Sudan

AFRICA’S ENDLESS WAR

Despite new atrocities, Sudan still hopes for peace

ERIC HOSKINS May 17 2004
Sudan

AFRICA’S ENDLESS WAR

Despite new atrocities, Sudan still hopes for peace

ERIC HOSKINS May 17 2004

AFRICA’S ENDLESS WAR

Sudan

Despite new atrocities, Sudan still hopes for peace

ERIC HOSKINS

Over 20 years of war in Sudan have resulted in more than two million civilian deaths. In a concerted effort to bring peace to this troubled nation, the government and the southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Movement have been meeting in Kenya to negotiate an end to the conflict. Yet while a north-south peace agreement may be just months away, new violence, between rebel movements and government-backed militias, has erupted in Sudan’s western region of Darfur, threatening hundreds of thousands of lives. Dr. Eric Hoskins of War Child Canada, who previously lived in Sudan for three years, filed this report from the southern part of the country.

WHEN DAVID NOK was 13, government soldiers set fire to his family’s mud and thatch hut. He escaped, but his brothers and sisters burned to death. “There has been war here since time began,” Nok says. “My great-grandfather was killed by the British over 100 years ago, my grandfather was killed by the Arabs, and my father was killed after him.” Nok, who runs a youth organization in Rumbek, the administrative centre of the rebel-held south of the country, worries that Sudan’s best chance for peace in decades may be lost if there isn’t a political agreement soon. Why such urgency, I ask him. “By the time of the U.S. elections, or if someone new comes after Bush, they will forget about Sudan,” he says.

The United States, along with other countries, has been pushing hard for a peace agreement in Sudan, motivated in part by the wish to bring the Sudanese government— previously accused of sponsoring terrorism-back into the international fold. But peace would be only the first step in helping this ravaged nation. Sudan, roughly onequarter the size of Canada, is Africa’s largest country and one of its poorest. Over the years, it has been devastated by drought, famine and war. Entire generations have grown up without ever knowing peace, but with an intimate knowledge of hardship: in southern Sudan, one child in five dies before the age of 5; there is only one doctor for every 50,000 people (compared to one per 500 in Canada); and less than one-third of school-aged children attend school.

The war in Sudan is the world’s longest ongoing conflict. In 1955, the southern and largely Christian Sudanese rebelled against the political dominance of the Arab and Muslim north. Fighting ceased temporarily in 1972 when the government in Khartoum granted the south limited autonomy. But in 1983 Khartoum revoked the south’s autonomy and imposed Islamic law. Since then, the war between government forces and John Garang’s rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) has claimed more than two million civilian lives, mostly women and children.

Amid international pressure in the wake of Sept. 11, the government and the SPLM signed the landmark Machakos Protocol in July 2002, paving the way for peace. The accord acknowledges the south’s key demand for a referendum on self-determination (after a 6V2-year interim period), and the government’s desire to retain Islamic law in the north. Since then, agreement has also been reached on security arrangements for the interim period and wealth sharing, under which revenue from oil—a divisive issue ever since its discovery in the south in the 1970s—will be split equally.

ONE coordinator for the UN describes Darfur region as ‘the world’s greatest human rights catastrophe’

Two difficult problems remain to be resolved before a peace agreement can be signed. One is the precise mechanism for power-sharing during the interim period. The second is the status of three disputed areas. But Washington is putting renewed pressure on both sides to reach a deal as soon as possible. And peace will bring other rewards: international donors have said they will provide significant aid and development assistance to Sudan once an agreement is finalized. (Until now, most assistance has been short-term emergency aid; Canada has provided more than $40 million in humanitarian relief to Sudan since 2000.)

With the prospect of peace come new concerns. During the past 20 years, up to four million southern Sudanese fled their war-tom region and migrated to other parts of the country. Roughly two million of them have relocated in Khartoum. With a peace deal, the UN expects that many of the displaced, as well as the estimated 400,000 refugees living in neighbouring countries, will return to the south. That could create huge problems as returnees and local residents compete for scarce resources and services. “This is one of the biggest challenges facing us,” says Apollo Madok Choi, regional director of the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, southern Sudan’s fledgling civil administration. “The returnees need education, health care, shelter, water, clothing and above all security. And they are coming with different views and perspectives.”

Frank Marita, the UNICEF representative in Nyal, a tiny village east of Rumbek on the edge of the Nile, agrees. “We expect a lot of shocks, as the two cultures come together,” he says. “The returnees will have enjoyed a lot of freedom and may not want to stick to local customs. The youth will have grown up in urban areas, with lots of activities that don’t fit in here. The returnees will be better educated and will get the good jobs. But some of the local people will say, ‘You ran away and we stayed, so we should have the jobs.’ ”

Another major challenge will be demobilizing the fighting forces—including child soldiers. More than 15,000 of them have already been demobilized in the south. Instead of organizing demobilization transit camps, the UN plans to quickly reunite children with their families, and provide economic and other support to the communities receiving them.

But, according to one UN official, “the donors don’t want to go too far, too fast, before the peace deal is signed.” This carrotand-stick approach to peace may work, encouraging both parties to take negotiations seriously. But there’s a downside: as long as negotiations are still underway, the donors’ economic and social assistance remains on hold, and, consequently, vital preparations remain incomplete.

And even as some efforts to rebuild the south get underway, another conflict is raging. A year ago, violence in the western region of Darfur between pro-government forces and rebels began to escalate. Since then, more than 10,000 people have been killed and one million have been forcibly displaced. Militias loyal to Khartoum are accused of indiscriminate killings, widespread rape, looting, burning villages and abducting children. Rebel groups, accused of similar atrocities, say Khartoum has marginalized the western region. In March, Mukesh Kapila, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, described Darfur as “the world’s greatest humanitarian and human rights catastrophe.” And in a recently leaked report, a UN investigative team visiting the area in late April found evidence of atrocities serious enough to warrant charges of “war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Although a ceasefire was agreed to in early April, each side has accused the other of breaking it. Talks, brokered by neighbouring Chad, have yet to yield results. And as the UN and aid groups desperately try to improve access to the remote region and ramp up relief efforts, there is fear of starvation and all-out famine. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for an urgent international effort to end the conflict, including, if necessary, UN-sanctioned military intervention.

Back in the south, in Nyal, along the edge of thick papyrus marshes blanketing the banks of the Nile, I spend time with Thomas Gatjuol and his family. Thomas was six when, in 1988, he was separated from his parents. He joined thousands of boys fleeing the civil war by walking to refugee camps in neighbouring Ethiopia—a two-month journey. Called “the lost boys,” more than 25,000 of them tried to make the perilous trip, and then a second dangerous trek to Kenya. Over half of the boys died, succumbing to starvation, dehydration and disease.

In 1999, Thomas returned to his parents’ village. To his surprise, his mother was still alive. Now 22, Thomas is married, with two small children of his own. “I sometimes wonder how I survived at all,” he tells me. “Things are improving, though. We will have peace again soon. Hopefully, my children will not go through what 1 did. What I want for them is this: to be happy and to go to school. Nothing more.”

Thomas proudly shows me his home: a mud hut surrounded by a bamboo fence. He introduces me to his mother, who chases me until she can kiss me on both cheeks. His wife comforts their newborn. Later, as the UN plane leaves the airstrip in Nyal, I look back toward the village, past the crowd of children who have come to see us off, and hope peace will come soon enough for Thomas to realize his dreams. li1]