despite a ban on air raids, civilians keep a watchful eye
By Andrew Maykuth
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
LAINYA, Sudan - The Sudanese plane came around 9 a.m. Sunday, flying high over this town in rebel-held territory. Eight bombs landed harmlessly in the bush. Eight more landed about 200 yards from the Anglican church, where the congregation had just begun prayers.
Some of the bombs - crude devices containing explosives and scrap steel shrapnel that are pushed out of aging Soviet-era Antonov aircraft - landed close to the road where Ater Awan's truck passed yesterday, carrying a load of American grain bound for people displaced by Sudan's civil war.
Awan, a Sudanese driver hauling 13 tons of sorghum in a battered Hino truck, drove more than 120 miles yesterday and ended the day in Lui, a town where a hospital run by a American missionary organization, Samaritan's Purse, has also been a frequent target of bombing this year.
"With the power of the Lord, there were no injuries," said Bakata Lasu Lemi, a nurse at the Lainya clinic that was only 100 yards from where the bombs exploded, leaving six-foot-wide craters and spreading shrapnel into some trees.
Sudanese herders move cattle along the main road outside Yei, where an air raid Monday put patients at a hospital to flight. Rainy weather makes mud holes in the road, creating added problems for truckers.
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Not everyone who is targeted by the Sudanese air force is so fortunate. In February, 14 students and one teacher were killed when bombs hit a school in Kaoda, in another part of southern Sudan.
The Sudanese government's tactic of bombing civilian targets in its 17-year civil war has attracted much international criticism, prompting Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on April 19 to announce a suspension of air raids on civilian targets in rebel-held territory.
But in this town, one of many villages along this postapocalyptic highway of ruined buildings and the twisted wreckage of rusting vehicles, residents say the ban is a farce.
"They talked of not bombing civilian areas, but Lainya is full of civilians," Bakata said. Only a handful of soldiers appeared to be in town, guarding a road checkpoint.
Today Awan plans to drive his load of grain to a feeding center in Tali, the final destination on a 1,435-mile journey that began when a ship arrived in the Kenyan port of Mombasa last month carrying 8,100 tons of food for Sudanese displaced by the war.
The Tali feeding center, run by the humanitarian organization Norwegian People's Aid, has itself been the target of bombing in recent days, according to aid workers along the road.
Awan seems undeterred by the reports. The former fighter with the Sudan People's Liberation Army has driven trucks and small vehicles in southern Sudan for six years, encountering all manner of difficulties in an impoverished region wracked by decades of war.
"Have you ever driven a car without brakes?" he asked. "I drove a Land Rover for a year without brakes because the owner could not afford to fix it." He quickly added that he never had an accident.
Yesterday morning Awan departed the town of Yei, dismissing a group of hitchhikers who wanted to pile onto his truck by telling them he was coming right back. He didn't want to take the extra weight.
Awan's truck bounced along a rough dirt road filled with puddles and mud by the onset of the rainy season. Norwegian People's Aid is trying to rush the consignment to its feeding centers before the rains completely cut off roads. Awan was anxious to get to his destination before rivers began to rise.
Passing through teak forests near Loka where most of the large trees have been cut down and exported, the narrow road turned north at Lainya through groves of bamboo. The terrain is largely flat, disrupted occasionally by 400-foot granite protrusions that jut from the forested plains.
There was little commerce or traffic along this road other than Awan's truck. Several trucks bearing bags of peanuts from Mundri drove past heading into Yei, and the only other vehicles belonged to an aid agency patching the road.
People here get by with little. Young men hunt rodents with bows and arrows, and many people wear tattered clothes. The markets have few supplies from the outside world - some plastic basins, a few cans of sardines, loose cigarettes and commodities such as salt. Everyone sells mangoes, but there are few buyers, as mangoes lie on the ground free for the taking.
Before the civil war began between the Islamic government in Khartoum and the Christian and animist black Africans from the south, the villages along the route were more prosperous. But many of the schools, hospitals and churches built of brick have fallen into ruins as this region has traded hands several times during the war. The rebels have occupied it since 1997.
Many of the government's homemade bombs are poorly designed and penetrate deep into the soil before detonating, limiting the blast damage. But the bombs seem designed not so much to kill as to frighten away the population that has been returning from refugee camps since the rebels reoccupied the zone.
The Antonovs don't even need to drop the bombs to cause panic. One plane flew over Yei on Monday, prompting patients at a hospital there to flee. By the end of the day, few had returned.
In Lui, where Samaritan's Purse operates a hospital, it is the same story.
"They've bombed Lui five times this year, and directly they've killed only one person," said Eddie Densham, the director in charge of Sudan for Samaritan's Purse, based in Boone, N.C. "But indirectly they've killed many more, because people are afraid to come to the hospital. The fear is killing more people than the bombs themselves."
The Antonovs fly at about 20,000 feet, beyond the range of antiaircraft guns or missiles. The drone of the planes' propellers give people about a minute to rush to an underground bomb shelter. The whoosh of the bombs begins about 12 seconds before impact.
"We feel within a minute, we can get deep into the rocks above our house," said Densham, a Kenyan whose wife, Brittany, is a nurse at the Lui hospital. "If you can get into the rocks, you're probably OK."
In March, 3,000 patients visited the hospital, but only half that many came in April because of fear of the bombs, Densham said.
"We can keep the hospital up and running here," he said, "but if the patients stay away, it's all a joke."
On to Day 12