Sudan secession vote a journey to the unknown


Despite the obstacles a split from the north would surely bring, southern Sudan remains hopeful for the future

LIT UP with crude coloured light bulbs, a wooden crucifix looks down onto the foundations of Malakal’s new Anglican Cathedral.

The lights sparkle faintly against the dark, star-scattered sky overhead, down onto the collection of bricks and cement underneath.

More than a year in the making, the cathedral is not yet half-built. Some 1,500 bricks have been laid, metal beams jutting upwards from their foundations. But getting money for the other 2,000 might be tricky.

“Releasing money from the congregation for the cathedral is difficult because few work,” says Hillary Garang, the Anglican bishop of Malakal.

“People here are starting from scratch.”

To make matters worse, shipping the materials to Malakal is a laborious and expensive process. Khartoum in the north is a two-day drive by bus.

“To Juba, don’t even think about it,” says Garang.

“There are no roads, so you have to take the Nile River. And that can take nine days.”

In many respects, the problems faced by Malakal’s Anglican cathedral are those faced by southern Sudan as a whole.

On Sunday, voters in the south will vote in a referendum that will decide if the region becomes the world’s newest state.

However, they will also be choosing to create one of its poorest and least developed.

After being ignored by the Khartoum government for generations, decades of war have left basic infrastructure such as roads, health services and education in tatters.

In a region as big as Italy, there are about 40km of tarmacked roads, most of them in the capital, Juba. More mothers die during childbirth here than anywhere else in the world apart from Sierra Leone, says Oxfam, with one in 10 children dying before their first birthday, putting southern Sudan in the bottom 10 countries in the world for infant mortality.

The civil war, which ran from 1983 to 2005 and the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement between northern and southern Sudan, destroyed entire villages and schools, with the result that an estimated 80 per cent of adults – including 92 per cent of women – cannot read or write.

Yet people are returning in their tens of thousands, grabbing buses and ferries from the north that rumble along desert tracks and trudge down the Nile River to a country that many have not seen since they were infants.

After an 18-day journey along the White Nile from Khartoum, 700 people chant and sing as they finally dock in Juba, southern Sudan’s nascent capital.

Stacked high with furniture, TV appliances and metal-framed beds hanging from the back, their barges are the first arrivals of the new year. “This is a big day for them,” says Matthew Abujin, secretary of the Southern Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, receiving people off the boats. “This is their final journey to south Sudan. They are finally rejoining us.”

What exactly they are coming back to is less than certain.

“A lot of people are coming to the unknown,” says Susan Purdin, country director for southern Sudan with the International Rescue Committee.

“They have high expectations, because they’ve heard they will get land and a place to live but the south is less developed than the north or anywhere near Khartoum, so trying to find schools for children, access healthcare and scrape an existence from the land is going to be a major challenge.” Weighed down with the possessions of a lifetime, a stream of people groan and grunt as they weave their way onto shore.

A suitcase on her head, an old woman falls backwards on her side as she makes it to the gangway and onto shore. Two young men help her up but within seconds, there is a queue of heads, all topped with mattresses and tarpaulins ready to nudge her out of the way.

Two jerry cans in one hand, Dories Kuyu (31), reaches her henna-painted fingertips to a duvet being handed down by one of her sons.

She hasn’t been to the south since 1992, when like more than 1 million others, she fled fighting that would end up killing about 2 million people during the civil war that pitched the mainly Muslim north against the Christian south.

“There’s no security for me in the north because of the referendum.

“The information minister in Khartoum recently said that if the south votes for independence, we can forget about getting healthcare. There won’t even be a syringe for those left behind.” If fear drove her south, it is the expectation of a better life that led Rebecca Nyathiec (29), to return home after 20 years spent living near Rabak, on the eastern banks of the White Nile in northern Sudan.

Sitting on top of two metal-framed beds, on the open deck of one of the two barges that have just arrived, her nine children bounce on mattresses and chatter in Arabic, a strange language to other southern Sudanese of their age, more used to tribal languages such as Dinka and Nuer, or even English.

“My husband worked in the Kenana sugar refinery on the outskirts of the city, but along with the other southerners he lost his job after the peace agreement in 2005.”

“The government in Juba was paying for this barge, so we said this might be our only chance to come south.

“We want our children to grow up here because we know there is peace.”

It is that peace, the first that many have ever known, that is emboldening the people of southern Sudan, no matter what the challenges they face in the coming months and years.

There are still issues to be resolved. Some former rebel leaders in the south have set up their own political and military factions, ostensibly to bolster their position in any new southern government.

However, there are accusations that they are taking money from several sources in Khartoum, who might want to destabilise any new southern government.

But the most pressing issues are still between the north and the south, especially over the future of the Abyei region, the site of much of Sudan’s oil. The visit of President Omar al-Bashir to Juba on Tuesday and the red carpet treatment he received, has encouraged both sides and the international community that it can be settled peacefully.

And with a strong peace dividend in its sails, this young nation, where 51 per cent of people are aged 18 and under, will at least receive a positive start to its first days among the nations of the earth.

“Children in the school we run here used to sculpt UN helicopters and armoured vehicles,” says Bishop Garang, himself a former student of fine art.

“But since we started building the cathedral in November 2009, they’ve started making mechanical diggers as well. You can tell a lot about how a child’s mind works by what he sculpts.”