Reflections as South Sudan votes 99 per cent for independence

Feb.8, 2011

By Alison Bate

As we headed toward Dilling, white egrets wandered in and out of scrub bushes and stubby trees.

It was the rainy season and the desert land was transformed into an endless series of golf courses, with fresh green grass broken by bunkers of burnt orange mud.

Sand seeped into the crowded minibus and my nose twitched and throat itched. But each kilometer took me farther away from El Obeid and eased the tension in my shoulders. I’d been quizzed three times by the security police while overnighting in El Obeid, and believe me. . .not much fun.

This was 2007 and I’d been cocooned in Khartoum for a few months. Now I was heading into South Kordofan for a brief break from teaching.

Pix of Dilling, Sudan
Dilling, with Nuba Mountains in the background

Dilling was the closest I got to South Sudan, but this week’s confirmed vote for independence (98.8 per cent) brought back memories of one of the southerners I met there.

James was an engineer from Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and he taught me a lot about the complexities of Sudanese loyalties. I learned that Sudan is not just about South Sudan and independence, or Darfur in the west and grazing rights. That other areas of Sudan, such as South Kordofan, are also unhappy with Khartoum’s dominance.

The name Nuba is really a collective term for those living in the Nuba Mountains, but includes many distinct peoples speaking different languages and with different religions. There are 99 mountains in the range, and used to be as many separate tribes.

During the last civil war, the Nuba peoples allied with the southern rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), but had been fighting their own war of autonomy against the Khartoum government for years. In fact, the Nuba region was one of three special areas identified in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005.

As James took me on a tour of Dilling by pickup truck, he talked about his own life, as well as the lives of those in the Nuba Mountains.

Like so many others, James fled Sudan when civil war broke out and moved to Nairobi in Kenya. An estimated 2.5 million southerners died and a further 4.6 million were displaced or became refugees in the war between North and South Sudan.

After the war finished, James returned to Sudan, but his family stayed in Kenya. He was building a house in Juba and almost ready to return. But he was reluctant for his family to join him until schools were functioning properly and his kids could get a proper education.

Drilling in Dilling

He’d been living in Dilling for a few years and had set up the field office for a charity called International Aid Services (IAS). By the time I met him, the IAS crew had drilled 101 wells with hand water pumps for nearby villages.

Although the charity was Scandinavian-funded, the engineers working in Dilling were all African. And after seeing westerners squandering aid money in Khartoum, it was refreshing to talk with engineers doing practical work in the field, and to see Africans helping Africans. They were slowly winding down for the rainy season, as muddy roads made it almost impossible to get to some of the remote villages.

Dilling was a quietly pretty village, with green fields and picturesque piles of rocky hummocks. Driving around, we passed the usual messy but colorful souk (market): an amorphous mix of tea ladies, small restaurants and minibuses. A procession of people and animals drifted by: a donkey cart, two men on cycles, then a white-robed man leading a camel and two women in colorful robes, curious at seeing a foreigner as they walked past.

Pix of mature trees in Dilling, Sudan
Shady avenue in Dilling, Sudan

After the souk, we crossed a dried-out riverbed into an area that reminded me of the boarding school my father used to teach at in Somerset, England.

A grand avenue of mahogany trees lined the road and had been planted by the British in their colonial days. A soccer field was surrounded by a decrepit brick wall. There was an old-fashioned feel of faded glory, solidness and predictability.

But then on the outskirts, we entered a totally different area, with remnants of more recent conflicts. Small thatched and brick round houses were full of SPLA supporters resettled as a result of the peace agreement.

Just because a piece of paper says a war has ended, doesn’t mean it has in people’s minds, though. Or even in reality. Outside of town, bright lights in the distance marked the UN compound. Although the UN patrolled the area in vehicles, several people said there was still a lot of crime, and they didn’t really do anything.

The civil war in the Nuba Mountains ended with a ceasefire in 2002, but five years later, many villagers still didn’t realize a peace agreement was in place.

“They believe it’s just an interlude,” James told me.

After the vote in South Sudan, Africa’s newest country is set to formally declare its independence on July 9. This area in the Nuba Mountains will remain in north Sudan. Strategically, this is a very important area in Sudan and there are so many unresolved issues.

What happens in a country when some get independence but others still feel marginalized? Certainly, it’s not a good recipe for stability.

RELATED: Darfur Redux: Is ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ Occurring in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains?(2011)