Troubled nation prepares to vote on tearing itself apart

The Times of London
Malakal, Southern Sudan

Mandour Abdelnoor, a trader, plans to return to Khartoum for safety(Pete Muller for The Times)
Mandour Abdelnoor, a trader, plans to return to Khartoum for safety
(Pete Muller for The Times)

Barges arrive from the north every day, loaded with people and their possessions. Jumbles of chairs and bed frames, mattresses, tin pots, plastic basins and barrels are piled on the quayside at Malakal, the first big town on the Nile in the south.

Southern Sudanese are leaving the north, some out of fear, others in excitement at the coming birth of their new independent nation.

“I have come to register for the referendum,” said William Gatkhor, 40, who until a few days ago lived in Jebel Aulia, a camp for displaced southerners on the outskirts of Khartoum.

“Independence means freedom for southerners,” he said.

Civil war has marred Sudan’s post-independence history. A 2005 peace deal stopped the most recent, 22-year-long round of north-south fighting in which about two million people died, mostly from starvation and illness.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) guaranteed the mostly black Christian southerners a vote on self-determination due in January that is expected to divide them from the predominately Arab Muslim north.

In the oil-rich south of the country the desire for separation and independence seems unanimous. Like thousands of others heading south every month Mr Gatkhor fears that if he stayed in the north he might be forced to vote for unity, or worse be chased from his home, or killed once the inevitable separation happens.

“They are afraid that if they stay they will be slaughtered,” said one southern Sudanese aid worker at the port.

The northern regime of President Omar al-Bashir wants to hold onto the south and the 480,000 barrels of oil a day that are pumped from its fields. There are widespread fears in southern Sudan and internationally that the north may seek to delay, discredit or deny the referendum — any of which could trigger a resumption of war.

“The northerners are preparing to steal the vote, they are threatening us,” said Mr Gatkhor who arrived in Malakal with seven members of his family, including his nephew, Emmanuel John Jock, 23, who was born in the north. Mr Jock said that as a black southerner he could find only menial work. Together the two men sifted through the few belongings they brought from Khartoum, things that will become the flimsy foundation of their new lives in what they hope will soon be the world’s newest country.

Malakal is a trading centre and a crossroads between north and south just 25 miles from the disputed border. Most of the people here are ethnic southerners yet the town’s grandest structure is a mosque built by Egypt in the 1940s frequented by Arabs.

It is also a divided town: the northern Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) are barracked on one side, the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) on the other. They have opposing detachments at either end of the airstrip. In accordance with the CPA, repeated attempts were made to integrate the two forces into a functioning joint unit but all failed. In 2006 and again last year conflict broke out between the two armies, there was street fighting, mortars flew across town and tanks rumbled down its rutted mud roads. Hundreds were killed.

In Malakal, Africa’s biggest country is already tearing itself in two. As more and more southerners arrive by river, northerners who have traded for years or even generations are leaving by road. Mandour Mohamed Abdelnoor, 45, has thick glasses and is blind in one eye. He came to Malakal in 1983 and sells spare parts, building materials and hardware. “In December I will close the shop and my family will go to Khartoum. I will wait to see how the situation is,” he said. “I think there may be some problems.”

Arabs dominate trade in Malakal which, like the rest of southern Sudan, imports nearly everything. Aid workers who use the town as a base for reaching cut-off communities of fishermen and farmers inland and on the banks of the Nile say that prices are already rising, fuel is in short supply and storehouses are emptying.

Not every Arab is leaving. Abduzarrog Abiazziz from Omdurman in Khartoum said he will stay. “Others are going, some of them are afraid, but I have been here for 40 years. I feel like a southerner,” he said.

Whether Sudan’s split turns violent depends largely on the leaders in Khartoum and Juba, and what they say. Recently senior northern politicians declared that southerners must leave if the south secedes. That stoked fear and anger and prompted southerners in the north to pack their belongings and head home before they are chased out. “The ongoing citizenship discussions and the rhetoric from political leaders will determine the movement of people from north to south,” said David Gressly, the regional co-ordinator for southern Sudan at the United Nations Mission in Sudan.

Most of the southerners returning from the north live with relatives in already crowded houses. Beginning their lives again will be hard, but perhaps easier than staying in the north.

“My worry is for those southerners who are in the north,” said Simon Kun Puoch, the Governor of Upper Nile State, who fears the tinderbox that Malakal might become. “If anything happened in the north the same would happen in the south, this is our fear.”

“There are signs of coming insecurity,” warned Imam Abdelazziz Ogony, the southerner who leads prayers at the mosque. “Northerners and southerners do not trust each other, they see each other as enemies not as brothers.”

Sudan is separating along a deep fault line formed over decades by civil war and mutual antagonism. Sitting out the heat of the day, a retired teacher, Peter Lam, 70, did not care. “The south has already gone,” he said.

Ill-conceived union fashioned under British colonial rule
Fashoda is a quiet little town on the western bank of the Nile two hours down river from Malakal by boat and it is the place where Sudan, a country that next year will probably cease to exist, began.

Ignore the plastic chairs, the electricity pylons and two newly erected mobile phone masts and it is easy to imagine the scene much as Herbert Kitchener found it when he arrived in 1898 at the height of the colonial “Scramble for Africa”.

General Kitchener’s forces arrived aboard gunboats from Khartoum in September 1898, a couple of months after French troops who had marched eastwards from Senegal under the command of Captain Jean-Baptiste Marchand had established a fort in Fashoda.

A local government building still bears a plaque reading “Marchand 1898”.

A polite two-month stand-off ended with France ceding control of Fashoda, and therefore the whole of Sudan, to Britain which went on to rule Sudan as two distinct colonies. A few years before independence in 1956 north and south were joined together in a single ill-conceived union that the northern Arabs quickly dominated at the expense of black southerners.

Elderly folk in the south still blame Britain for the betrayal. “The suffering of the south was created during your time,” one old man said of Britain’s colonial rule.