Lasting peace can be elusive in battered Sudan

By on June 1, 2008

Matthew Angon and Rebecca Achol Majak, members of the peace council in Pacong, south Sudan, stand under a palm tree that inspired the villagers to work for peace.

Pacong, South Sudan
From a distance, it appears to be one huge palm tree, perhaps four metres around the tremendous trunk. Upon closer inspection, though, it becomes clear that another tree has grown up and around the palm tree, its gnarly shoots – as big as a man’s forearms – crisscrossing each other and creeping into every crevice of the palm. The two trees appear to be hugging each other.

It is under this tree in the Dinka village of Pacong, in rural Lakes State in south Sudan, that local people signed a peace agreement; it was intended to end the infighting that divided the community.

“Some years back – about two or three years ago – this area was completely a war zone,” said Matthew Angon, chair of the Pacong peace council, through an interpreter. Then, after the Khartoum-based north reached a comprehensive peace agreement with the semi-autonomous south Sudan, the people of Pacong began fighting among themselves. The root causes of the violence varied, including cattle rustling (cows are considered almost a form of currency in some parts of Sudan) and too many idle, young men without employment or skills.

“I thought, how long are we going to fight?” said Mr. Angon. Starting with 48 community members, the Pacong peace council – aided by the Sudan Council of Churches and Church Ecumenical Action Sudan (a Sudanese partner of Action by Churches Together, or ACT International) – found inspiration in the intertwined trees.

“We used to sit under that tree,” said Mr. Angon, pointing at the palm. “We said, if two trees can stay together as brothers, why not do the same?”

The ecumenical bodies have helped the community with both peace building and such practical applications as an agricultural program for the men (complete with plows, hoes and bulls) and a grain mill for the women.

Rebecca Achol Majak, who chairs the peace council’s women’s group – which steps in when the men’s tempers heat up – said, “We were very concerned that our children were killing each other and themselves.” Once people start to work, she said, “they don’t have time to quarrel.”

Pacong’s experience is one example of the challenges faced by Sudanese as they rebuild after a 21-year civil war that crippled much of the nation’s infrastructure; the nation is operating under an increasingly shaky peace agreement signed in 2005 by the government in the north and the 10 states of south Sudan.

Caesar Mazzolari, the Italian-born Roman Catholic bishop of Rumbek, a diocese near Pacong, since 1999, said recovery since the war has been slow and he fears that Sudan lost a bit of its humanity in the decades of war.

“There is relative peace,” said Bishop Mazzolari, “but the value of life has not been reconstituted.” The bishop has lived in Sudan since 1981 and he believes that before the nation can heal, it must eliminate its culture of dependence, developed during the war. While the country is rich in natural resources, such as oil (a major source of contention between the north and south, which has most of the oil resources), ebony, mahogany and gold, the people “think someone will take care of them.” His church has brought counsellors into the area to listen to stories of those who were affected by the war – both civilians and former soldiers.

“We are a traumatized nation,” said the bishop. “We were paralyzed after the war.” That trauma manifests itself in different ways, including continued violence and alcohol and drug abuse.

Besides those who were traumatized during the war, Sudan is also facing the double-edged sword of managing the Sudanese who left the country during the war. Some southerners sought refuge in safer north Sudan; some fled to Uganda, Kenya or beyond (including Canada). While many people welcome the returnees – for their much-needed skills, for the reunification of families and because their numbers helped the south Sudan cause in the April census – they are at the same time seen by some to be competing for limited resources.

(The census, completed over two weeks in April, was intended to clarify for the first time since 1993 the population figures in north and south Sudan; the numbers are considered crucial to confirm or reconfigure the sharing of power, wealth and resources between the former warring north and south.)

Observers note that returnees often choose not to stay in or even return to south Sudan after they realize the difficulties of living in a country that is new to peace. Food and infrastructure are scarce – for instance, there are no paved roads in the city of Rumbek, the capital of Lakes State which had once been intended as the capital of an independent south Sudan – and schooling is spotty, since the war interrupted the education of many Sudanese. Many skills and trades were also lost during the war, as two million died in the war and a further four million people were displaced. Many people fear that war will break out anew.

The 2005 peace agreement is also being breached; south Sudanese accuse their former enemy of trying to cheat the south out of its fair share of oil revenues. Most of Sudan’s oil is in the south, which accuses the north of redrawing the border to claim oil-rich areas for themselves. Many people believe well-armed bandits also fuel the instability.

“There are militias being funded by the north to destabilize the south,” said Reuben Makoi, bishop of the diocese of Cueibet in the Episcopal Church of Sudan. The problem of militias is not limited to the south, though; the head of one of the most powerful Janjaweed militias admitted earlier this year to Britain’s Channel 4 that his men received direct orders and weapons from the Khartoum government to crush rebel groups and create instability in the northern Darfur region.

The elderly bishop, meanwhile, worries about the young people in his diocese, too many of whom are unemployed and prone to violence. There are still too many guns in the country, said Bishop Makoi. “Things are okay now, but the devil is working hard.”

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