While there is no evidence that U.S. AWACS planes have made a single flight over Sudan, here along the dusty border with Chad they are credited with ending an incipient war between this country and Libyan forces in Chad.
This sleepy oasis in the scrub is 250 bone-jarring miles from the nearest paved road, but it is close by the refuge of Chadian dissidents who were the target of almost daily Libyan bombing raids for a month.
Those raids have ended. The prevalent feeling here is that the U.S. announcement two weeks ago, that two Airborne Warning and Control System planes were being sent to neighboring Egypt for reconnaissance purposes, is the reason.
U.S. Ambassador William Kontos denies Sudanese claims that the plane is already flying over the country's airspace but military officials, civilians and refugees from across the Chadian border simply say "AWACS" when asked why the raids have stopped. The acronym for a plane these mainly nomadic people are unlikely ever to see has entered the Arabic vocabulary almost overnight.
The unsubstantiated suggestion that phantom flights of radar-bearing planes could end a war threat is a fitting scenario for this remote region, which until last week was being billed as a possible starting point for the next Middle East war, embroiling the United States and the Soviet Union.
Sudanese President Jaafar Nimeri launched the war scare with a series of saber-rattling, anti-Libyan interviews in Cairo after the funeral of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. The U.S. government warned Soviet-armed Libya against continuing its air raids, which ostensibly are aimed at the Chadian guerrillas in Sudan.
There was talk of invasion, but so far it has been only by foreign correspondents who rushed to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, and demanded to be taken to "the front."
It would be difficult to find a less probable site for an East-West confrontation than El Geneina, which means "the garden" in Arabic and is 25 miles from the Chadian border.
There seem to be more camels, donkeys and goats than people. The population, usually 50,000, is swelled by about 10,000 refugees fleeing Chad because of the presence there of Libyan troops called in to end a civil war.
The Libyan air raids have caused far more casualties among livestock than people. War or no war, the main activity here is the gathering of water from the muddy main pumping station.
"Garden" is obviously a relative term. The only sign that El Geneina is fertile are the neem trees lining the entrance. They were brought from India during British colonial rule because they required little water. Compared with the surrounding countryside, however, the town is a paradise of green.
A gold-domed mosque, with walls of green, yellow and white, offers a startling contrast to the mud-brick buildings and gray straw huts that surround it.
Sudan's airline, says the schedule, should fly here from Khartoum twice a week -- a travel agent's flight guide even lists connections to Amsterdam. But only two flights have come from Khartoum in the last two months.
The alternative is a grueling 13-hour drive from El Fasher, the regional capital 225 miles to the East. There is no road. The route, which alternates between sand and rock, is worn in place by trucks traversing the semidesert plateau. Vehicles average less than 20 miles per hour.
Overland trips from Khartoum, the capital of this nation the size of the United States east of the Mississippi, often take three weeks.
The only sign of the Sudanese military encountered by three reporters before reaching El Geneina was 60 miles to the east at the market in Serefumra, where fewer than a dozen soldiers had stopped for tea. They were heading away from "the front," however.
At the entrance to El Geneina, soldiers armed with World War II carbines desultorily man a checkpoint. The Sudanese military say troops have been moved up to the border area but few soldiers are visible in the town except at El Geneina garrison.
The military turned down requests to visit air-raid sites outside the town. The only damage displayed was at the airport, where rockets from World War II-type Libyan propeller planes dug two small holes in the turf. The shells missed the runway.
A traveler who visited Tendalti, a village that was hit by 25 rockets three weeks ago, said there was "a little damage" to some huts, but it "was hard to tell if it was caused by rockets or goats." Relief workers living at Kolbus, which was attacked eight times, said damage there also was slight.
Kolbus is the headquarters of guerrillas led by Chad's former defense minister, Hissene Habre, who was defeated in the civil war last year when thousands of Libyan troops entered on the side of President Goukouni Oueddei.
The raids did have an effect on the civilian population. Kolbus has become a ghost town except for the presence of upwards of 1,000 Habre guerrillas, according to Dr. Rony Brauman, an official of the French relief organization Doctors Without Frontiers, which has a team of doctors and nurses working there.
The guerrillas are reported to be well armed, with Soviet- and NATO-design rifles. The AK47s, a symbol of leftist revolution in Africa, are made in now anti-Soviet Egypt -- which with Sudan is assisting Habre. In turn, the United States has provided support to Egypt and Sudan.
Dr. Brauman said the guerrillas also have large quantities of captured Libyan equipment including missiles, antiaircraft weapons and artillery. "There is no shortage of arms," he said.
Brauman, who has traveled in Chad with Habre, said he has about 2,500 to 3,000 men under arms, mostly across the border. Habre's forces stage hit-and-run raids as deep as 125 miles inside Chad, but Brauman discounts guerrilla claims that they permanently control some towns, such as Adre across from El Geneina.
About half a dozen Egyptian military advisers are working with the guerrillas in Kolbus, Brauman said. Sudanese officials do not hide the fact that there are difficulties with the guerrillas.
"Habre is bringing the fire to us," said Ahmed Ibrahim Birreig, governor of the Darfur region that encompasses most of western Sudan and is the size of France.
Speaking in the provincial capital of El Fasher, Birreig said, "We may bring another Vietnam here, where Russia and the United States confront each other." He added that Sudan should pressure Habre as part of an effort to settle the Chadian issue peacefully.
Although Sudan provides the guerrillas with sanctuary and logistical help, the tensions were apparent during a tour of a refugee camp in El Geneina, where 4,000 live in tents.
Most of the refugees come from the Guran tribe around the town of Fada in northeastern Chad. Many of the men traditionally have knives tucked into the sleeves of their flowing robes. There is evidence that they use the knives, since a couple of El Geneina residents were killed in a clash with guerrillas earlier this month.
"These Chadians are rough people," said Khamis Ali Abdullah, director of the camp, who unsuccessfully tried to convince some injured former guerrillas to talk to reporters.
There are about 100 wounded men being treated at the camp, according to Mohammed Ahmed Awad, director here for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "I don't know who is a soldier and who is not," he said. "I cannot ask for their biographies. They are refugees to us."
Although the sense of impending war has subsided, Brig. Abdas Mohammed Abdulaal, commander of the western front, said his troops now carry out daily patrols along the Chadian border.
Until the Libyan troops entered Chad, border patrols were unnecessary, he said. "If the Libyan troops disappear from Chad," he said, "the problem would disappear."
Brig. Abdulaal displayed booby-trapped material that he said infiltrators loyal to Libya had intended for use against him.
Although this remote area of Africa is one of the poorest in the world, there was an aura of James Bond attached to the sabotage gear. The booby-trapped devices consisted of cartons of Rothman cigarettes and Courrege cologne filled with plastic explosives designed to go off when opened. When apprehended, the alleged saboteurs were carrying the explosive in a Samsonite briefcase.