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TomDispatch: With the Lost Boys in Southern Sudan, ‘Starting from Zero’ (Part 1)

October 15, 2007

By David Morse

To the extent that the media spotlight is ever directed at Africa, it has focused on Darfur, in western Sudan, where several hundred thousand people have died in ethnic violence since 2003. Just next door, beyond the glare of the spotlight, however, is South Sudan, where an estimated 2.2 million people were killed in two decades of bitter internecine fighting. There, a fragile, three-year-old peace agreement is rapidly coming apart. A new conflagration in South Sudan would engulf Darfur, dwarf the carnage that has taken place so far in the region, and launch sub-Saharan Africa into the age of energy wars.

Both the danger — and its ethnic character — were brought home to me very personally in a single moment on a recent trip to South Sudan as I tried to tell myself that the two-year-old Dinka boy pointing a pistol at my chest meant no harm. But the pearl-handled automatic looked real enough. “Khawaja,” he said. (Dinka for “white person.”)

I was relieved when the man who was perhaps the toddler’s father, a big-bellied lieutenant colonel in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, grinned and held the bullet clip aloft to show he’d removed it from the gun. He was visibly a little drunk.

“He’s very intelligent boy,” he said proudly, “You see, he points the gun at you because he thinks you are Arab.”

We were sitting on makeshift stools in a dark, narrow, crowded bar in Kuajok, a state capital in South Sudan — the only bar in town. Kuajok is under construction. Three years ago it was just a village. Since it was designated the capital of the newly formed state of Warrap, one of the ten states that make up South Sudan, its population has mushroomed. The few masonry buildings that survived two decades of civil war in Kuajok are undersized and shabby. Everything else has been cobbled together from poles and mats of woven rushes. The bar, where I was trying to find something to eat, is attached to a guest lodge — a compound containing half a dozen thatched huts with padlocks and no latrines, just shallow holes dug in the ground. A sign, lettered on a cotton sheet announcing the Warrap State Safari Guest House, is ripped right down the middle and readable only when the breeze is blowing just so.

Kuajok is a boomtown. All that’s missing is the money.

One of the few visible public works in progress is the main road through town, now being rebuilt. Dump trucks rumble back and forth carrying the red, gritty, compactable soil used here for building the all-weather roads so desperately needed throughout southern Sudan, where the rainy season brings ground transport to a near standstill. A school for girls also nears completion, privately funded through UNICEF; but there is no hospital at all, just a pathetically under-equipped clinic. In separate interviews, the state ministers of education and health used the same phrase: “We are starting from zero.” Warrap — the most populous of South Sudan’s states, as well as the newest — has a hard time just meeting its modest payroll.

The same is true, I discovered, throughout South Sudan. Everywhere, a shortage of cash, everywhere a backlog of unmet human needs. The rainy season means sorghum can be planted; it brings subsistence farmers to their knees, slashing the earth with straight-bladed hoes. But because of poor sanitation and lack of clean water, the rain also brings cholera, guinea-worm, and dysentery. It means children will die.

Six hundred miles to the north, Khartoum’s Arab elite are awash in oil money. From near-bankruptcy in the late 1990s, Sudan has tripled its gross national product in the past seven years. Consumers buy giant flat-screen plasma TVs, expensive new cars. The capital city, Khartoum, has new roads, an elevated expressway, weapons factories constructed by the Chinese, and Malaysian-built refineries that pipe oil to tanker terminals on the Red Sea. Sudan’s proven oil reserves are estimated at a fairly hefty 5-6.5 million barrels, giving it the fifth largest reserves in Africa.

But South Sudan, where most of that oil actually comes from, remains one of the poorest regions on the planet. Historically marginalized by Khartoum — first under the Ottoman Turks, then under the British, and now under Arab Islamists who control the central government — the South, black African and religiously diverse, has zero manufacturing capacity. Everything from building supplies to salt has to be trucked in from neighboring Uganda or Kenya.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (commonly referred to as the CPA), signed in January of 2005, was supposed to address these inequities. Brokered by the U.S. and Kenya in painstaking, seemingly endless negotiations, the CPA was an acknowledgment by the warring parties — the National Islamic Front, representing the government in Khartoum, and the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM), representing the rebels in the South — that neither side could win the bloody civil war that had staggered on for 21 years. The agreement was not truly comprehensive: It did not include the three western Sudanese states known as Darfur, which were just then erupting into violence; nor did it address the needs of other marginalized regions and constituencies suffering under Khartoum’s yoke. Nevertheless, the agreement was hailed as a triumph by the Bush administration and by an international community eager to see the conflict resolved.

Whatever its limitations, the CPA did, at least, address the only partly ideological root causes of the conflict in the South. Khartoum had, indeed, wanted to impose fundamentalist Islamic law on all of Sudan; but, from the beginning, the conflict was largely over wealth-sharing. Increasingly this civil war also became a “resource war.”

Under the CPA, South Sudan was to have the status of a semi-autonomous state, with control over its internal affairs. Revenues from the southern oilfields were to be divided 50-50 between Khartoum and the newly formed Government of South Sudan. The CPA also provided for a plebiscite, scheduled for 2011, in which the South could vote to secede. This future vote was meant to placate southerners who feared Khartoum would not keep its word.

So now, three years into the CPA, southerners are asking with increasing agitation: Where is the promised oil money?

The sight of that toddler pointing a pistol at me was unsettling, but not nearly as disturbing as the explanation the Colonel offered: because he thinks you are an Arab. A gregarious bully who seemed to be part of the security detail assigned to the group I was with, the colonel, perhaps reading my expression, retrieved his pistol and tucked it into the fanny pack under his belly. But if the pistol was out of sight, the words hung there, a reminder of the larger danger that lay just beyond the bar’s jury-rigged walls. Subsequent events have confirmed my assessment — that this sprawling, dysfunctional country is again slipping into the racial polarization of “Arab” versus “Black” that has prevented it from becoming a coherent nation. Sudan is again poised at a precipice.

The enmity between slave-taking Arabs and black Africans goes back centuries, long predating Sudan’s existence as a nation. “The Sudan,” as many people still call it, is in fact a comparatively recent amalgamation: North and South were thrown together for the convenience of a hastily departing British colonial government in 1956. The British left the Arabs “in charge,” much as the Belgians did with the Hutu in Rwanda. Even so, the ethnic tensions might now be transcended, were it not for the way Khartoum manipulates them to its own immediate advantage, here as in Darfur. Now, the whole country — including the three western states that comprise Darfur, where two million displaced people already live at the edge of disaster, dependent on outside aid — appears ready to plunge into a bloody ethnic war.

READ THE FULL PIECE ON TOMDISPATCH.COM

David Morse is an independent journalist and human rights activist whose articles and essays have appeared in Dissent, Esquire, Friends Journal, the Nation, the New York Times Magazine, Salon, and elsewhere. His novel, The Iron Bridge (Harcourt Brace, 1998), predicted a series of petroleum wars in the first two decades of the 21st century. He traveled to South Sudan most recently with support from the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and wrote this article during a residency at Blue Mountain Center. Morse may be reached at his website: dmorse@david-morse.com.

Copyright 2007 David Morse

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