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Reflections from the Hot Zone: South Sudan

11/3/2005 6:07pm

Posted by Kevin Sites
on Wed Nov 2, 5:54 PM ET Post a Comment Video Audio Photo Essay

A time for peace in south Sudan.

Note: Reflections from the Hot Zone is a weekly essay that allows me to explore the more personal and emotional dimensions of reporting. It is not a daily dispatch, but a chance for me to take a step back, think about the people I've met and the places I've been and try to bring into focus the larger picture.

We are walking through the marketplace in Rumbek, south Sudan, and it seems to me, at first glance, the place where National Geographic meets Sally Struthers -- where the glossy, color photographs of exotic tribes people intersect with video of fly-covered babies with swollen stomachs. It's a place of intense pride as well as poverty.

I'm reasonably tall -- a little shy of 6'2" -- but I'm surrounded by giants: Dinkas, traditionally cattle herders, who tower over me. Rarely have I ever had to tilt my camera up to take a picture of someone's face. Today I'm looking into the sun, everywhere a silhouette.

I'm also intrigued by the halo of raised lines that encircles the heads of many of the young men we encounter. It's ritual scarification, a Dinka rite of initiation into manhood performed by dragging sharpened cow bones across the pate of the skull.

It's a look that, combined with their size, makes them look fearsome, although at the moment, they are much more interested in preening for me. They tap me on the shoulder, then motion with an open palm, curling their fingers toward themselves as if they were trying to draw in the scent of something, telling me, wordlessly, to take their picture.

For these young men it finally is a time for preening as opposed to fighting. The region is just emerging from a 21-year civil war -- the longest and bloodiest on the continent.

It ended in January with a complicated, but hopeful, power-sharing peace agreement between northern Arab Muslims, who dominate the government, and southern Christians and animists, who began a large-scale rebellion after the north tried to impose Islamic Sharia law on the entire country in 1983.

The war has exacted an extreme toll, with as many as two million dead (mostly from famine and disease) and between four and six million displaced.

Sudan is the largest nation in Africa, larger than all the countries of western Europe. It is also, because of the war, among the least visited by outsiders.

It is underdeveloped the way the moon might be considered underdeveloped: vast and empty. It is underdeveloped in a way that is hard to comprehend in the 21st century.

In southern Sudan one in nine women die during pregnancy or childbirth, one in four children never see their fifth birthday and more than 80 percent of the population is illiterate.

I get a glimpse of this place, however, embedded with the field operations of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), who have been working here since 1989.

I notice two things on my arrival:

First, virtually no cars are present, only bicycles. Vehicles and fuel are much too expensive for everyone but the international aid agencies working here.

Second, most of the children have a shirt or pants -- but rarely both.

They are dirty because water is more precious than gold. And though their bellies are swollen from malnutrition and worms, they laugh and play like any children anywhere in the world. This I soon learn is part of an indomitable spirit here that deals with suffering and happiness in the same way, moment by moment.

"I'm constantly amazed by what people can do without here," one aid worker tells me. "We have to fly in everything we need, fuel, a sheet of paper, everything -- they live without any of these things."

It is a society of physical hardship. People live in clusters of grass huts called thuckles. They plant subsistence gardens and pound their own flour for flatbread with mortar and pestle, made of a rounded log that is thrust into a hollow stump.

Wealth is measured in one type of hard currency: cows. Everything of any value, including women, is measured in cattle. Even brides-to-be are purchased from their families for cows.

In the past, a woman who was kept close to home and uneducated was worth more cows. She was considered more pure, less exposed to detrimental concepts and ideas.

But the war decimated the cattle economy and now educated women, according to local officials, draw a higher price because they have more potential to help the family economically.

During the war people in southern Sudan came to depend on international aid agencies for their very survival. Unable to tend their fields because of the constant violence, people here had to be fed through a United Nations-coordinated program called Operation Lifeline Sudan. Food and other essentials were airlifted into here in a system similar to the airdrops made after the Berlin Wall was erected during the Cold War.

The problem, some agencies say, is a culture of dependence, in which people here feel their food will continue to drop from the sky indefinitely.

The other major concern is that with the peace agreement signed, the millions of people who fled southern Sudan will begin to come home, and the region just does not have enough food, water or medical resources to sustain them. This could lead to violence between the returnees and their host communities, which could undermine the entire peace process.

But despite these challenges, progress is being made. Medical clinics are being built, and polio inoculations that have not been given for more than two decades are being administered in the region once again.

"There's hope here," IRC staffer Richard Haselwood tells me. "When I was working in Liberia I didn't always see it there. But I do see it here. There's a civil administration forming and a desire for a better life."

And beyond the people of Sudan, the international community has a great deal of interest in seeing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the war succeed.

Strategically, the United States is very concerned about the influence of the National Islamic Front (NIF), a group believed to have connections with al Qaeda movement, on the Muslim dominated Sudanese government. Remember that after the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1998, one of the responses of the Clinton administration was to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles into a building in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

The building, which turned out to be a pharmaceuticals factory, was believed at the time to have ties to al Qaeda.

The new power-sharing agreement will create the potential to keep the NIF in check because the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the political arm of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), will now have several prominent positions within the new government.

Additionally the SPLA will be integrated into several joint battalions with the current Sudanese armed forces throughout the nation, which will allow both groups to keep an eye on each other: a "Godfather"-type approach of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer.

However, the peace agreement mandates that after six years a national referendum be held to let the people vote to decide whether they remain as one united Sudan or become two different entities, north and south.

Regardless of the outcome, most here agree that six years without war will be even more precious than food dropped from the sky.

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