A war-wounded Southern Sudanese man casts his vote at Juba University polling center in South Sudan capital, Juba on January 9, 2011. (Abraham Nhial/WV)
If you are a close follower of international news, or perhaps of film star George Clooney, you might have picked up there’s a bit of excitement surrounding an independence referendum going on in Sudan this week—one that is likely to see the creation of an entirely new nation.
George has done an admirable job of drawing the attention of the White House and the media to the plight of this forgotten country, which has had a distressing tendency to lurch from one calamity to the next.
The country holds a special interest for me because one of my earliest overseas assignments for World Vision was in southern Sudan. Goodness, that was a baptism of fire. Back in 1998, a combination of war with the north, factional fighting between various rebel groups, and bad weather led to massive population displacements and thousands of starving children. It was the first time I saw children dying of hunger. One of my responsibilities was to take photographs to document World Vision’s work. Alas, many of the pictures were deemed too horrific to publish.
There was a massive aid operation in response to the emergency, which faced enormous logistical difficulties. Southern Sudan is about the size of France and there are hardly any roads. At that time communication was accomplished via unreliable, crackly shortwave radio. Giant Hercules C130 aircraft would literally drop relief food from the sky into carefully demarcated landing zones in remote areas, because there were no suitable landing strips.
World Vision had multiple bases in the south from which it distributed the food aid and ran emergency feeding centers for children. It was noble work, but there was always the nagging suspicion that unless the political situation changed—in particular that there was an end to the decades-long civil war with the north—then the situation was fundamentally hopeless.
That’s why the referendum this week is important. It hopefully paves the way for a peaceful separation between the Arabic Muslim north and the largely black and Christian south. If it does so, it could mark the end of a conflict that has claimed 2 million lives.
The Economist warns that it’s too early to be singing and dancing about this just yet. A resentful northern government might try to make life as difficult as possible for a new southern state, and the south suffers from long-standing problems of tribal division and corruption.
All the same, it’s hard not to be optimistic. Michael Arunga, World Vision’s current communicator in Sudan, now fulfilling a similar role to what I did back in 1998, reports thousands are turning up at polling stations in the south full of enthusiasm. One 75-year-old woman he spoke to, Mary Aban, perhaps best sums up their mood. “War destroyed this country. We should have been a modern country but are now suffering from poverty because of fighting that has had many of our people killed,” she said. “I have waited for this day for too long. I am not hungry, yet I have not taken any breakfast. It is very important that we all vote today.”