Page last updated at 12:07 GMT, Saturday, 19 December 2009

South Sudan town stuck between two armies

More than 2,000 people have died in tribal clashes in Sudan in the past year, prompting fears the country is heading towards another civil war five years after its last conflict ended. Will Ross travelled to southern Sudan to assess tensions in a town caught between two armies.

Sudanese soldier at scene of tribal clashes
Sudan's civil war ended five years ago, but there are fears another could start

Luckily it is the dry season. Yes it is baking hot, but at least the town of Malakal is not a quagmire and the mosquitoes are thankfully off duty.

"I'd be very happy to give you an interview, but not until I've had my two cups of tea," the head of Malakal hospital told me.

Like many southern Sudanese, Dr Gabriel Gatwech is extremely tall and has in the past had to run for his life because of war.

Post-tea, the doctor told me that since the outbreak of peace five years ago, the hospital was now better staffed.

"I worked here as a doctor during the 1990s but I had to leave when the security forces falsely accused us of treating the rebels.

"Many doctors could not work," he told me, as a nurse used an ear trumpet to check on the health of an expectant mother's unborn child.

Malakal is in the south of Sudan but during the civil war it was a garrison town under the control of the Islamic north. The mix of mosques and churches points to a place which straddles the two sides.

Dr Gabriel Gatwech
Northern and southern Sudanese cannot live peacefully together. There is a total lack of trust.
Dr Gabriel Gatwech

Even today it remains extremely tense.

"To be frank," Dr Gatwech tells me, "Northern and Southern Sudanese cannot live peacefully together. There is a total lack of trust."

According to the peace agreement, the southerners will, in a year's time, choose whether to cut ties with the Islamic north and become fully independent.

But I met plenty of people who suspect the north will not allow the south to secede.

"The north does not want to lose the oil fields or the agricultural land," said Joshua Leek, the High Deacon of Malakal's Episcopal Church, whose white hair matches the colour of his cassock.

Sitting on wooden benches in the mud-walled church, he said he feared the north would block the referendum on independence and push the two sides back to war.

Peace deal

Under the peace deal, the soldiers from the north and the south were supposed to have merged to form an integrated force for Malakal. So has this worked?

Joshua Leek made it clear that the answer was no, and Malakal's scenario was representative of what was going on in the entire country.

"You have northern troops on one side of the town and the soldiers from the south on the other. And we, the people, are stuck between them," he said.

Brigadier Esam Al Din and Colonel Peter Gai
Under the peace deal the armies of the north and south should merge

Earlier this year, the hospital staff were once again treating the wounded.

The two armies had, not for the first time since the peace deal, sent tanks out onto the muddy streets of Malakal and they had fought each other.

We had managed to arrange a meeting with the head of the northern forces in Malakal.

I sat next to the brigadier on a comfortable sofa, along with an Arabic translator, and was about to ask him about the allegation that the northern army was using southern militia to fuel the tribal divisions and destabilise the south.

Then he insisted we do the interview together with the head of the SPLA, or southern army.

"You see we are now an integrated force so we should talk as one," he said.

His words seemed rather at odds with the 10 or so tanks belonging to the northern army that were outside his office.

We headed across town together.

After more hearty handshakes, soon we had a colonel from the southern army and the brigadier from the north in adjacent armchairs.

Malakal, Sudan

Luck was on our side and the ceiling fans were switched off in preparation for our radio interview. We were set for a scoop.

"Hang on," said the colonel as he snapped open his mobile phone, "I need to get permission from my superiors."

So close but yet so far.

There was no interview and I left the room with one photograph of the two men, now squeezed on to the same sofa.

Held at gunpoint

On the outskirts of Malakal, returning refugees were building new homes of reed walls and grass thatch.

A huge mechanical digger was creating clouds of dust as it ploughed furrows between the huts, churning up the ground searching for anti-personnel mines - laid by the northern forces to keep the southern rebels out during the war.

Since November, 200 unexploded mines have been found, so not surprisingly at the primary schools, mine awareness lessons are still a vital part of the curriculum.

Displaced mother and baby in hospital
The people of Malakal sit nervously between two armies

We then walked straight into trouble. While interviewing two students at a tea shop, we were hauled over by swaggering men with exceptionally short fuses.

"Get in the car," one of them yelled.

We were detained for hours even though we had all the correct paperwork.

Our permits were from Juba, the capital of the south. The men with short fuses were from the National Security Office, headquartered in the north.

We were stuck in the middle.

They shouted and we grovelled. Banned from working, we were later set free.

The same cannot be said for the people of Malakal who sit nervously between two armies, which have clearly not yet buried the hatchet.

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