The wrong war

It’s twilight in Mabia, one of southern Sudan’s newest large-scale camps for ‘internally displaced persons’ – refugees within their own country. A small crowd gathers around a short-wave radio. Between bursts of static come BBC reports on Ramallah and Jerusalem: Arafat and Sharon. When the daily news is over, a man speaks into the darkness. ‘We’re at the wrong war,’ he says.

The southern Sudanese have long felt forgotten, lost in a civil war that is Africa’s bloodiest and longest. Post-11 September politics were supposed to change all that. The deadly attacks on New York and Washington put Sudan in America’s gunsight. Led by an Islamic regime that hosted Osama bin Laden from 1991 to 1996, Sudan ranked with Afghanistan and Iraq on the US list of  ‘sponsors of terror’.

In fact, the nation is sharply divided, with a largely Arab, Muslim society ruling in the north, and an African animist and Christian culture fighting for self-determination in the south. For the southerners, 11 September promised both a clampdown on the northern government and possible Western support for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army fighting in the south.

‘The aftermath of 11 September was the most significant window that had opened since the war began,’ says John Prendergast of International Crisis Group, a humanitarian research group. In his view, that was the time for the US to press the Sudanese Government on ‘root-cause’ divisions: religious freedom and southern self-determination. ‘If we can’t address those two issues when our influence and leverage is highest, then we really won’t have a chance for a peace agreement.’

Facing a military threat after 11 September, the Government of Sudan quickly opened counter-terrorism talks with the US. By 28 September 2001, US State Department officials were praising relations with Khartoum, and allowing longstanding UN sanctions to be lifted. John Danforth, leader of the current US strategy, has subsequently declared that a negotiated self-determination referendum may not include separation as an option.

‘People are considering Sudan to be honest now, but Sudan has a knife in its pocket,’ says SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) commander Augustino Jadallah. According to Jadallah, the civil war in the south grows more intense as pressure eases on the north. The pattern has been set since 1999, when Khartoum began collecting revenue from major oil developments. With new money came new and more lethal weapons: Antonov bombers, helicopter gunships, artillery cannons.

The people gathering around the radio in Mabia understand the end result. Last fall, they lived in Raga, 700 kilometres to the north. After the area was captured by the SPLA, government forces shelled it continuously, killing an unknown number of civilians and forcing 21,000 people into the bush. ‘Antonovs and gunships and jet fighters – they used to come and bomb everywhere, randomly,’ says Fashir Kamun, a former Raga banker. ‘You might move for one hour to get food and so on, then you go again into your hole. That’s how we were living in Raga.’

For now, the US is supporting ongoing peace talks led by East Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development. Monitors like Prendergast, however, say the Government of Sudan now has little incentive to lay down its arms. ‘The window is still open slightly, but that just means that the US and others will have to work harder’, he says. ‘They’re not doing that yet.’

New Internationalist issue 348 magazine cover This article is from the August 2002 issue of New Internationalist.
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