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On the Eve of Independence, New Violence in Sudan

13 June 2011 4 Comments

Danielle Prince with Sudanese Elder

Danielle Prince
United States/Sudan

Editor’s Note: In January, Danielle wrote for Voices from the Frontlines about her experiences in Sudan and the women she met there.  We asked her to check in again because of new violence in the border region of Abyei, just ahead of southern Sudan’s separation from the north.

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Sudan is back in the news after taking a backseat to the domino action in Northern Africa and the Middle East and to Japan’s tsunami.  Why has the country recently resurfaced in the media’s focus?  Because people are fleeing and people are dying.  Again.

In the lead-up to Sudan’s referendum in January 2011, great efforts were made to keep the process peaceful, in part because the international community was shining a spotlight directly onto Sudan.  One collaborative project in particular has effectively helped violence prevention by literally putting Sudan into the world’s view and letting Khartoum know that it is being watched:  The Satellite Sentinel Project.  This was specifically developed by several players concerned about the risk of another war, including: Not On Our Watch, the Enough Project, Google, DigitalGlobe, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and Trellon LLC.

Concomitant support to move Sudan into Americans’ consciousness and to raise awareness and ignite activism continues to come from celebs such as George Clooney and Mia Farrow.  Their projects range from personal blogs to large collaborative efforts, all of which call out a collective cry to action.  In March President Obama appointed special envoy Princeton Leyman to work towards the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement’s nonviolent implementation.

Sudanese Women

Yet all of these people, all of us who care about the July separation being peaceful, are once again watching what seems to be a sinking ship.  The breath of war, genocide, and crimes against humanity is swirling back to life and Abyei town is at the crux: oil rich and stubbornly situated on the proposed north-south border.  Inhabited by Southern Sudanese but claimed by the North, this town embodies the strife of the entire country.  After the Sudan Armed Forces (North) and Sudan People’s Liberation Army (South) clashed in late May, residents began fleeing south in hopes of moving beyond the reach of violence.

The reports of fighting are eerily similar to what the women in Southern Sudan told me when I was there last summer.  They recounted stories of the previous war when the Arabs, or Northerners, raided their villages, burned their subsistence crops, torched their homes, stole their children, and forced them into hiding for months on end.  One woman, Regina, told me, “I stayed in Marial Bai during the war.  I stayed in a village close by while the Arabs invaded, took our cows and our goats, and burned our houses and crops to the ground.  We hid for 14 weeks, though my family was not immune from the consequences.  My second oldest daughter was captured by the Arabs.  Another Sudanese woman, who herself had lost all her children in the war, was with my daughter and was able to care for her during the three months of her capture.  Somehow my daughter escaped and came back to me.  I was so happy.”

Sudanese Women Celebrating

Another young woman, 17 year-old Mary, told me, “I remember the Arabs coming at night. They came with the guns to fight.  A lot of people died because of Arabs fighting.  I remember running away into the forest and for two or three months  we had no food or water.  I saw the Arabs coming with guns, the fighting and the people dying.  They destroyed our homes and crops with fire.  They burnt my house down.  My mother and I were captured by the Arabs and they took us to the river.  There we were met by SPLA soldiers who fought the Arabs and we were released.  If the soldiers had not been there the Arabs would have taken us to Khartoum, where we would have become slaves and forced to worship Islam.

After this we were angry. We had no homes, no beds, no clothes and were exposed to all the animals including mosquitoes. We lived like this for two years. My people suffered the invasions of Arabs for 21 years. They would take the women, girls, and boys and send them to Khartoum to be slaves. If you refused to go you would be shot on the spot. The men fought and died. Finally, Save the Children helped get the women and children back.

Adel shared this with me. “Life was difficult due to war when I was a child. People often had to run for safety, I remember. When I was young my mother carried me on her back, running to safety in the forest. During the day we would hide as long as it was daylight. At night we would go back to our house to cook and sleep. I don’t remember how long this went on. But I do remember that the attackers came during the dry season and stayed away during the rainy season.”

With the rainy season starting it seems futile to hope such a natural phenomenon could be a deterrent to war.  Yet the North’s vice-like grip on Abyei and its tenacious hold on the South’s oil fields don’t bode well for separation – just a month away.  Redirecting the international spotlight on Sudan is a must if we hope to have any influence on stopping the violence.  Please visit the websites mentioned in this article to see how you can help.

The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.

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4 Comments to “On the Eve of Independence, New Violence in Sudan”
  1. Andy says:

    Really interesting view on the situation. Thanks, Danielle!

  2. Ferdinand von Habsburg-Lothringen says:

    Thank you, Danielle. Some of what you have highlighted is what has kept the antagonism alive for so long and right the way through the transition for both North and South during the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Many observers overlook the levels of enmity that exists, usually because they arrive fresh in-country and pick up the chronology from 2005, when the bulk of the international community presence arrived to work with Sudanese. This often necessarily shallow analysis and thus understanding is reflected in many opinions, programmes and policies that are developed.

    What we do see are long historic trends of inter- and intra-community conflict that politicians have and continue to exploit both within the north and within the south and between the north and south. With more at stake than ever, this exploitation follows the fault lines and exacerbates the conflicts (which are multiple at this time).

    Many had believed (in particularly those international and multilateral entities) that investment with capacity building would be sufficient to hold the peace, while the political process would require some light shepherding. But with little focus on the dynamics/relationships and the previous conflicts, the oversimplification has led to structures with little or no process to make the structures functional. Peace is therefore illusive.

    TRAC 1 is essential at this time to keep the parties focused on a smooth transition beyond the event of the Independence of South Sudan. TRAC 1 is essential to keep the parties talking in Abyei and Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile States, while not letting go of the architecture already in place through the CPA, the Hague Settlement of Abyei, the Abyei Road map etc.. But TRAC 3 work with civil society and other actors is crucial too to enable a social dialogue to renew old friendships and mend bridges. Linking the 2 TRACs is similarly crucial.

    Many expressed surprise at the latest outbreak of fighting, but when none of the TRACs yield anything but the interest of a few, we are back to square 1.

    Pouring money into a conflict zone or country, especially when done with little analysis, will only lead to further conflict. The international community must review how it is approaching Sudan and invest more in processes and participants rather than getting results that are soon destroyed again.

    I have worked 14 years in Sudan and see very little change in the situation until this happens.

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