Sudan Govt., Squatters Clash

News and Press Release
Originally published
KHARTOUM, SUDAN - The Associated Press via Individual Inc. : Piles of broken mud bricks spread far across the vast field. They are the remains of tiny huts built by refugees who couldn't bring themselves to believe the government's threat to raze the place.

Authorities regularly tore down squatters' shacks by the dozens, maybe even by the hundreds. But Angola camp was huge, covering several square miles across the River Nile from Khartoum, Sudan's capital. And it was home to 50,000 people.

''Most of the people said they can't do this. This place is very big,'' said Disma Shukrala, a woman who fled the Nuba Mountains when her homeland was devastated by Sudan's civil war.

The bulldozers came anyway, plowing all in their path. The government wanted the squatters out as part of its campaign to open up the land around Khartoum for farms, roads or authorized housing projects.

But the squatters aren't budging.

They have put together huts of sticks, cardboard, cloth. They are picking still-whole bricks out of the rubble, piling them up. And they are making new ''to hell with the commissioner bricks'' of mud and straw, named in disdain for the government.

They are determined to rebuild their homes. They have nowhere else to go.

Struggles over housing date back to the early 1980s, when famine in western Sudan began driving people from their homes, and picked up when the war with southern rebels increased the flow. Now, an estimated 1.9 million of Khartoum's 5 million residents live in refugee camps or squatter areas.

Officially, the destruction of houses at Angola and other camps is part of a plan to relocate displaced people to more suitable areas where water, electricity and health care are available.

But United Nations officials, aid workers and the squatters themselves accuse the government of doing half the job _ tearing down the houses without arranging anywhere for most of the displaced to live.

Christoph T. Jaeger, the U.N. resident coordinator in Sudan, says there is no organization among the various government ministries coordinating the needs of the displaced.

''The mandate of one is to make sure people are not on privately owned land, but it's not in charge of where they should go,'' he said in an interview.

He said the minister of housing for Khartoum state ''is a minister of urbanization ... the displaced are in his way.''

The minister, Sharaf-Eddeen Bannaga, contends he is trying to help people find homes. He has laid out rules on which squatters are entitled to houses in displaced person camps and even outlined measures such as ''popular committees'' to allow them a role in decisions about their lives.

''People should choose where they live,'' says Bannaga's list of policies. But, it adds, ''their choice should, however, respect the needs and rights of others and should not harm the public interest.''

Under his guidelines, many who lost their homes in the latest demolitions in December would appear to qualify for homes: They are Sudanese, they have families and they have been in Khartoum since before 1990.

But the squatters say that the popular committees are manipulated by the government and that most residents do not meet Bannaga's criteria for earning their living. The U.N. Emergency Unit in Sudan estimates 400,000 of the displaced people in Khartoum require some form of assistance.

Amin Abras, 37, has never found a permanent job and tells of walking each day to a market in hopes of finding temporary work in construction or loading trucks.

''Today I have nothing,'' he said.

Abras was a dairy farmer in the Nuba Mountains. Now he lives with the 23 members of his family in three adjacent shacks, each little bigger than a modern bathroom.

The family includes his wife, children and two sisters and their children. The sisters' husbands were taken by rebels before the family left the mountains and no one knows what happened to them.

Abras wants to go back to the mountains but the area is still torn by war. ''Even if I'm given land here, I can't keep cows,'' he said.

Some aid workers believe the treatment of the displaced is punishment because they are of a different ethnic and religious background. Most are black Africans, some are Christians or animists, while the government is dominated by Arab Muslims.

But one aid worker who would not give her name, saying she feared government retaliation pointed out that many of the displaced are Muslims, too.

She contends the government is punishing the squatters as southerners the kin and potential allies of those waging the civil war. The government denies this charge.

Whatever the reason for their troubles, the squatters remain. Most of the children do not go to school. Many are malnourished and sick. Families survive on money that men earn from part-time jobs and that women get from selling tea in the market.

Shana Moussa Ibrahim, a woman who judges she is in her 40s, says she wants to go back to planting and reaping in the south but has no money to return, even if it was safe. After the last demolition of her house, her husband took ill and died. She and her three children now live with a sister.

How long will she remain in Khartoum? She smiled sadly at the question.

''Maybe a year. Maybe two. Maybe forever.''