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Plowing Even as Bombs Fall In a Pocket of War-Torn Sudan

Aid project teaches southern Sudanese to plant tomatoes in midst of conflict

DEEP behind rebel lines in southern Sudan, Elias Apite Ruben has a dream about producing sun-dried tomatoes and stoves powered by environmentally friendly fuel.

He strides past bomb craters and soldiers in the scorching bush, enthusing about ''capacity building'' and ''appropriate technology'' in war zones.

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Sudan's Arab Islamic north and the black Christian and animist south have been at war for 13 years. The southern rebels are trying to keep the north from imposing Islamic law on the country.

Other relief agencies are handing out planeloads of food aid to millions of displaced victims of the war. A pilot project in this village 100 miles from the southeast border with Kenya aims to do something new - teach skills and boost agricultural development so people can feed themselves even in the midst of the conflict.

''We would like to get food from our work and not from aid,'' says Mr. Apite, a Sudanese who is helping to run the new Resource Center sponsored by the Norwegian People's Aid (NPA) humanitarian group.

The experiment, which is just beginning, will last for one year and will train 20 locals in skills ranging from blacksmithing to carpentry to tailoring, as well as agricultural skills. If it is successful, it could go on longer.

The task ahead sounds like an environmentalist's utopia - planting alternative crops, protecting precious springs, building tools out of the detritus of war, constructing stoves that use grass and not wood to avoid desertification, using oxen for pulling rather than eating them.

Even the pit latrines are designed for maximum hygiene. Vegetables like tomatoes would be sun-dried for longer use. Whatever leftover tools, clothes, and food remains would be used to restart commerce with other villages that collapsed during the war.

Bombs to blacksmithing

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The main point is about survival of people - and improving local knowledge in the most dire of conditions, says project director John Wagner, a cultural anthropologist trained at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y. He nudges with his toe a piece of twisted missile lying on the ground.

''The one good thing about bombs is that they provide scrap metal for blacksmithing. This would make a good ox plow,'' he says. What augers well for success is that Chokudum is not on the front line and is relatively secure these day in the rebel hands of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).

The village, a cluster of mud and thatch huts nestled in the hills, has been air-bombed 15 times over the past two years, but the strikes were largely inaccurate; one person died.

The area boasts ample rainfall and some of the world's best soil, according to agronomists, and the 50-acre patch of ground used by the project is like an oasis in the vast expense of desert that makes up southern Sudan.

Chokudum also has the advantage of being a mere five-hour drive from the border with Kenya, with supplies easily brought in from the Lokichokio camp, where international humanitarian organizations have based their southern Sudan relief operations.

Beware of trampling cattle

The biggest problems may be in trying to teach pastoralists, who make up half of Chokudum's population, how to be farmers and dealing with the cattle running loose through the fields.

''The Antonovs [Soviet-built attack planes] have caused panic, but not much damage to the fields. I tell you, the biggest problem we have are the cows, which trample the seedlings and vegetable beds,'' says agronomist Beda Machar Den.

NPA's approach in southern Sudan is a bit maverick in the aid community. Unlike other relief organizations, NPA does not seek permission from the Khartoum government to send aid to rebel territory. Some rival relief groups privately question the ethics of NPA's partiality.

Moreover, some donors have reservations about putting money behind long-term development projects in places like Chokudum, noting that the village has changed hands between the Khartoum government in the north and the SPLA several times since 1985.

But NPA defends its approach, noting that unlike some UN agencies, it does not regularly evacuate expatriate aid workers who find themselves in danger.

''The locals don't run when the Antonovs pass above and bomb. So why should we? We are dedicated to providing continuity even during problems,'' said Charles Aloo, head of NPA's mission at Lokichokio.

The locals are clearly grateful. ''NPA's projects here have saved a lot of lives,'' says Chief Joseph Nakua, the paramount chief of the Didinga, the predominant tribe in the Chokudum area.

One of the NPA projects he is referring to is the Chokudum hospital, a well-equipped bush clinic that has been praised widely by other relief groups since it began operating in January 1995.

It serves thousands of people across southern Sudan, airlifted from battlefields sometimes hundreds of miles away.

Like the resource center, the focus is on the future as well as the present. As well as treating the wounded, doctors are training 20 people in nursing - skills they can take with them anywhere when the war finally ends.

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