New Hope for Sudan

(London Free Press — Viewpoint section — Saturday, March 6, 2004.)

GLEN PEARSON   (photos: JANE ROY)

The refrain resounds throughout south Sudan like a pealing of the bells – “Peace is coming!”

Boys in southern Sudan
Boys in southern Sudan

During previous trips to south Sudan the mood had gone from dire pessimism to an extremely cautious optimism that peace was still an elusive possibility. This time, things are resoundingly different. Remarkably, everywhere we journey in the troubled region hopes are high that a workable peace is perhaps only days away.

The contagion is clear in the words of General Lazaro Sambeiyo, Special Mediator to the current peace talks and the one responsible for bringing both north and south Sudan tantalizingly close to a settled agreement. “The world will witness peace in Sudan soon, perhaps within days,” he exults, a smile hovering over his lips during our private meeting.

Though he cautions that international pressure will be required for that peace to stick, he is now more certain of the outcome than he was in our discussion with him a year ago. Despite his optimism, however, he asks, “Where are the Canadians?”

Indeed, Canada’s own reputation is clearly on the line in this troubled part of Africa. Memories of the devastation caused by the presence of Canadian oil firm Talisman are visceral yet, with critics still holding the company, and the Canadian government by extension, responsible for standing by while thousands suffered and died. Talisman’s recent pullout resulting from worldwide pressure has done little to ease the haunting memories for these people.

Nevertheless, in our trip through the southern regions of Sudan the promise of peace constitutes the one over-riding

Adut Ayir Machar, a former slave
Adut Ayir Machar, a former slave

emotion. It is visible in the demeanour of Adut Adim Garang, a woman freed from slavery. She remains unsure as to her own personal future, but of this she is sure: peace offers the best hope for rebuilding her life.

While in south Sudan to build primary schools, we can’t help but notice the potential for peace in the lives of the children. Everywhere in Sudan, boys and girls are in the process of changing the landscape.

The western Nile region is witnessing hundreds of child soldiers, many as young as eight years of age, throwing off their AK47 rifles and army uniforms and making their way back to their historic homes.

Then there are the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced children and their families (IDPs), who have begun trekking from neighbouring Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia in efforts to locate their home villages. Monitoring and registry stations exist to acquire the necessary data about these returnees and they report that the trickle will become a flood as soon as the peace process is finalized.

In the Aweil East region, where we negotiate with local authorities to build two primary school compounds, the excitement is palpable. Constructing permanent structures even two years ago was a risky venture, owing to the penchant of the Sudanese government airplanes to raze anything in the south that hinted of permanence.

Now, leaders and children alike are asking what the school classrooms will look like once constructed. Never having heard of computers, the children’s hopes are inspiringly simple in their own way. “Will I have a scribbler of my own?” “Do I get a uniform?” “Will there be a water pump and latrines?”

None of this can come too soon. Only a quarter of south Sudan’s children are enrolled in schools and of that number only a

Young boys reach out in Sudan
Young boys reach out in Sudan

third are girls. Clearly there is much to make up for. Twenty years of war have left devastation in their wake. We are gratified to see a number of the women and children we freed from slavery over the years who are now settled in their local areas and still expressing their gratitude at being liberated. Yet the odds against them successfully rebuilding their lives are great and it was because of this we chose a number of years ago to help in development causes for these individuals. To be free of political oppression is one thing, but to be free of want and starvation requires much more effort on our part.

We contract with a group of demobilized child soldiers to help in the construction of the two school compounds. Having known little else but violence and war, these former combatants, many as young as eight, are experiencing great difficulty in resettling back into their respective communities. The prospect of earning a wage for building school classrooms has provided a clear purpose and a sense that they will be performing something meaningful and constructive for their villages.

The obstacles for southern development are indeed formidable. Experts estimate that two million landmines riddle the southern regions, the locations of which have largely been forgotten.

A woman’s lot is largely comprised of heavy labour and child rearing. For this reason, we negotiate with community leaders to permit their women to attend literacy and leadership classes in return for constructing power grinding mills. “Of course we should agree on this,” responds Commissioner Victor Akok. “Peace is coming and our women must be granted special opportunities.” Such attitudes, clearly expressed, represent hope for the south.

“Watch me carefully,” says Dr. Pauline Riak, former director of the Sudanese Women’s group in Nairobi (SWAN). With a poignant lifting and lowering of her arms she demonstrates the sheer strength required of a woman grinding grain for her family.

“For six hours a day she does this,” Riak opines. “What time can she possibly have to go to classes?” She is both erudite and compelling, enough so that we are determined to make the grinding mills effective in the region.

We are also here to buy goats for our new program called “Abuk’s Herd”. For the returning refugees, or for those now arriving home from slavery, there is precious little with which to rebuild their lives. In far too many cases, villages have been burned to the ground and loved ones have either perished or are exiled. Goats are a sign of stability and economic security. Thirty dollars is all it costs for one of these creatures but even at that price it’s far beyond the range of what the returnees can afford. The plan is to purchase enough goats to establish a self-sustaining herd and from that supply to give three goats (two females, one male) to those returning. Handled properly, the animals will multiply quickly and become self-sustaining.

What’s in store for Sudan? Severe fighting in the western part of the country threatens to undermine the present plans for peace. And the jury is out whether the international community will keep up sufficient pressure to ensure a lasting settlement.

To be sure, peace will open the floodgates of possibility. We started in 1998 by establishing a program for freeing slaves. Now we are speaking of schools, women’s empowerment and political reformation. Clearly, times are changing and London has played a key part. Contributions from local churches, individuals and the Islamic Society of London are about to transform the landscape in this neglected part of Sudan.

Yet peace will also bring on massive difficulties, the kind that can lead Sudan to its own destruction – people streaming back across the borders, not nearly enough schools or medical facilities, the inevitable increase in AIDS, and two competing sides that will have to overcome their mutual historic distrust.

Sudan is a nation on the very verge of peace or destruction. Canada’s role in this equation could well prove pivotal. On February 25 we meet privately with Paul Martin and encourage him to invest in the Sudanese peace. As expected, his response to us is keen and promising, but the next few months will tell the tale. As he cajoles with our Sudanese daughter Abuk, we find ourselves hoping that he will handle the Sudan file with as much care and curiosity. Sudan will now form an acid test of his own commitment to usher Africa into a new age. The Chretien era, with its political interest in the Sudanese issue seemingly at cross-purposes with a lack of intervention, has now ended. Paul Martin, with his own self-declared desire to assist in African development must now find the means to assist Canada in moving beyond its present impasse.

Our non-governmental organization — Canadian Aid for South Sudan — can establish programs that assist in Sudanese reconstruction, but it is the deployment of the will of the Canadian government, along with its international partners, that can provide Sudan its clearest and best chance for a prosperous future. Anything less will leave the Canadian image sullied and ill-remembered.