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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 July 2006, 11:07 GMT 12:07 UK
Reclaiming the past in southern Sudan
By Jane Standley
BBC News, Sudan

Fifteen years ago in Bor in southern Sudan, militia allied to the government in far-off Khartoum carried out a massacre killing an estimated 2,000 people, mostly ethnic Dinkas. Now the people who fled the massacre are returning, hoping to reclaim the land of their ancestors.

Bor is a place consumed in wrenching sadness.

A young girl sits in front of a watering hole in Sudan's southern region (file image)
Many southern Sudanese people have been waiting to return home
It is remote and, in the rainy season - cut off.

The red dirt of what passes for roads becomes a soup of mud and landmines, the craterous airstrips, unusable.

In the early 1990s, after the massacre, it was occupied by the forces of Sudan's Islamist government and run as a garrison outpost for its Arab troops.

They were fighting the long-running civil war against the Christians and animists of the southern rebel movements.

But now there is peace at last, the rebels are in control of the south and the town is open to visitors.

The first sight for me and for many of the people now going home to Bor after 15 years or more, is the port.

There is no dock here, no jetty, just the banks of the River Nile, littered with rubbish and sewage. Home to large crocodiles and a place where cholera is rampant.

Coming home

James Anyang came back last year.

He had heard, while in a refugee camp in neighbouring Uganda, that his mother had been killed in the massacre.

Then he found out that his eldest brother was also dead. His father, strong and well when he left, is now an old man - weakened by the struggle to survive while Bor was under brutal occupation.

James showed me the lush spots along the river banks where people from the garrison used to dump the bodies of those they had killed. Everyone in Bor knows what lies under the reeds.

James is an elder at the ramshackle Anglican church which is actually Bor Cathedral. There is a Bishop here. The cathedral reopened in the last few months.

Today, the sun streams through the bullet holes in the roof, dancing circles of light illuminate the faces of the worshippers.

Like James they are Dinka - the largest ethnic group in southern Sudan - and the founders and the backbone of the rebel movement which now governs the region.

Bor is the Dinka heartland - the tall, willowy, ebony black people live lives centred around cattle, as they have done for thousands of years.

Dirty work

In 1991, the Khartoum government peeled off the disgruntled leaders of a smaller tribe - the Nuer - from the rebel movement and sent them in to do its dirty work in Bor.

Sudanese child
Many parts of southern Sudan have been destroyed by the civil war
The killers went from hut to hut, slaughtering all who tried to run away - cutting them down with spears, machetes and the classic weapon of African warfare - the AK-47.

Those who could not run fast enough - the old, the disabled, the sick, the young - were crammed into huts - which were set on fire.

Their beloved cattle were not spared either. They were either stolen or shot. Their corpses left for the vultures to pick over when they had tired of human flesh.

The dirt tracks leading out of Bor were crammed with Dinka trying to flee. Some carrying the scant possessions they could snatch up, others with nothing - naked and hungry.

In the years which followed, tens of thousands died from famine. They had no cows any more and the fighting had displaced them from the land they had once cultivated.

There is little record of the massacre. As far as I know, just one shaky and rushed videotape.

It was filmed by an Irish priest turned aid worker who stumbled on the immediate aftermath of the slaughter and then took his film to journalists, begging them to bring attention to the killings.

I remembered the tape from my first stint working in Africa and have just watched it again.

Lost people

Time has not made it easier viewing.

It was politics, not people - you know, we have to forgive
James Anyang

There is a shot of the twisted body of a middle-aged man which makes me think of a woman I have just met in Bor named Rebecca Agok.

She managed to flee at the height of the killings, but her father-in-law had his throat cut in front of her.

How can people like her rebuild their lives here? There is literally nothing - no clean water, little food, no work and a very poor hospital.

There will surely be conflict over these scarce resources.

But James Anyang - determinedly - says no. "Neighbours will rub along," he maintains. "They have to. We have come back to reclaim our home, to venerate and live in the land of our ancestors, our lost people."

Then, he points to a second crowd of worshippers waiting to go inside Bor Cathedral, after the Anglican service has ended.

"They're the Nuer people," he says with a smile, "the Presbyterian missionaries got to them first!"

"But they're the ones who committed the massacre," I said.

"It was politics," James tells me, "not people. You know, we have to forgive. We can't be held captive by the massacre forever. We cannot ever forget, but we can forgive."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 1 July, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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