August 31, 2006

Southern Sudanese wonder if nation can remain united

By Katie Nguyen

JUBA, Sudan (Reuters) - The aromatic smell of sorghum and
beans stirs a group of Sudanese soldiers from their lazy game
of dominoes, bringing former enemies together to eat from the
same tin bowl.

Under the sweltering midday sun in barracks overlooking
southern Sudan's capital Juba, government troops crouch beside
former rebels taking turns to scoop up a mouthful of steaming
porridge with their fingers.

For years, their only contact was on the thorny
battlefields of the south, until a 2005 peace pact ended war
between the northern Arabic-speaking Islamic government and
southern animist Christian guerrillas.

The agreement, which did not address separate conflicts in
the west and east, offered some hope of reconciliation in
Africa's largest country.

But more than 18 months later, many Sudanese still wonder
whether their 500 different ethnic groups using 130 languages
and a variety of religious beliefs can live in harmony.

Many southerners still resent the government's attempt to
impose Islamic sharia law on them more than two decades ago,
and southern nationalism is reviving.

In the barracks rising above the grassy plains of Juba,
many soldiers appeared to think unity was possible, despite
decades of north-south hostility.

"If someone comes to you with an outstretched hand, you
welcome him even if he's your enemy," said Iyoub Mohammed
Khatir, a 32-year-old sergeant in the Khartoum government's
Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF).

During the 21-year civil war, the town and its outlying
garrison was government-held, resisting attempts by the
southern rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) to seize
it. The garrison now serves as the base for an integrated unit,
composed in equal measure of SPLA and SAF forces.


Fighters spoke of the possibility of friendship spurred by
their weariness with a bitter war neither side could win. "If
there is a funeral or wedding, both sides visit each other and
share the same sadness or happiness," Khatir said.

Sitting beside him, SPLA sergeant Peter Pandak shared
Khatir's complaints of low pay and homesickness in a town
hundreds of miles from their wives and children.

"I personally feel no animosity toward northerners," he
added. "I find it easy to live together in one place."

The unit represents the embryo of a post-war national army,
created by the peace deal to defend Sudan and symbolize
military unity during a six-year interim period that ends in a
southern referendum on separation from the north.

Wearing an array of uniforms, chatting idly in groups,
joking and playing cards, the soldiers seemed to embody the
vision of unity championed by revered SPLA leader John Garang.

A year after Garang's sudden death in a helicopter crash,
his image is still emblazoned on T-shirts, framed on shop walls
and reproduced in posters throughout southern Sudan.

But in the dusty streets of Juba, his dream of a "New
Sudan" -- where people could live side by side irrespective of
race, religion, tribe or gender -- is disappearing as fast as
new signs of southern nationalism are emerging.

The south's distinctive flag, a yellow star against a blue
backdrop, flutters by Garang's burial ground, and the number
plates on Juba's growing fleet of four-wheel-drive vehicles are
increasingly inscribed with Roman instead of Arabic lettering.


Khartoum's attempt to impose sharia on the south in 1983
sparked a civil war that killed 2 million people.

"We tried unity for 50 years, but we failed. Our brothers
in the north don't respect our rights as brothers," said trader
Philip Kocwaw above the din of laborers on a building site.

"No southerner ever shared that vision of unity," said
Archbishop Paolino Lukudu Loro.

"The northerners looked at us as slaves, they wanted to
Arabize us and impose Islam on us who are mainly Christian
people. If you are not equal it is very difficult to coexist."

Many northern Arab traders fled Juba after Garang's death
sparked riots and talk of assassination, but some who stayed
vowed to remain even if the vote in 2011 slices Africa's
biggest country in half.

"Business is good, security is good. It is OK, it is no
problem," said Karim Ali from his darkened storeroom stacked
high with bottled water and Coca Cola.

"This is my home and I am Sudanese, so I will stay."

Local staff working at a U.N. radio station launched in
July find overcoming years of prejudice to maintain neutrality
is a daily challenge. "In this country everybody is prone to be
on one side or the other," said station boss Leon Willems.
"There is a long way to go."

Broadcasting in a range of languages including classical
Arabic and English, Miraya/Mirror FM's aim is to explain the
peace deal to people across the country, though Khartoum has
blocked it from airing in the north.

Despite the ban, its presenters try to foster a sense of
unity, playing both Arabic songs of romance and southern songs
of emancipation.

"Southerners like shaking so much, so that sweat has to
come out and blood has to get warm, but at a certain point they
like to hear these things from Khartoum," said radio presenter
James Modi, snapping his fingers to an Arabic beat.