Sudan will soon split in two: an African Christian-majority South and an Arab Muslim-majority North. On July 9, the Southern Sudanese government is expected to declare independence from the Islamist regime in Khartoum, the final step in the process that will officially end a half-century of civil wars. But the prospects of a peaceful independence day look bleak. There is renewed conflict in two distinct regions on the border between Northern and Southern Sudan; Northern troops have re-occupied Abyei, contested territory neither side wants to give up, while nearby, in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan, the Sudanese army is bombing airstrips and blockading roads, cutting off food supplies to pressure separatist militias to disarm.
“All of these people, they are fighting. They are firing. They are boiling inside,” William Maddeng, a Southern Sudanese refugee said. “You can’t stop it.” William left his home near Abyei during the civil war. He and his brothers ran 30 kilometers into the Nuba Mountains to escape Northern troops in the late 1990s. Now, with the Sudanese army dropping bombs on South Kordofan, and hundreds of civilians running for cover in Nuba Mountain caves, William does not believe that the conflict between Northern and Southern Sudan will end with separation; independence, he says, will just be “ice on the fire.”
The current conflicts in Abyei and Kordofan arise over the same fault lines as the civil war: race, religion, and resources. The Arab Muslim government in Khartoum has a long history of violently suppressing liberation movements in Central, Western, and Southern Sudan, where the populations are mostly black African. A major cause of the war was the application of shari’ah law in 1983, which incited rebellion from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), a secular, though largely Christian group now ready to declare independence for Southern Sudan. But the Khartoum government and the SPLM have not agreed on how they will share Sudan’s oil reserves, and ethnic conflicts on the borderlands could signal a return of the war. As Southern Sudan prepares for its independence day, militias allied with the SPLM are mobilizing in the Nuba Mountains to fight for a secular, democratic, autonomous state of their own in oil-rich South Kordofan. And in Abyei, there were direct clashes between the SPLM and the Sudanese army in late May.
I last saw William on a kibbutz in Israel, where he was seeking asylum. It was three days before the January 2011 referendum in which the Southern Sudanese voted to secede from the North. While his friends in Tel Aviv were revving up to rally for independence, William told me it’s not an occasion to celebrate; it’s a time to pray.
The referendum on Abyei’s self-determination was postponed due to a dispute over whether a nomadic tribe allied with the North is eligible to vote. The Dinka Ngok (African Abyei residents loyal to the SPLM) want independence for Southern Sudan. The Misseriya, an Arab nomadic tribe that is armed by Khartoum to fight by proxy, will not give up its prime cattle-grazing territory near Abyei. Misseriya leader Sadig Babo Nimr told the BBC, “Abyei for us is a matter of survival, so we will fight until the last man.”
They Can Break Your Leg, But They Can’t Break Your Mind
William has lines across his forehead in rows of concentric curves—a ritual scar to signify his tribe, the Dinka Ngok. “Since the time that I’m tired, until this moment,” he told me, “it’s like a fire in my heart.” He says he’s been tired since 1965, almost twenty years before he was born, when 72 Dinka Ngok were massacred in a Misseriya town. As a Christian, like most Dinka, he is also tired of the Khartoum government’s attempts to Arabize and Islamize all of Sudan.
With the SPLM now focused on governing an independent Southern Sudan, Christians and animists living in the North are especially vulnerable to the National Islamic Front (NIF), which dominates the Sudanese government. Anglican Bishop Andudu Elnail, a Christian leader in South Kordofan whose cathedral and home were recently burned, came to Washington to encourage the international community to intervene on behalf of the Nuban people. In his interview with RD last month, Andudu speaks about Arabization as the primary agenda of the Khartoum government: African Muslims have been slaughtered in Khartoum’s ethnic cleansing campaigns, in Darfur, Abyei, and Kordofan.
William is among the 600,000 Dinka Ngok displaced from the Abyei area who cannot go home. The Northern troops and the Misseriya have encroached on Dinka land, taking everything valuable for themselves, William told me. His house was destroyed in the civil war. Now, up to 100,000 displaced civilians trying to leave Abyei are stranded in the rain. The only way south is via dirt roads.
William went north, to get an education. “They can break your leg, but they can’t break your mind,” he told me. First, he studied Arabic in Khartoum, so he could learn to protect himself from the Sudanese army and the Misseriya. Then, like thousands of displaced Sudanese, William migrated to Egypt, hoping to be resettled to the West by the UN refugee agency in Cairo. But since the 2005 peace accords officially ended the second Sudanese civil war, the Southern Sudanese are no longer recognized as refugees.
After a brutal Egyptian police raid on a Sudanese protest in Cairo, William, like many Sudanese refugees, paid Bedouin smugglers for passage across the South Sinai. He came to Israel in search of asylum and higher education, so he can help his people when he returns home. The Sudanese exodus is a story of expectation and disappointment, with the biblical rhythm of prophesied redemption and present-day lamentation. When William talks about crossing the Egyptian desert, he talks about the Holy Spirit. He remembers Pentecost, when, in the Christian Scripture, the first apostles received the guidance of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem.
William, however, didn’t make it to Jerusalem or to a university. After he crossed from Egypt into Israel, border guards took him to immigration prison. Months later, he was handed over to an Israeli employment agency to be a source of cheap labor in Eilat—the bottom tip of the country, where the Negev meets the Red Sea, and where Sudanese and Eritrean refugees do the service jobs that support the tourism industry.
William’s people are no strangers to exploitation. He told me that much of Northern Sudan was built by the Southern Sudanese. To illustrate the system of forced labor practiced in the North, William taught me an Arabic phrase, jowa kalbak yetbak, “if your dog is hungry, he will follow you.” He explained that Southern Sudanese laborers in the North were given just enough food to keep them working. The government even taxed the donkeys that transported their water.
When I met William, he was serving gelato and drinks for the Royal Beach Hotel in Eilat, commuting to work from Kibbutz Eilot, which houses over a hundred Sudanese refugees in block units. On one wall is a mural of the Southern Sudanese flag: a blue triangle with a yellow star; black, green, and red stripes. An old Dinka man once told me the blue represents the Nile, the green the land, the red the blood of Christ.
Under a headless palm tree on the parched land of the kibbutz courtyard, William told me how he used to hide in the mango trees near Abyei, their leaves so thick you couldn’t see the sun. Now, the borderland is barren, apart from the few trees that don’t need water and, of course, the oil underground.
A Film and a Smoothie
Sudanese who arrived as refugees will have to leave Israel as a result of the Jewish state’s new anti-immigration bills, which are as harsh as those of Arizona and Alabama here in the United States. Thousands of illegal African workers will lose their jobs before being detained in the desert until deportation.
When I saw William in January, he was hoping to go back to Sudan with the assistance of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. He was planning to make a new home in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan. He told me his chance to finish an education has passed; he’s got to support his two little brothers, and he feels he must do something to help the Southern Sudanese people rebuild their country after independence. He hopes to volunteer as a translator with one of the international organizations in Juba during the day, and he hopes to run a little business for people coming home from work, to help them forget what happens at their jobs; he’ll project films on a wall and serve hot and cold drinks after sunset.
He’s already sent a film projector to Juba with his friend Emmanuel, who’s already returned to Sudan. In January, William was trying to figure out how to transport a smoothie machine from Eilat to Juba given the 25 kg limit for luggage on flights, and the presents he intends to bring to friends from the Holy Land. Maybe he’d take the smoothie machine by boat, he told me; from the Gulf of Aqaba to Mombasa, Kenya, then overland to Juba.
When I tried to call him in Israel last week, his social worker told me he had left the kibbutz. I emailed Emmanuel in Juba, but he has not heard from William. Wherever he is—detained in an Israeli desert prison, or stranded en route to Juba—he’s probably not celebrating independence day.