Sudan: A Troubled Land Seeks Peace

Bush piloting requires a special set of skills that goes beyond the automated instrument flying relied on by commercial pilots. Planes must take off and land on short runways that often represent a thin ribbon of hope in an unforgiving landscape. Landing strips are located in the heart of the wilderness, surrounded by any number of navigational hazards. Little time and few alternatives are available in an emergency. Pilots often make a “pass over” to read the terrain before making the final turn-in to land on the hardpan dirt and embedded gravel surface. These flights are almost always a lifeline for an otherwise inaccessible community.

Loren McDonald, a Canadian who works for a charter airline in East Africa, has the unenviable task of flying Bishop Macram Gassis from his home in Nairobi, Kenya, to the Nuba Mountains in southern Sudan. In April 2003, I was privileged to accompany Bishop Gassis on one of his two annual pastoral visits. The Sudanese bishop has been an outspoken critic of his country’s Islamic government, and it is through his efforts that much of the world has learned about the situation in Sudan. When flights from Kenya into the Nuba Mountains were illegal during the civil war, McDonald would file a flight plan to land elsewhere and then (literally) fly under the radar to land in the Nuba area undetected. Since the cease-fire of October 2002, however, he is less apprehensive about being shot down by a military fighter.


Sudan has rarely known stability. Civil war broke out even before the nation gained independence from British colonial rule in 1965, and the roots of the violence have remained. Even under British rule, Sudan was sharply divided. The south is tropical, underdeveloped and populated by both Christians and followers of traditional African religions. It is home to the Nuba, Dinka and some 100 other tribes of African descent. The north, by contrast, is drier, wealthier and primarily Arabic, with strong ties to the Middle East. The nation’s leaders in the north have fought to extend their control throughout the south, waging a civil war for all but 11 of the past 50 years. The latest round of strife to brutalize Sudan began in 1983 and escalated in 1989, when Omar-el-Bashir, an army officer, gained power through a coup in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, while seeking to gain political and economic control of all Sudan.

Few countries are more deserving of attention than Sudan, where the scale of human suffering has been extreme and where the war has severely disrupted regional stability and desperately inhibited development. More than 2.5 million people, mostly Christians, have been killed. Another five million live as refugees, primarily in Uganda and Kenya, or as internally displaced persons in their own country. During the darkest moments of the conflict, between 1996 and 2002, the Sudanese government and its agents were bombing, burning and raiding southern villages; raping women and enslaving thousands of women and children; kidnaping and forcibly converting Christians; and relocating entire villages into concentration camps. Sudanese officials have placed the tightest of controls on aid deliveries, often blocking food shipments to needy populations and obstructing international relief. This strategy has decimated the Nuba people in central Sudan. Through the manipulation of foreign food aid, the government brought hundreds of thousands in the south to the brink of starvation.

Although the exact boundaries and timelines of the war are fluid, Sudan’s grievances are old and complex. Certainly they are rooted in a struggle between the northern, largely Arabic and Muslim government and a southern resistance that is significantly Christian. A contest over oil and other natural resources is another issue. But conflicting ideologies lie at the heart of the struggle. At question is the degree to which the government’s radical Islamic agenda can be moderated and how the rebel movement can develop a democratic government that includes the sharing of power and revenue.

The civil war escalated to the drumbeat of jihad, a war against Christianity and the indigenous religions of the south. Northern Sudan imposed an Arabic culture and sharia law (a religious tradition in which civil law comes from the Koran) and the Islamic religion on one of Africa’s most ethnically diverse nations. The government that assumed power after the coup of 1989 began the Arabization and Islamic push to the south in 1992. Arabic became the official language taught in all schools from primary to university level. Only the church schools refused to teach in Arabic. During famines, food was distributed through Islamic channels, with preference given to Muslims. The Rev. Basilio Lukudu, a priest of the Diocese of Juba, said: “For a Christian there is no possibility of a high-ranking government office. You are not even considered a citizen.”

When oil was discovered in the south two decades ago, it sparked some of the ugliest fighting Sudan had seen in years. The government planned to pipe the oil north for refining. In May 1999 engineers in Khartoum opened the valves on the new 100-mile pipeline that connects the huge petroleum-rich lowlands in the south (with estimated reserves of eight billion barrels) to a new tanker terminal at Port Sudan. The Greater Nile Petroleum Company pumps 240,000 barrels of crude oil a day out of the war zone, producing $2 million a day in revenues. These windfall profits give the government greater resources and a greater motive to accelerate its assault on targeted groups. But the government can seize the oil only if it controls the land on which it is located—and this it seeks to accomplish by cleansing the land of ethnic groups. The rebel forces fire mortar rounds at the oil rigs, and the Khartoum government responds by striking back at local civilians, employing famine and modern-day slavery as retaliation.

The army and government militias are fighting a rebel alliance of southerners about 40,000 strong, commonly known as the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. At present, the S.P.L.A. controls much of the southern third of Sudan, with most of the battles erupting around the oil fields.

There is no fixed front line between S.P.L.A. territory and the government-controlled Sudan, but three areas are crucial to a peaceful settlement: the Nuba Mountains, the Blue Nile and Abyei. The battle for the Nuba Mountains is strategic because they border Sudan’s pipeline. The battle is also economic—below the hills lie some of the country’s most fertile land—as well as cultural. The Nuba homeland is the dividing line between two ways of life. The Nuba are a traditional people who cling to indigenous traditions. Because they have long been discriminated against by the northern Islamic majority, many Nuba joined the rebels. In response, the government declared all Nuba to be enemies and occupied their towns—burning villages and farms, and killing and abducting civilians.

During our visit to the Nuba Mountains, we were under the protection of the S.P.L.A. I asked Patrick Lalu, a 21-year-old Nuba who has been in the army for three years, “What are you fighting for?” Without hesitation, he answered, “Self-determination.”

Even if he did not understand all the implications of the term, his ambitions are as conventional as his present occupation is not. He is certain that he does not want to be forced to become Muslim or to dress differently. He does not want to follow Islamic law and religion. He does not want to become Arab, but to remain a Nuba. He wants to live on the land where his ancestors lived and not be pushed off. He wants to keep his identity and follow the ways of his father and grandfather.

Nubas are farmers, and they benefit most from the land. They are not overly concerned about oil. In fact, they own very little equipment that uses oil. As we parted ways, Patrick asked me if I could give him a pair of shoes. He was fighting the war wearing shower thongs. The S.P.L.A. may not be well equipped, but they are incredibly determined.

John Garang, the S.P.L.A. leader, is fighting for a united Sudan but with a secular government. Yet almost every field commander is aiming for full southern independence. Malik Abdul-Gaddis, a 31-year-old Nuba and a first lieutenant in the S.P.L.A., has been a full-time or part-time soldier for the past two years, fighting for the dignity and freedom of his people. Commenting on the conflict, he said: “Oil exploration and development of other natural resources is secondary and not the cause of the war. The real causes are cultural, economic and historical. We need a peace that is not just a cease-fire. We need a peace based on the dignity of the people, self-government and the right to decide our own future. The Khartoum government is a government of the few and is not in a position to accept self-determination for the Nuba people.”

War, particularly civil war, results in the death, injury, suffering and abuse of both combatants and civilians. There have been grave human rights abuses by both parties to the conflict. These abuses are more compelling because women and children have been targeted. Women in Sudan have been detained without trial, raped, sold into domestic slavery and killed by government forces. These women represent a large number of refugees surviving on food relief. Nowhere were the abuses more prevalent than in the Nuba Mountains. The S.P.L.A. has been accused of recruiting young boys to refugee camps where they are separated from their families and trained as soldiers, even though some have not reached 15 years of age (the minimum age for recruitment under international law). An end to these abuses can come about only through resolution of the conflict and the institution of standards of good government in both the north and the south.

Today Sudan is a country at a crossroads. Last year saw the most progress toward peace since the war resumed in 1983. The momentum to end the oldest civil war in the world has been strong. A small window for peace opened up when the government and the S.P.L.A. signed a fragile cease-fire in October 2002, and the progress made so far is significant. Although the fighting has continued in some areas, the situation in much of Sudan is as calm as it has ever been in the last 10 years. Humanitarian access has improved dramatically, and civilians throughout the country are anxious for the signing of a peace agreement. The cease-fire in the Nuba Mountains has alleviated the terrible suffering the Nuba people have endured in the past decade. But if the peace talks break down, there is no doubt that war would resume. Both sides are well armed and would quickly make up for lost time. If this best chance for peace in 20 years is missed, the arms build-up on both sides suggests the war will become more deadly and destructive than ever. It is difficult to imagine the consequences if fighting in Sudan continues.

The Khartoum government wants a united Sudan with Islamic law imposed on all. In its Declaration of Principles, the S.P.L.A. asks for the right of self-determination in the Nuba Mountains and other marginalized areas, including the Blue Nile and Abyei. It also wants the separation of religion and government. The S.P.L.A. is convinced that Islamic law and culture cannot be imposed on such a diverse country.

A key breakthrough came with the Machakos Protocol of 2002, which provided for a period of self-determination for south Sudan after a six-year interim period in exchange for sharia law to continue in the north. Since the Machakos Protocol, mediators have overseen further incremental successes in power sharing, wealth sharing, security arrangements and the administrative status of the contested areas.

But progress will not come easily. The situation in Sudan is complex. All efforts need to be directed toward achieving a comprehensive pact that promotes the unity of the country, but with radically restructured government arrangements that uphold equal rights and equal opportunities for all Sudanese. Meaningful power-sharing is the only recipe for long-term stability.

Bishop Gassis supports the S.P.L.A., although the other Sudanese bishops prefer not to embrace them. “If we are to be with the oppressed people,” he said, “we must side with the S.P.L.A.” Despite threats on his own life, he makes regular pastoral visits to the Nuba Maintains. “I am a man of the people. I feel happiest when I am with the people.” He has relatively free movement in the Nuba Mountains because he has been the Nuba’s spokesmen to the world, promoting their freedom and dignity. As bishop, he is responsible for the pastoral care of his people in the diocese of El Obeid. Near Guidel, we toured the area where a 100-bed clinic will be built in stages, beginning with 15 beds and a special ward for tuberculosis patients. The bishop’s staff is also responsible for drilling 42 wells (with plans for 42 more) that bring life-saving, pure water to a parched land. For the Nuba, water is more precious than oil.

Bishop Gassis is, first of all, the Nuba’s spiritual leader. He was the principal celebrant of all the Holy Week liturgies. Those services are enormously important to the Nuba people. For those three hours each time, they escape the cares and struggles of their lives. They are mingling with their community, and the singing lifts their spirits. Here is where Bishop Gassis tells them again the timeless message of the Gospel: “Christ died for us, to reconcile us. We belong to Christ. We must be witnesses for justice. The question of peace without justice is impossible. Let us bring Christian justice, loving justice, to our community.”

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10 years 11 months ago
I am grateful for this article. The many details and "on the ground" reporting make the situation in the Sudan more understandable. I applaud Bishop Gassis' courage for speaking candidly about the oppression of the Nuba people by the Karthoum government. Paul Coury


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