Sudan, Africa’s largest nation by land mass, has been bloodied by one of the most protracted and brutal civil wars in contemporary times. In its efforts to impose Islamic Shari’a law, the Khartoum regime’s attacks against the Christian (and animist) South began in 1983. As a result, an estimated two million South Sudanese have since died, while some four million others have been displaced.
“It is clear that the Bashir government was the author of not one but two genocidal campaigns, one against the South as well as Darfur,” insists Nina Shea, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.
Though it receives far less international attention than Sudan’s more recent civil conflict in the western Darfur region, South Sudan’s agony is far from over. On September 24, Shea and other members of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom held a hearing on Capitol Hill to examine Sudan’s rapidly deteriorating Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the North and the South and to raise urgent questions about the implementation and monitoring of the CPA. The commission’s witnesses were not encouraging.
“People are desperate to return home… but the lack of water, sanitation, medical care and other infrastructure is delaying the rebuilding of southern Sudan and leading to a whole new set of tensions between returnees and those who never left,” testified Kenneth Bacon, president of Refugees International.
The peace accord was signed on January 9, 2005, amid high hopes for a just and unified Sudan. Today, however, the well-being of South Sudan’s Christians, numbering as many as nine million to 10 million people, remains precarious and the peace agreement itself is at risk.
The South’s longtime leader, John Garang, became vice president of Sudan under the CPA’s terms. He died in a helicopter crash in July 2005 just two weeks after being sworn in. Without Garang’s leadership, and due to the duplicity of President Omar al-Bashir, whose Khartoum regime continues to enforce its radicalized interpretation of Islam, essential stipulations of the CPA have not been carried out.
In May, Bashir’s forces continued their violent tactics by assaulting oil-rich Abyei, a contested area sandwiched between the North and South. Although the assault on Abyei was eclipsed by the ongoing genocide in Darfur, it confirmed observers’ fears that Bashir cannot be trusted and the CPA is indeed collapsing. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Sudanese Christians who fled into other lands have felt unsafe about returning, but remain in limbo in Arab host countries like Egypt, where local Muslims and government authorities harass and persecute them.
Some 3,000 Sudanese refugees are presently living in Israel, most of them South Sudanese Christians. In light of the genocide back home, the government gave 600 Darfur refugees immediate protection; those from South Sudan were identified as “economic migrants” in search of a more prosperous way of life.
However, international experts, many of whom have recently traveled to South Sudan, report that the region is marginalized by Khartoum. Innumerable IDPs (internally displaced persons) and refugees from the South cannot return there. Many of them live in camps in the North. Notably, Khartoum hasn’t given the South its fair share of oil profits or political power as agreed to under the CPA so the South cannot rebuild.
Those IDPs who have returned have found themselves seeking shelter under trees or in makeshift tents without access to food or permanent shelter. Whatever homes, farms, flocks or businesses they left behind when they fled have been destroyed and they have no way of starting over.
Despite these grim realities, many South Sudanese are determined to return to their homeland and to rebuild their lives there. At the same time they recognize that without international pressure on Khartoum to uphold and enforce the 2005 peace agreement, their dream will remain unfulfilled. Enforcement of the CPA would include provisions for elections in 2009, as well as a referendum on the political future of the South in 2011.
Reconstructing South Sudan will also require concrete plans for strategic defense and the coordination of assigning international aid into viable projects.
The International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem has reached out to the Sudanese refugees in Israel, providing them with clothing, food, shelter and specialized training so they can return and assist South Sudan in its redevelopment. Charmaine Hedding of the ICEJ traveled to South Sudan early this year and is involved in relief efforts for the refugees.
“The CPA is fast becoming the fading hope of Sudan as once again the northern government reneges on its agreements,” Hedding explains. “It is not just the threat against Sudan’s viability as a country and the prospect of further civil war, but the consequences of an Islamic stronghold there could reverberate across Africa.
“This alone should cause the international community to target Khartoum with serious punitive measures aimed at stopping the atrocities and enforcing all the provisions of the CPA. Regardless, we have to commit to strengthening South Sudan as it alone has proved to be a partner for peace in Sudan, and ultimately in the region.”
As a commissioner of America’s religious freedom commission, Shea has been working on behalf of Sudan’s battered Christian community for more than a decade. In a recent interview she discussed the unfulfilled promise of the CPA and the importance of an honest assessment of the realities in South Sudan.
“The West must abandon the premise of its Sudan policy, namely that there is moral equivalency between the two sides. The future is predictable based on current and past events – Bashir will again tyrannize the South and Islamicize it once and for all.
“Sudan continues to be designated a terrorist state by the US State Department. The US and Israel should be concerned about another Islamist terrorist state with oil. Beginning now, we must do everything possible to help the South stand on its own, whether or not the CPA is carried out.”