Fri, Jan 08, 2010 - Page 9 News List

A year of fear as Sudan teeters on the brink of war

By Ros Wynne-Jones  /  THE GUARDIAN

Tomorrow there will be exactly a year left to prevent the return of a conflict that was once the longest-running in Africa — Sudan’s north-south war, which claimed about 2 million lives. With elections due this year and 365 days left until the crucial referendum on independence for the south, concern is growing among analysts, advocacy groups and NGOs working in Sudan that widespread conflict will soon return.

The comprehensive peace agreement that ended the 22-year civil war between north and south Sudan has its fifth anniversary on Sunday. Anyone who visited the south during those years, the camps of displaced people in the north, or the refugee camps that sprang up along the Ethiopian border, will know how important it is to prevent the reignition of that war.

Of the millions killed, hundreds of thousands were burned to death in their southern tribal villages, with women and children captured and taken to the north of the country. Entire communities were eradicated from the map in a country whose remote vastness hid the atrocities from the eyes of the world.

This week sees the launch of Sudan365, a global campaign, as well as a major joint-agency report — Rescuing the Peace in Southern Sudan — which warns that a cocktail of rising violence, chronic poverty and political tensions has left the peace deal on the brink of collapse. On Monday Daniel Deng, the archbishop of the Episcopal church of Sudan, and Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, will meet British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to discuss the growing crisis. A new report by the Chatham House think tank urges the international community to re-engage with Sudan; and Glenys Kinnock, the minister for Africa, is traveling out there this week.

By comparison with past casualties recent skirmishes seem minimal. But with the inter-agency report recording 2,500 lives lost in a single year — a serious spike — the ceasefire is in open crisis. Meanwhile, 350,000 people have been displaced from their homes.

Analysts note that both sides of the divide are now moving into a potentially explosive endgame. And even as trouble grows in the south, in the western region of Darfur and in neighboring Chad millions continue to suffer daily in refugee camps — seven years after the Darfur conflict erupted. People there are unsure whether their fate is worse than death. Militias surround these supposed places of safety and women are raped walking for firewood; rations are meager; and the hope of returning home diminishes with every passing year.

Further complicating the global picture, Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, is wanted by the international criminal court for war crimes including genocide. He has since taken his revenge by throwing several aid agencies out of Darfur — precisely where humanitarian needs remain critical.

I visited Sudan many times during the war, and have since been to Chad to see those desperate people living in a raging heat surrounded by little more than sticks and earth. In southern Sudan every child had their own story of atrocity, whether the loss of a parent to the swipe of a machete, the burning of their home and their crops by horseback militias, or the long walks across barren nothingness with no food or water.

The lines are blurred by many complex factors, one of which is oil. While the country remains intact, the preferred method of extraction by the northern government has been to burn the tribal peoples from their land. But should the country be partitioned in two, some 87 percent of oil revenue would be held by the south. Will Khartoum really let those oilfields go?

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