SUDAN: Terror train turns the corner
WAU, 22 March 2010 (IRIN) - During wartime, trains heading south to this former garrison town used to deliver violence and terror; now they are bringing lower prices.
Photo: Ben Parker/IRIN
|New horizons: the railway line linking Southern and Northern Sudan re-opened in March 2010 bringing cheaper goods
The first two trains in about a decade arrived in the southern city of Wau in March 2010, one with goods and the other with maintenance crews and supplies, Sudan Railways official Al Haji Maktoub told IRIN.
The central government paid US$35m towards a $46 million renovation; the remainder was funded by donors through a World Bank-managed national trust fund.
“One sack of sugar cost 155 [Sudanese pounds, $69.50]. When that train arrived it went to 80 [$35.90],” said John Arop, an NGO manager based in Wau. Soft drinks such as Coca-Cola and Fanta halved in price from 2 SDG (90 cents) to 1 SDG (45 cents), he said. The first cargo train also carried sugar, cement and sorghum.
Stalls in a market opposite the renovated train station are being constructed and repaired in anticipation of a boom. In the past, timber, honey, coffee and tea were sent north from Wau, but the first of planned weekly services returned empty.
Rail transport can dramatically cut prices because delivery trucks face multiple roadblocks and taxation, Arop explained, although its potential to cut the cost of humanitarian operations such as food aid distribution had yet to be assessed, said officials. Were passenger services to resume, it could make it much easier for Southerners to travel to and from Khartoum or Darfur, according to an international observer.
However, the railway, completed in 1961, had a dark side. It was used to resupply Wau during the long civil war, when the town was a heavily militarized outpost of the central government surrounded by areas occupied by the then rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).
During the conflict, the SPLA mounted ambushes on the railways. In response, trains were accompanied by pro-government militia on horseback, known as Murahaliin, and sometimes the paramilitary Popular Defence Forces (PDF). Villages were looted and razed, according to human rights reports.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Sudan, in October 1995, reported "a consistent pattern of abduction of women and children from Bahr al Ghazal province by the government army, PDF troops, government-armed militias, as well as mujahidin accompanying them during incursions and raids conducted from train convoys guarded by the military proceeding to Wau. In several instances, United Nations relief trains distributing food in the area during stopovers have been followed a few weeks later by military convoys; people who approach the militarily-guarded trains anticipating the distribution of food became easy victims for the captors."
By the mid-1990s the areas flanking the track were largely depopulated by the punitive militia raids. “Everybody was running away,” Arop said. By the turn of the century, the SPLA had ripped up significant stretches of track and the line fell into disuse.
The militia raids were also one of the ways in which Southern women and children were abducted and taken to northern Sudan in conditions that often amounted to slavery, according to human rights groups. More than 11,000 people were abducted from the wider area, according to research by the Rift Valley Institute.
Photo: Ben Parker/IRIN
|On the election trail with Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir and Vice-President Riek Machar, eastern Equatoria
However, one international official observed that while in the 1990s the train was an "instrument of terror", it now seemed to be an "election gimmick". Elections are due to be held in April, even though opposition parties are calling for a postponement.
The reopening of the line linking Wau, the capital of Western Bahr el Ghazal state in the south, to Darfur and Khartoum through Babanusa, was marked by a rally at which Sudan President Omar el Bashir and Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir both spoke.
Railway police officer David Gabriel Makwer, one of three officers in the Southern Sudan railway police, speaking from the shade of a tree at Wau station, said most of the town came to the 11 March event and the mood was “very positive”, with music and celebrations on the street and in local media.
The feel-good factor took on obvious political overtones at the inauguration event in Wau. Arop said the symbolic and economic impact of the railway’s reopening might have “influenced people’s thinking” regarding politics and north-south unity, but coming so close to the end of the interim period, it was “too late”.