by Reem Abbas
On January 9 citizens of South Sudan will begin voting in a week-long vote on whether they will secede from or remain united with the North. This referendum involves more than the yes or no vote. After decades of civil war, this referendum may have implications for people’s citizenship, safety, and the place they call home.
In 1995 Al–Jaaley arrived in Jabarona, an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp on the outskirts of Omdurman, where hundreds of thousands of IDPs from the South, the Nuba Mountains, and, recently, Darfur live.
Jabarona literally means “we were forced” in Arabic. It began as a direct result of the massive displacement caused by the civil war raging in the South. Jabarona is one of four official camps in Khartoum.
Since his move to the North, Al-Jaaley has adopted a Northern name associated with one of the most powerful tribes in the North, Al-Jaalien. He has settled in Jabarona in a humble house made of mud bricks.
“This is my home. So when the referendum comes, I will support unity,” he tells me. He added that when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005, some people returned to the South. Many returned to the camp with horror stories about insecurity and violence.
“The South is beautiful. It’s green and you have every kind of vegetable there, but I will stay here,” he said.
During the recent elections, the residents of Jabarona, even those without national IDs or any legal documents, were given the chance to vote. The government supplied them with a document allowing them to vote and there was a polling station at the school.
“If the people of Jabarona are given the chance to vote in the referendum, the majority will vote for unity,” Al-Jaaley tells me matter-of-factly.
Dr. Munzoul Assal, an associate professor of social anthropology at the University in Khartoum and a researcher in the field of migration and refugee studies, believes that IDPs are more aware of the instability of the South now and the excitement of returning has ended.
He tells me, “I met a returnee in 2006. She was from the first waves to return to Rumbek. Even back then, when the inter-tribal violence wasn’t as bad, she said that it was a mistake to return. Her community viewed her with suspicion because she lived in the North for a long time.”
North Sudan was first introduced to South Sudan in 1946 when the British and Egyptian governments merged the two regions to form one country named Sudan. Beforehand, South Sudan was administered as a separate state, and the British intended to merge it with British East Africa.
Unity was not an option the Southern Sudanese looked forward to, and in 1954 politicians from the South called for the right to their own governance. In late 1955 a mutiny in the Southern Sudanese army developed into a full-blown rebellion and a bloody war started.
In 1972, President Nimeri granted the South Sudanese self-governance after signing a peace agreement in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The peace did not last long. When the government imposed Islamic law, the largely Christian and Animist South rebelled once again and war resumed in 1983.
In 2002, for the first time since the resumption of war, President Bashir met Dr. John Garang, the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the rebel movement fighting the government in the South. The SPLM and the government signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, and Africa’s longest-running civil war came to an end.
Not only does the Comprehensive Peace Agreement stipulate a permanent ceasefire, but it also guarantees elections and the referendum for Southerners on self-determination.
Dr. Garang was the first Southerner and the first Christian to become vice president of Sudan. When he arrived in Khartoum after his appointment he was greeted by a large number of people. It did not matter whether you were from the North or from the South or your religion when it came to loving Dr. Garang. Even my grandmother, one of the most ethno-centric people I know, told me she would vote for him if he ran for president.
Just like President Obama during his campaign days, Dr. Garang used the words “hope” and “change” many times. His vision was for a “New Sudan” - formulated along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa.
The euphoria did not last long. Dr. Garang was killed in a plane crash on his way to Uganda later the same year. His death plunged Sudan into more chaos and the violent riots following his death were instrumental in shaping the public’s views about the referendum.
Southerners living in Khartoum felt unsafe as Northerners attacked them and vice versa, and the riots reiterated the status of Southerners as second-class citizens. “On the third day of the riots, there were no Southerners left in Khartoum,” recall a number of my acquaintances.
Calls for an independent South were more resonant after that. And there was no Dr. John Garang left to attempt to reunite Sudan.
Possibly the most problematic issue facing the South and the government of Sudan ahead of the January 9 referendum is the tiny area of Abyei. The oil-rich region is home to Dinka-Ngok, a clan affiliated with the Dinka, the largest tribe in South Sudan, and the Missreya, a tribe with an Arab-Muslim identity that affiliates itself with the North.
The people of Abyei will have to vote in a special referendum in January as well. They will decide whether they want to be part of the North or the South. If the vote is in favor of the South, the two partners will need to complete a border demarcation plan.
The view from the IDP camp seems bleak. Until now, the citizens of Jabarona are unaware of their fate. Even if the residents of Jabarona vote for unity, they still hail from the South. Many fear they will be deported once the referendum is over and in the past few weeks thousands have begun flooding the South again.
As I looked at the large camp called Jabarona and the smaller camps surrounding it where thousands of families from the South have lived for years, I wonder whether they will meet the same fate as Eritreans did after their country separated from Ethiopia.
About the Author:
Reem Abbas is a Sudanese journalist. She graduated from the American University in Cairo with a BA in journalism and mass communications and a minor in sociology. As a journalist, she writes about humanitarian issues from a gender-sensitive perspective. Ms. Abbas contributed a chapter to Voices in Refuge, a book published by the American University in Cairo press in January 2010. In her free time, she reads Doris Lessing and collects bookmarks.