From dawn until dusk, they walked the red-earth path between territory controlled by the government of Sudan to that held by the rebels -- small groups of men in jalabiyas, women in colorful clothes, and children on donkeys or their fathers’ shoulders or in baskets on their mothers’ backs. They carried jerricans that were filled with water at the start but were now dry, goats too young to walk, utensils, and weapons -- from nineteenth-century swords to rocket-propelled grenade launchers, sometimes both on one shoulder. Among the civilians walked rebel soldiers who were there to protect against depredation by government militias. The travelers' villages in the Ingessana Hills were four days back down the road and surrounded by government forces. Occasionally, a rebel car would come to pick up stragglers and drive them to the next resting spot. But the very weakest -- the oldest, the blind, those too sick to recover -- were left behind. The survivors pressed on toward El Fuj, a crossing point at the border between their war-torn homeland, the Blue Nile state in Sudan, and the new nation of South Sudan. It was one or two days farther on.
Sudan’s civil war has often been called Africa’s longest conflict. Its first stage, between 1963 and 1972, pitted rebels from the southern part of Sudan against the central government, which was dominated by a northern Arabized elite. The North granted the South a degree of autonomy in 1972, but it was not enough to paper over years of resentment. The conflict resumed in 1983, with the creation of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). Although the movement had “liberation” in its title, its leader, John Garang, a charismatic southerner, advocated “diversity in unity” rather than the South’s separation. Less appealing in the deeper south, this relatively modest agenda was popular within border regions on the northern side of the eventual Sudan–South Sudan border, including Blue Nile state and the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan.