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By Paul Salopek
The oldest civil war in the world is being fought, on one side, by men who wander like demented hospital orderlies across the primordial wastes of Africa.
I follow them one hot morning as they flee a government ambush in the oil fields of southern Sudan. One of their comrades has just been shot dead, his body abandoned on a parched savanna that hides nearly 20 billion dollars' worth of low-sulfur crude. We retreat for hours under a scalding sun, crossing in the process a vast, cauterized plain of cracked mud. I pause a moment to watch them: an ant-like column of rebels dressed in bizarre homemade uniforms of green cotton smocks and white plastic slippers, limping into the heat waves of distance. Five casualties bounce in stretchers. They suffer their bullet wounds in silence. A boy marching in front balances a car battery on his head. He is the radio operator's assistant. Every few hundred yards he puts the battery down and empties blood out of a shoe.
When we finally reach a tree line, the fighters strip off their clothes and jump into a bog. The water stinks. It is infested with larvae of guinea worms, which, once ingested, burrow painfully through the body to the legs, and are extracted by making a small incision; you reel the worm out slowly, day after day, by winding it on a small stick. All around us, half-naked people move feebly through the thorn forest: ethnic Dinka herders displaced from the contested oil fields by fighting between rebels and the central government based in the faraway capital, Khartoum. Their children, stunted and ginger-haired from malnutrition, clamber in the trees. They are collecting leaves to eat. This awful place, I learn, is called Biem—a safe haven, such as it is, of the 40,000-strong Sudan People's
"You cannot reclaim what is lost," the sweating rebel commander says, squatting in the shade of an acacia, "so you just keep fighting for what little you have left." He is trying to console himself. But I see little solace for the epic tragedy of Sudan. It is April 2002, and Africa's largest country is lurching into its 19th uninterrupted year of warfare—the latest round of strife that has brutalized Sudan, off and on, for most of the past half century. More than two million Sudanese are dead. We just left the latest fatality sprawling back in the yellow grasses, a bullet through his brain. And thousands of scarecrow civilians stagger through the scrub, starving atop a lucrative sea of petroleum.
Numbly, I crawl inside an empty grass hut to be alone. Lying flat on myback—depressed, exhausted, stewing in my own helplessness—I try to remind myself why I have returned to Sudan: Because peace is in the air. Because oil, newly tapped by the government, is shaking up the wretched status quo in Africa's most fractured nation. Because the long nightmare of Biem—and a thousand other places like it in Sudan—may soon be over.
Bulging like a gigantic hornet's nest against the shores of the Red Sea, Sudan has rarely known stability. Civil war erupted even before the nation gained independence from Britain in 1956. (A frail peace lasted between 1972 and 1983.) The roots of the violence have never changed: British-ruled Sudan wasn't a country; it was two. The south is tropical, underdeveloped, and populated by Dinkas, Nuers, Azandes, and some hundred other ethnic groups of African descent. The north, by contrast, is drier, and wealthier—a Saharan world with strong links to the Muslim Middle East. Shackled together by lunatic colonial borders, these two groups—northern Arabs and southern blacks—have been at odds since the 19th century, when northern slave raiders preyed on the tribes of the south.
At present, the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army, or SPLA, controls much of the southern third of Sudan. Its insurgents sometimes carry spears as well as Kalashnikovs and are fighting for greater autonomy. The northern government in Khartoum, now dominated by Islamic fundamentalists, drops bombs on them from old Russian-made cargo planes and employs famines and modern-day slavery as crude weapons of mass destruction. So far the death toll—mostly among southern civilians—exceeds that of many of the world's recent conflicts combined, including Rwanda, the Persian Gulf war, the Balkans, and Chechnya. Four million Sudanese have been displaced by violence and starvation. Yet the calamity of Sudan unfolds largely without witnesses—an apocalypse in a vacuum. Until now.
Two factors are bringing new hope to Sudan. Neither has anything to do with the suffering of millions of Sudanese. Both involve the selfinterest of outsiders.
First, the U.S. war on terrorism appears to be pressuring reforms in the northern Islamist regime. When a military coup backed by the radical National Islamic Front toppled Sudan's last democratically elected government in 1989, the country plunged into a new dark age. Independent newspapers were banned. Labor unions suppressed. The north's moderate Islamic parties were hounded into exile. The civil war escalated to the drumbeat of jihad—holy struggle against indigenous religions and Christianity in the south. Outlaws ranging from Osama bin Laden to Carlos the Jackal settled into mansions in Khartoum's sandy outskirts. And the fundamentalists' secret police, the feared mukhabarat, added a new word to the lexicon of political repression—the "ghost house," or unmarked detention center.
Recently, however, Khartoum's extremists have begun mellowing. Chafing under U.S. economic sanctions, they have begun cooperating with the global war on terror. Desperate to shed their pariah status, they have bowed to Western pressure to enter peace negotiations in the civil war. In October 2002 the government and the SPLA signed a fragile cease-fire.
The second—and perhaps more profound—force of change in Sudan is less noble. It is about something the whole world wants. It is about oil.
In May 1999 engineers in Khartoum opened the tap on a new thousand-mile-long pipeline that connects the Muglad Basin, a huge, petroleum-rich lowland in the south, to a gleaming new tanker terminal on the shores of the Red Sea. The Muglad Basin, a prehistoric lake bed, is said to hold some three billion barrels of crude—nearly half the amount of recoverable oil that lies under the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. This bonanza, pessimists say, is just one more prize for the warring parties to fight over. But oil also has fueled renewed international interest in Sudan. And diplomats are more optimistic.
"It's a no-brainer," says a U.S. expert familiar with Sudan's many woes. "The rebels control much of the oil country. The government has access to the sea. They need each other to get rich."
A Canadian geologist who is mapping the Muglad Basin agrees: "Every Sudanese won't be driving a Mercedes tomorrow—we're not talking about another Saudi Arabia here," he tells me, "but the reserves are big enough to transform Sudan forever."
There are good reasons for skepticism. Sudan's grievances are very old and complex. They confound even the Sudanese. For many, the north-south war is rooted in the old toxic relationship between Arab master and African servant. For the religious, it is a contest between northern Islam and southern indigenous religions and Christianity. For the impoverished herdsmen on the front lines, it is a local skirmish over a water hole or favorite pastureland: Violent disputes among Sudan's hundreds of ethnic groups have been inflamed—and manipulated—by the main warring parties. Yet oil cuts, literally, across all of Sudan's overlapping wars. Better than any road, or river, or political theory, the shining new pipeline leads the way through a labyrinth of misery in the Horn of Africa that defies easy interpretation.
I have traveled before to Sudan. Like many journalists, I was sent there to chronicle a freak show of human suffering: endless civil war, recurrent droughts, mass starvation, slaving raids, and epidemics of killing diseases. Today, however, I am on a different mission. I will follow the flow of Sudan's oil wealth from the implacable war zones of the south to an ultramodern export terminal on the Red Sea; to the country's future.
This will not be an easy journey. I will be forced to complete it in disjointed segments, side-stepping battlefronts, accommodating roadless deserts, avoiding suspicious bureaucrats—an erratic process that mirrors life in Sudan.
I pressed my ear against the pipeline once: The Nile Blend crude oozing inside emitted a faint liquid sigh. I listened hard, sweating under a tropical sun, trying to discern some hidden message—a clue as to whether 33 million Sudanese will stop killing each other anytime soon.
We are sneaking into Unity State, the start of Sudan's pipeline, some 450 miles (724 kilometers) northwest of the Kenyan border.
Flying into rebel-held southern Sudan from Kenya, you must be prepared for certain compromises. First, the flight is illegal. The central government in Khartoum disapproves of independent visits to its unseen war. Then there is the question of facilities. They simply don't exist. For almost four hours we drone over a landscape of impressive emptiness—a sea of grass that is burned and reburned by wildfires into a mottling of purplish grays, as if the muscles of the earth itself lay exposed. Later, a huge bruise darkens the western horizon: the famous Sudd, an enormous swamp clogging the flow of the White Nile. When the chartered Cessna finally touches down at a rebel airstrip, the pilot anxiously dumps my bags in the dust and leaves immediately for Nairobi. This is natural. His shiny airplane, a target for government bombers, stands out dangerously in the bleakest liberated zone in the world.
I have come to see George Athor Deng. Deng is a Dinka fighter, an SPLA commander of note. And he has promised, via shortwave radio, to show me what oil is doing to his people. He smiles sourly when I tell him what the diplomats say, that oil can bring all the Sudanese together.
"When has the north ever shared anything with the south?" he says of the government oil fields a two-day's walk across the front lines. "In the near future we will shut them down. Shut the oil down completely."
I meet Deng where he spends most of his days, issuing orders from a folding chair under a shady acacia. His headquarters, Biem, is like an engraving from another era—from the journals of Stanley and Livingstone. Stockades of elephant grass surround his crude huts. Food is precarious. His soldiers scavenge off the land and, when possible, skim UN rations dropped from airplanes for starving civilians. (His troops' canteens are empty plastic jugs marked "Canada-Aid Soy Milk.") There are at least 25,000 displaced people jammed into Deng's territory, virtually all of them Dinka herders fleeing the fighting in the nearby oil fields, and whenever groups of famished refugees trudge through Biem, begging for food, the commander dispatches a marksman to shoot a hippo.
According to Deng—and he is broadly backed up by human rights groups—oil has sparked some of the ugliest fighting Sudan has seen in years. Deng and other SPLA commanders mortar oil rigs or shoot at oil company planes. And the Khartoum regime responds by striking back ferociously against local civilians. Government helicopters bought with new oil revenues strafe Dinka and Nuer villages. Sorghum crops are torched. And the dreaded murahilin, Muslim raiders armed by the Sudanese Army, sweep through porous rebel lines on horseback, sowing terror and taking slaves. Khartoum denies that it is targeting noncombatants, just as it has long rejected responsibility for slavery in Sudan; it calls these raids tribal abductions, and says they are beyond its control.
"It is simple," Deng declares. "The government is depopulating the area to make way for foreign oil companies."
Deng's outrage would inspire more sympathy if his own forces weren't so morally tainted. Traditionally, the SPLA has mistreated as much as defended Sudan's long marginalized southern peoples. Until the south's oil wealth helped forge a common cause, various rebel factions—especially the Dinka-dominated SPLA and a variety of ethnic Nuer militias—killed each other mercilessly, often with the encouragement of government bribes. Some commanders have kept civilians malnourished in order to "farm" UN aid. And the movement's political agenda has never really solidified. The SPLA's leader, an Iowa State University doctorate named John Garang, claims he is fighting for a secular, unified Sudan (as opposed to the north's theocracy), yet almost every field commander, Deng included, is gunning for full southern independence.
Knowing what I do about the SPLA, I am prepared to dislike Deng. Compact, scar-faced, blinded in one eye, he promenades around the refugee lean-tos of Biem with a lackey in tow, carrying his chair. Yet there is also an ineffable sadness about him. His entire family—a wife, child, and four brothers—have been wiped out in the current phase of the civil war, which erupted in 1983. Such stupefying losses pervade life in the south. They surface all the time in small, melancholy gestures.
Like the way Deng announces the name of his soldier who is killed, shot down and abandoned, on the ill-fated patrol that I attempt to accompany into the oil fields. "Mayak Arop," he sighs, waving a gnarled hand over a map of the expanding government oil roads, as if wishing to wipe them away.
Or, in the way a bowl-bellied Dinka girl stamps out a pretty little dance on a dusty path in Biem, oblivious to the thousands of haunted figures camped in the bush around her.
Or, in the answers to a simple question.
What color is oil?
"It's like cow urine," says Chan Akuei, an old herder at Biem with a belly wrinkled like elephant skin. Government troops have shot his cows, an incomprehensible crime in the Dinka universe. The Dinka adore their cattle. They rarely kill them for meat, and compose songs about their favorite animals. Akuei cannot stop talking about his murdered livestock.
"It is as clear as water," says a boy in Koch, a nearby frontline village. He is a member of an ethnic Nuer militia. The last I see of him, he is marching off at dawn to attack an oil road along with hundreds of other rebels—many of them children.
Nyanayule Arop Deng (the name Deng is common among the Dinka) doesn't know the color of oil. She sits by her skeletal husband, who is dying of kala-azar, a wasting disease that has killed tens of thousands in the oil zone. "All I know is the lights," she says dully. "They appear at night. We don't go near them."
The tower lights of Roll'n wildcat rig number 15 click on at dusk—an unexpectedly pretty sight as the sun drops behind the iron silhouettes of the thorn trees. The quest for oil is tireless, urgent, expensive. It is like a physical thirst—an around-the-clock obsession. Before the evening shift comes on, Terry Hoffman, a sweat-soaked driller from British Columbia, runs one last stand of pipe down into the skin of Sudan.
"Killer bees, cobras, and acid-spewing bugs that give you blisters!" Hoffman hollers over the rig's noisy generator, ticking off the dangers of roughnecking in Sudan. "Boredom's the worst, though. You can't even walk around this place."
Hoffman is a prisoner of his rig. He and his crew must eat their barbecued chicken and cherry pies, read their e-mail, and lift weights inside a Sudanese version of Fort Apache: a 15-foot-high (4.6-meter) berm has been bulldozed around the floodlit work site. Heavily armed government troops patrol the perimeter against the likes of George Athor Deng. Deng is doubtless out there tonight, plotting under his tree.
The idea behind rig 15—a small component in a billion-dollar complex of drilling equipment, dormitories, pumping stations, new roads, and prefabricated office buildings at Heglig, Sudan's torrid version of the North Slope—is visionary in its way.
At present, none of the Western energy majors dares to drill in Sudan. Chevron suspended its exploration in 1984 after three of its employees were shot dead by rebels, and pulled out of the country altogether in 1990. (All American companies abandoned Sudan once the U.S. listed it as a supporter of terrorism and imposed sanctions in the 1990s.) Yet today an improbable mix of engineers from communist China, authoritarian Malaysia, democratic Canada, and Islamist Khartoum have cobbled together an experiment in globalization on the baleful plains of the Sahel. The Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, as it is called, pumps 240,000 barrels of crude a day out of a war zone. Two years from now that output is projected to nearly double. It may surge even higher should lasting peace return to Sudan, and the rebels allow French, Swedish, and Austrian companies to explore their concessions in the south.
"All these stories about us pushing out local people to pump for oil? A total lie," says Bill, a rig supervisor with Talisman Energy, the Canadian partner in the Heglig project.
Bill wears cowboy boots and doesn't share his surname. Like everyone else I meet in Heglig, he seems aggrieved. Talisman has come under fire from human rights groups for allegedly turning a blind eye to government atrocities in the oil patch. (Partly because of this bad publicity, Talisman will later sell its Sudan operation to an Indian oil company.) In response to the criticism, a wary company official in Khartoum lectures me on the value of free markets in reforming oppressive regimes. Supervisors drive me around Heglig in a pickup truck, pointing out unmolested villagers in the savanna. Few of these people are southerners. Most are Baggaras, northern Muslim pastoralists who vie with the Dinkas for grazing lands, and who have come to the oil fields to hack down trees for charcoal.
"TV at home shows these incredible stories—famines and war in Sudan," says Bill. "Well, let me tell you, I've been in a 200-mile (322 kilometer) radius of this place, and I haven't seen that."
Bill may be willfully blind. But then so are his faraway customers. The only difference is, Bill must walk past a rebel bullet hole in his trailer wall every day and not see it. This is a difficult feat. But a common one in Sudan.
There is no fixed front line between SPLA territory and government-controlled Sudan. No walls. No razor wire fences. No permanent Thorn Curtain. The war is fluid. One army cedes power invisibly to another, and what changes across the no-man's-land are things far subtler and more profound than claims of political control. The round grass huts of Africa give way, slowly, to the square mud houses of desert dwellers. The hot blue dome of the tropical sky recedes behind a veil of white Saharan dust. As I travel north, the 21st century begins to reappear—roads are graded by machines, and human beings once more begin to congregate into towns. Some of these towns have sidewalks. The sight—concrete poured on the ground merely to ease walking—is mesmerizing; a surreal extravagance after the utter desolation of the south.
The oil pipeline rockets north from Heglig and crosses the eerie rock piles of the Nuba Mountains. The Nuba people, allied with the SPLA, have been fighting their own war of autonomy against Khartoum for years. A U.S.-brokered cease-fire is in place when I drive through. I see government trucks rolling up into the hills, loaded with satellite dishes. The equipment is meant for "peace clubs" designed to lure the stubborn Nubas down from their mountain strongholds and into areas of government control. "Many of them have never seen television before," a grinning official explains in the garrison town of Kadugli. "We give them 22 channels, including CNN. Their leaders are very irritated by this."
The pipeline burrows onward under a mound of raw earth—a monumental tribal scar creasing the barren landscape. Construction began in 1998 and was finished in 14 months by 2,000 Chinese laborers sweating through double shifts. Workers who died in Sudan were cremated on the spot, and their ashes shipped back to China.
I chase the 28-inch-wide (71-centimeter) steel tube on bad roads. Dilling. El Obeid. Rabak. The northern towns swell, turning into ramshackle mud cities. Two days north of Heglig, the pipeline disappears into slums. A cratered highway leads me into an enormous traffic jam that backs up for miles. Buses nudge through herds of sheep. Donkey carts jockey with taxis so battered they look like the products of junkyard crushing machines. Pedestrians step unhurriedly among the stalled vehicles. Yet no one is angry or abusive. There are no honking horns, insults, threats, or curses. Silently, patiently, the drivers creep forward. They advance, inch by inch, into a city of waiting.
This is Khartoum.
"Please put your notebook away," advises Asim el Moghraby. "We don't want any problems."
El Moghraby and I are perched in a borrowed motorboat, bobbing in the middle of the Nile. I have joined el Moghraby expressly to avoid problems—to admire an overlooked natural wonder of Africa: the meeting of the Blue Nile and White Nile. The two majestic streams, tributaries of the world's longest river, swirl together in a mile-wide dance of light—one the hue of an evening sky and the other the color of a milky sunrise. Yet Sudan's troubles are insistent. El Moghraby, a retired University of Khartoum biologist and my unofficial guide in the city, is nervous. Western visitors are relatively rare in the city. And he worries that I will draw the attention of secret police. We are too close to shoreline government ministries. "The regime is loosening up," he says apologetically as we chug back to the marina, "but nobody knows how much."
Change is coming to Sudan, but few know if it is deep or real. The thinking of the small cabal of generals and fundamentalists who run the country is largely opaque. Nevertheless, the virulence of their Islamic revolution began fading even before 1998, when the Clinton Administration launched cruise missiles at a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum in retaliation for al Qaeda's terrorist bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. Eager to put those years behind them, Sudan's secretive rulers claim they have
expelled some 3,000 foreigners linked with terror groups (bin Laden and Carlos included) and that they have released most political prisoners. Opposition parties have been invited back in from the cold, though they often remain marginalized.
Driving around Khartoum with el Moghraby—a lean, balding scholar who reminds me of a patient turtle, with his wrinkled neck and watchful eyes that dart behind wire-rimmed glasses—I see a crumbling metropolis of seven million that seems to be fluttering its dusty eyelids after a long slumber beneath the sands. Young couples hold hands on the banks of the Nile, unmolested by the morality police. Flashes of oil money glint off fleets of new Korean-made cars. And freshly painted Coke signs and a new BMW dealership have popped up in the city's shabby downtown.
Still, it is staggering to think that this insular, puritanical city—with its turbaned Arab rulers, domed mosques, and tea shops blaring pop music—is the capital of the bleeding African south. Yet the war is here too. On a blazing afternoon I visit Wad el Bashir, one of the miserable camps where some of the nearly two million southerners are sweating away their lives in and around Khartoum. Nubas and Dinkas accost me in the maze of dirt lanes. "They are taking our children!" they whisper, describing how their young men are being yanked off sidewalks and buses to fight for the Sudanese Army against their own people in the south. Behind their mud huts I spot my old companion, the pipeline. Its inert presence now seems malevolent.
Popular discontent—and profound war weariness—is only slightly less palpable among northerners in Khartoum. University students complain about the loss of jobs and political freedoms under the Islamists. Arab businessmen bemoan Sudan's ruinous isolation. ("Please tell the world we are not all terrorists and bullyboys," pleads one wealthy trader.) And several middle-class men openly boast of evading the draft—they aren't buying jihad's promise of a direct ticket to heaven.
"What you are seeing is the northern front in Sudan's civil war," explains a human rights advocate named Osman Hummaida, when I share my surprise at the cynicism I find on Khartoum's streets. "Sudan is not just divided north-south. There is a broader struggle. It is the center against the periphery—a tiny Khartoum clique against everyone else, including fellow Arabs."
My tour guide, el Moghraby, is a casualty of this subtler northern war. Bullying his Land Rover through Khartoum's downtown one day, he points to a drab building and says, "That one's mine"—meaning the old ghost house where he was detained in 1992, along with his politically active lawyer. In 1995 he was arrested with his wife for producing a documentary film critical of Sudan's environmental record. He was imprisoned yet again, in 1999, for publicly questioning the country's oil projects.
Like many disillusioned northern intellectuals, el Moghraby has withdrawn from public life. He has retreated into private enthusiasms—into the past. He takes me one day to see a weathered colonial monument honoring the charge of the 21st Lancers, a once famous skirmish in the British conquest of Sudan in 1898. Wistfully, el Moghraby talks of an older, more cosmopolitan Khartoum of electric trams, midnight cafés, and clean-swept streets. This nostalgia is sad, especially given Britain's divisive legacy in Sudan.
As a young soldier, Winston Churchill participated in the charge of the 21st Lancers outside Khartoum. British horsemen slammed into the ranks of defending Sudanese troops with such force, he wrote, that "for perhaps ten wonderful seconds" all sides simply staggered about in a daze. The beleaguered citizens of Sudan's capital know this feeling well. They have endured it for the better part of 50 years. It is not wonderful.
Where is undemocratic, underdeveloped, and oil-rich Sudan headed? For answers I must leave the periphery. I go to the center.
Sudan's president, Lt. Gen. Omar al-Bashir, almost never grants interviews. Hassan al-Turabi, the intellectual father of Sudan's Islamist movement, is also not available, having been put under house arrest by rivals in the government. (He has since been locked up in Kober Prison.) So the task of explaining the policies of the secretive National Islamic Front that rules Sudan falls to Hasan Makki, an Islamic academic and one of the regime's leading ideologues.
Makki greets me in a dazzling white djellaba, or Arab robe, in his spacious home. He is a member of the elite "riverine" Arab tribes who have monopolized power in Sudan for years. Like most of Sudan's political inner circle, he is friendly, smart, and chooses his words carefully.
On the war: "It is effectively over, my friend. The south already has lost. Millions of their people have moved up to join us in the north." Ignoring the detail that the refugees have not come by choice, he calls Khartoum "an American-style melting pot."
On Arab-black hostility: "How can there be racism? Look at my skin. No northern Sudanese is a pure Arab. For centuries our blood has mixed with Africans. We are brothers!"
On oil: "It is a blessing. It will hold Sudan together. Before oil, we northerners were tired of the south. Why lose our children there? Why fight for a wasteland? Oil has changed all that. Now our economic survival depends on it."
Regarding the unpopularity of the regime, Makki has little to say. He politely pours me another cup of tea and suggests that I go look at stones.
We have flown, walked, and driven more than 600 miles (965.6 kilometers) through Sudan.
The pipeline leads on—tireless and unerring, far more sure of itself in the turmoil of Sudan than I ever will be. Its oil is kept at 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius), the temperature required for it to be thin enough to flow freely. It tunnels through Khartoum's bleak refugee camps, then slips beneath the Nile. Emerging from the other side, it disappears north into an ocean of light: the Nubian Desert.
There, baking under the sun, are Makki's stones. They are the silent remains of ancient cities and temples.
At a city called Naga, a ruin of great beauty and stillness that juts from the eroding hills east of the Nile, I see a relief carved into an imposing temple wall. It depicts a queen grasping a handful of small, doomed captives. The queen is recogniz-ably Nubian: Chiseled in pharaonic splendor, she is a mix of Egyptian elegance and full-hipped African beauty. Her prisoners too strike me as dead ringers. They look like the far-flung citizens of Sudan's modern fringe: fierce Beja nomads from the Red Sea Hills—or even Negroid Din-kas or Nubas from the south. Blinking sweat from my eyes, I stare in amazement at this antique blueprint for governance in Sudan—a 2,000-year-old political poster advertising the power of Nile-based elites over the weak periphery.
"Some things never change," says Dietrich Wildung, head of the Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection in Berlin and one of the sunburned archaeologists working at Naga. "The north always thinks itself supreme—Egypt over Sudan, Berlin over Munich, New York over Alabama."
Wildung, an almost dauntingly effusive man, pads briskly around his digs in a flimsy pair of sneakers, pointing out details on a half-excavated temple that make him exclaim with pure delight. According to archaeologists, Sudan's northern deserts hide one of the great civilizations not only of Africa but the world. These Sudanic realms—variously known as Nubia, Kush, or Meroë—were no mere appendages of neighboring Egypt, as was sometimes thought. Their intelligentsia created an Egyptian-derived writing system, Meroitic, for a still unintelligible language. And the "black pharaohs" of Sudan and their notorious archers eventually gained such power that they briefly ruled all of Egypt some 2,700 years ago.
Proudly, Wildung shows me his latest discovery: an altar excavated from beneath a fallen wall. Nile gods painted on its plaster-covered pedestal indicate Egyptian influence, and the floral designs are pure Africa—all exuberance, singing colors. Ancient Greece reveals itself too in the classical flourishes on a figurine of the Egyptian goddess Isis. Crouched over a hole in the earth, we behold the unexpected beauty of Sudan's fractured nature, the art of a continental crossroads.
Can oil dilute the age-old divisiveness of Sudan? The pipeline is my guide. But it is no oracle.
North of the city of Atbara, the steel artery is patrolled by wild-looking men in vehicles mounted with heavy machine guns: mujahidin, or holy warriors, guarding the pipeline from being blown up, as it was nearby in 1999. (That act of sabotage was carried out by northeropposition forces in alliance with the SPLA.) The oil squirts across the Red Sea Hills at the pace of a fast walk. Then it races 3,000 feet (914 meters) down to the devastatingly hot Sudanese coast. To the Bashair Marine Terminal. To the end of the line. When I visit the high-tech export facility, a Singapore-flagged tanker is preparing to gulp a million barrels of crude.
"You are looking at our gateway to the world," a jumpsuited technician tells me grandly in the sleek control room, some 950 miles (1,529 kilometers) from the oil wells pocking the savannas of Africa.
I hope he is right. I hope oil helps create a new era of stability in Sudan. I hope it prods international efforts, such as those of U.S. peacemaker John Danforth, to end the terrible civil war. I hope it bribes Sudan's cruel and insulated elites into abandoning selfish power struggles that have wreaked hell on millions of ordinary people. I hope it somehow lubricates relations with Egypt, the regional superpower, which exercises powerful interests in Sudan: Egypt strongly opposes southern independence, fearing that such a development will threaten its access to the vital middle reaches of the Nile. Most of all, I hope Sudan's new oil revenues—more than two million dollars a day—do not end up stoking what one analyst calls a "perfect war," a conflict waged, at tolerable cost, indefinitely. Hope: a commodity Sudan could use more of, even, than oil.
Near the end of my journey, I camp for a few days in the parched wilderness of the Red Sea Hills. My host is Abu Fatna, an old Beja, a Muslim nomad whose ancestors have roamed the eastern wastes of Sudan for the past 5,000 years. His tent is pegged only 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of the pipeline, yet his life is as detached from its power and wealth as those of the southern Dinkas dying at the opposite end of the oil trail. Drought has forced Fatna to sell his camels. Saudi hunters have slaughtered all the local wild antelope. He is skinny and poor, and he has only two teeth left in his head. But he still knows which desert stars to travel by. He can still handle a tribal broadsword.
When I leave, Fatna offers me a gift: He dances good-bye in the dust. The flapping of his scrawny arms, the dry snatches of song—these are meant as an honor, though they seem more like a lament. Driving back to the pipeline, I wonder if this sadness, too, somehow gets pumped out of Sudan. Along with commander Deng's bitter hand-waving over a crude map. Or el Moghraby's demoralized retreat from the world. Or the terrible absences of so many dead.
So much heartbreak, it seems, gets burned up in Sudan's oil.