National Geographic : 2003 Feb
SGovernment bombs killed five Dinkas and their herd of cattle near Biem, the only area near the Unity oil fields still held by the Dinka-led SPLA in the summer of 2002. Despite international protests, planes have frequently targeted cattle and crops to deprive southerners of food. A Dinka song mourns the destruction: "The birds in the sky are surprised by the way I have been orphaned. The animals of the forest are startled by my skeleton." 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 prob lems-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 52 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * FEBRUARY 2003 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 vir ulence of their Islamic revolution began fading even before 1998, when the Clinton Admin istration launched cruise missiles at a pharma ceutical plant in Khartoum in retaliation for al Qaeda's terrorist bombings of two U.S. embas sies in Africa. Eager to put those years behind them, Sudan's secretive rulers claim they have expelled some 3,000 foreigners linked with ter ror 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.