Excerpt: 'The Tenth Parallel'

Excerpt: 'The Tenth Parallel'

The Tenth Parallel by Eliza Griswold
The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam
By Eliza Griswold
Hardcover, 336 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $27


The chief was spending Easter Sunday in his hut, which smelled of stale smoke from a cooking fire and of something more glandular: panic. When the visitor from Washington ducked inside, the chief, a man in his mid-fifties named Nyol Paduot, rose stiff-kneed from a white plastic lawn chair. He had spent several days keeping watch against an approaching dust cloud kicked up by horsemen and Jeeps. It would mean his village of Todaj, teetering on the fraught and murky border between northern and southern Sudan, was under attack again. He was grouchy and unkempt: his eyes pouched, his salt-and-pepper beard scruffy, his waxy green-and­yellow shirt stained with the tide lines of dried sweat. He glowered at the American visitor, Roger Winter, whose bare legs poked out from khaki shorts. One leg bore the scar of a snakebite he had gotten not far away while helping to broker a peace on behalf of the United States. The 2005 deal was supposed to end nearly forty years of intermittent civil war between northern and southern Sudan, which had left two million people dead. In some places, the peace agreement had stanched the bloodshed, allowing the south to form a nascent government that described itself as "Christian­led." Under the terms of the deal, the north was supposed to make it attractive for the south to remain part of a unified Sudan by giving it a voice in the national government, and a fair share of oil revenues. But the north ignored most of the terms. The peace deal proved to mean nothing here on the boundary between the two Sudans, which jigs and jags like an EKG reading along the straight, flat latitude of the tenth parallel.

The tenth parallel is the horizontal band that rings the earth seven hundred miles north of the equator. If Africa is shaped like a rumpled sock, with South Africa at the toe and Somalia at the heel, then the tenth parallel runs across the ankle. Along the tenth parallel, in Sudan, and in most of inland Africa, two worlds collide: the mostly Muslim, Arab-influenced north meets a black African south inhabited by Christians and those who follow indigenous religions -- which include those who venerate ancestors and the spirits of animals, land, and sky. Thirty miles south (at a latitude of 9 degrees 43'59"), the village of Todaj marked the divide where these two rival worldviews, their dysfunctional governments and well-armed militaries, vied inch by inch for land. The village belonged to the south's largest ethnic group, the Ngok Dinka. But in 2008, when Roger Winter paid Nyol Paduot a visit, the north was threatening to send its soldiers and Arab militias to attack the village and lay claim to the underground river of light, sweet crude oil running beneath the chief's feet.

Oil was discovered in southern Sudan during the 1970s, and the struggle to control it is one of the long-running war's more recent causes. The fight in Sudan threatened to split Africa's largest country in two, and still does. In 2011, the south is scheduled to vote on whether it wants to remain part of the north or become its own country, made up of ten states that lie to the south of the tenth parallel and border Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and Chad. This looming split -- which, if it happens, would likely occur largely along the tenth parallel -- meant that Todaj and the nearby oil boomtown of Abyei, about ten miles south, were vitally important. Whichever side controlled them would control an estimated two billion barrels of oil.

Other than Paduot, and six elders gathered in his hut, the village appeared deserted. Prompted by gunfire and rumors of war, the five hundred families who lived there had fled south, terrified that Todaj was about to be wiped off the face of the earth. Their fear was well founded: three times in the previous twenty years, soldiers from the north had laid siege to Todaj, raping women and children, killing and carrying off young men, and burning to the ground the villagers' thatched huts and the Episcopal church made of hay.

It was the end of the dry season, and a breeze stirred the air over this colorless plot of parched earth, bare but for these empty dwellings and a few gaunt cows trawling for loose hay. The cows wandering hungrily around the village didn't belong to the people of Todaj, but to northern Arab nomads, the Misseriya, who, because of seasonal drought up north, came south at this time of year to graze their cattle. Paduot was afraid that when the rains began a few weeks later, and the nomads could return home to their own greener pastures, there would be nothing to keep the northern soldiers (cousins and sons of the nomads) from attacking Todaj.

"We know when they burn our village, they want the land," said the chief, a Ngok Dinka translator rendering his words into English. These patterns sounded like the ones unfolding less than fifty miles northwest, in the region of Darfur, because they were the same. Three decades ago, while Sudan's current president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, was a military general stationed on this border, the Khartoum-based northern government perfected the methods of attack, using the paramilitary horsemen called the Janjawiid, whom it was now deploying in Darfur. Todaj faced this same threat, but other than Roger Winter, very few knew anything about the impending disaster. On BBC radio, Paduot heard much talk about Darfur. Although the same thing was happening here along the border, it rarely made international news. The two fronts had much in common, since all of Sudan's wars boil down to a central Khartoum-based cabal battling the people at the peripheries. The only differences between Darfur and Abyei, the chief explained, were religion and oil. In Darfur, there was no oil and both sides were Muslim, a confrontation he did not under­stand. "Why would Muslims fight against Muslims?" he asked aloud.

Here, the north had mounted its assaults in the name of jihad, or holy war, claiming that Islam and Arab culture should reign supreme in Sudan. Chief Paduot, who had survived several such conflagrations, had come to see Islam as a tool of oppression, one the northerners were using to erase his culture and undo his people's claim to the land and its oil.

"People hate Islam now," he said. Having stepped into the hut behind Winter, I glanced around to see if any of the elders was startled by the chief's remark. If they were, no sign of it crossed their faces, which showed only dread and exhaustion.

To defy the north, most of the villagers had been baptized as Episcopalians -- they prayed daily, attended church on Sunday, and had cast off loose, long-sleeved Islamic dress in favor of short-sleeved Western-style button-down shirts, or brilliant batiks. For them, Islam was now simply a catchall term for the government, people, and policies of the north.

Race, like religion, was a rallying cry in this complicated war. The paler-skinned Arab northerners looked down on the darker-skinned people of the south, Paduot explained slowly. He seemed tired of giving tutorials to outsiders. What good were earnest, well-meaning people like us, who came with our water bottles and notebooks to record the details of a situation but could do nothing to stop it?

Excerpted from The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam by Eliza Griswold. Published in August 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2010 by Eliza Griswold. All rights reserved.

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