Juba and Malakal
"The suffering of southerners was created in colonial times," says Peter Lam, a retired teacher in his 70s from Malakal, a trading town in Sudan where north meets south on the banks of the Nile River. As Sudan’s second independence approaches, we are discussing the first, and what has gone wrong.
Lam tells me that Britain’s colonial neglect of the south meant that when it came to negotiations for independence, southern "native chiefs" were conned by the sophisticated northern "teachers and philosophers" into accepting a deal that united the country under a single government in Khartoum. "When independence came we felt deceived by unity and we revolted," recalls Lam.
In fact, Sudan’s civil war began in 1955, the year before the country gained independence. The people of southern Sudan, an oil-rich but terribly poor region where most of the 9 million or so inhabitants have either Christian or animist beliefs, say they never got their independence. That is why they fought the dominance of the Arab Muslims of northern Sudan for the better part of fifty years. At last, they believe, independence is coming. "Now is our real independence," Lam says with a broad smile. "The south has already gone."
On January 9 southern Sudanese are scheduled to vote in a referendum on secession that is expected to split Africa’s biggest country and give birth to the world’s newest nation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called a vote in favor of separation "inevitable." The referendum is the culmination of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), brokered by the United States and others, which ended the last twenty-two-year round of north-south fighting. By the time it was over, 2 million had died, mostly from starvation and disease rather than direct violence. Perhaps 4 million more had been forced to flee their homes, leaving the region in tatters. In mid-November southerners began registering to vote, marking the final step toward the referendum, but there are widespread fears that the vote may trigger a return to catastrophic violence.
For now, there is a singleness of purpose reflected in a growing sense of separate national identities, as southerners return from the north—some out of fear for their safety, some out of excitement at the prospect of independence—and northerners prepare to leave the south. Even before the referendum, you can see Sudan tearing itself in two.
Malakal is a two-hour flight north of Juba, the southern capital-in-waiting. Seen through the airplane’s window, the Nile and its banks are a brush stroke of vivid green painted on an endless tinder-dry brown canvas. The White Nile dissipates into a vast wetlands known as the Sudd, which from the air looks like an endless pasture, until the plane banks and the grass resolves itself into swamp as the sun reflects off the water.
The airstrip and the town of Malakal are bookended by rival barracks: the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) on one side and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) on the other. As with the country itself, an unclear line separates the north and south of Malakal. When fighting has erupted in the years since the CPA, it has often been here. In 2006 and 2009 hundreds were killed as the armies took each other on, firing mortars over Malakal’s crumbling, tin-roofed buildings and sending tanks and troops onto its wide, rutted streets. At the center of town a stone mosque built by Egypt in the 1940s dominates the surrounding market, where Arab traders keep the local economy alive selling goods to southern businesses and buyers. As the day passes, the mosque’s minaret casts a shadow like that of a sundial across the dust-colored bungalows and shanties.