Referendum: Three Months Out

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Hundreds of southern Sudanese turned out on Saturday to support the independence movement that is growing here. Pro-separation marches have become a ritual activity on the 9th of each month, the date on which southern Sudan’s referendum is scheduled to take place in January.

October 9th Video Blog from Pete Muller on Vimeo.

Despite looming concerns that the vote may be delayed due to political and administrative wrangling, southerners seem more resolute than ever that the referendum proceed on schedule.

The referendum commission has announced a tentative start date for voter registration on the 14th of November, leaving a very short window for a massive logistical undertaking. According to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, southerners are mandated to achieve at least 60 percent participation in the referendum in order for the results to be considered valid. The threshold issue has political implications given that pro-independence groups want to ensure that separation supporters are registered. Conversely, in areas where unity sentiments might run higher than others, some believe that registration might be intentionally impeded.

Some here claim that votes for unity will be cast through abstention. If those who support unity register but do not vote, it could exert pressure through the threshold channel.

We hear very little talk of unity here in the south. I wonder, at times, if unity sentiments, while certainly the minority, might be more common than the discourse suggests. The more time I spend in southern Sudan, the more I believe that local level politics play a significant role in determining national sentiment. It seems, at times, that intertribal tensions within the south are paramount in the decision making process. I wonder if some marginalized and/or minority tribes might tacitly support unity based on localized fears of power imbalance. In some remote areas it is hard to imagine groups voting based on macro level considerations.

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Akobo

Dust swirls violently as our helicopter comes to rest on a remote airstrip. After two hours of flying time, I am fidgety and glad to be on the ground. I do a quick check of my equipment and prepare to experience a place that I haven’t before. A young Russian operator cracks the chopper door and a stifling heat floods the cabin. “Welcome to Akobo,” he says in thickly accented English. “Have a nice day.” Travelers navigate a rickety ladder onto cracked soil. The landing strip is crowded with heavily armed soldiers who look worse for the wear.

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Akobo is not a place where one typically expects to have a “nice” day. Until about nine months ago, this sand speck of a town was the epicenter of interethnic conflict in southern Sudan. Over the course of several months, a series of massacres took place throughout the county, resulting in death tolls well over 1,000 people. Tens of thousands fled the violence, transforming Akobo town into an overcrowded, makeshift camp for internally displaced persons. Add to the violence an acute food shortage, which prompted some journalists and aid workers to brand Akobo the “hungriest place on earth.” Images of emaciated bodies poured out of Akobo’s antiquated hospital.
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As we explore the town, I begin to sense that people here are deeply traumatized. Over the course of a few hours, I pass several people who appear catatonic. A man in his forties stands under a tree while a long line of soldiers, local authorities and foreigners pass only a few meters away. He seems to look directly through us, as though we’re not even there. I greet him in Arabic but receive no response. An elderly woman on the hospital grounds skittishly runs away from me as I cut hastily through the yard. I slow my pace hoping to calm her down but her fear is palpable and she continues to scramble.

Recognizing an unstable, violent and largely uncontrollable environment in Akobo, the international community began targeting considerable funds toward stabilization projects here. “I started throwing every penny I had at Akobo,” explains Leis Grande, the head of the UN’s humanitarian efforts in southern Sudan. “I’ve hauled every news agency and foreign minister I could get my hands on through Akobo. It’s my twelfth visit to the town.” Grande speaks directly and passionately with key figures here. She hugs everyone, an uncommon but highly refreshing gesture. She seems genuinely and deeply concerned about the people she meets.

On a walk back to the helicopter at the end of the day, she describes the process of “flipping” unstable and violent pockets throughout the south. She explains that such areas require tremendous financial investment in an array of sectors including employment, food provision, education and health. “When I first started coming to Akobo, almost none of the kids were in school. Now, we’re got more than 5,000 kids in schools.” She explains that youth employment is critical in conflict areas where teens often comprise large portions of warring forces. Additionally, Grande suggests that the provision of foodstuffs helps reduce conflict in areas where large numbers of people are food insecure.

“I think that Akobo has turned the corner,” she says with cautious optimism. “It takes a lot of intensive effort over the course of at least six months to see serious changes.” She says that the UN, with considerable support form the United States, has targeted fifteen other extreme needs cases throughout southern Sudan. She hopes to “flip” these communities from conflict ridden to stable using a similar model to that employed in Akobo. “We’re up against a lot of challenges. I certainly expect to see some progress in several of those areas but it’s never easy.”

As I take stock of the town, I ponder the prospects for unchecked cruelty in places this remote. Wedged between the border of south Sudan and Ethiopia, Akobo is hundreds of miles from any form of development. During the rain season, it can only be reached by helicopter. I imagine that when people go to war here, few things prevent them from engaging in orgies of violence against their adversaries. There are no intimidating witnesses here, no one to name and shame those responsible for extreme cruelty. With a long history of interethnic violence and such complete isolation, the thought of war here sends chills up my spine.

I hope that Ms. Grande’s feeling that Akobo has turned the corner is correct.
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Chinese in Sudan

The Beijing hotel is, without a doubt, the largest “prefab” I’ve ever seen. Its spacious lobby, grandiose theater, connecting hallways and dozens of rooms are constructed solely from plastic slats fastened together in a less than appealing aesthetic. Its entrance is decorated with plastic trees that, at night, glow an array of neon colors.

Last Saturday evening, the Beijing Hotel appropriately hosted the celebration of the 61st anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Sponsored by the Chinese National Petroleum Company and organized by the Chinese consulate, the event amounted to one of the strangest, albeit entertaining, that I have ever attended.

It commenced with gorgeous Chinese dancers playing drums on a stage that looked prepared to host the Blue Man Group. Blue, orange, green and yellow lights illuminated the dancers as copious amounts of fake smoke gushed from machines on all corners of the stage. The drummers were followed by a team of predictably underage male gymnasts who, despite frequent mistakes in their act, finished every maneuver with a plastic, ear-to-ear smile. The gymnasts made way for a series of renowned Chinese, pop culture entertainers who performed acts ranging from magic, to brass instruments to comedic routines in Mandarin poking fun at Chinese celebrities that no one outside of China has ever heard of.

In the middle of the event, a man from the consulate took the stage to say a few words about the People’s Republic and led the crowd in the Chinese national anthem. Unfortunately, neither he nor any of the other participants spoke a word of English. The presentation’s communication was left to a young, Chinese-American woman who served as the evening’s emcee. With a charming smile, and form fitting black dress she appeared between scenes to explain what would otherwise be lost.

The event was a strong and interesting indication of China’s growing presence in resource-rich areas of Africa. Here in Sudan, China is heavily invested in petro-chemical extraction in the oil rich basins throughout south central areas of the country. When one drives through the oil fields of northern Upper Nile state, it is common to see busloads of Chinese oil workers traveling on out-of-place tarmac roads between processing facilities. There is, in fact, an international airport in the village of Paloich, a tiny speck in the middle of the Melut oil basin. While I do not know for sure, something tells me that the planes that fly in and out are likely destined for China.

I am curious to see how the resource game between east and west unfolds here in Africa. As I watched these Chinese entertainers whose mission, at least in part, is to win popular favor among Sudanese, I could not help but think of the vast cultural gap between China and Africa. Western powers have been involved in Africa for centuries, leaving behind aspects of their customs, practices and languages. While large-scale cultural differences certainly exist between Africans and Westerners, most continental capitals bare the clear marks of past and current relationships with the West. The national powerbrokers in most countries share learned languages and customs with incoming French, Dutch and American investors. Watching a stereotypically Chinese entertainer play a trumpet into the face of a Sudanese parliamentarian seemed like a futile attempt at cultural persuasion.

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Bunker Bugs

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I walk slowly into the steel reinforced, concrete bunker at UNICEF in Malakal. It’s dank and moist with virtually no ventilation. I begin to sweat immediately. I assume it was built in response to fairly serious rounds of fighting in Malakal in recent years, perhaps most notably in 2008 when Joint Integrated Units of northern and southern soldiers split apart and fought heavily throughout the town.

In one corner of the bunker, I notice the largest cockroach I’ve ever seen. I tried my best to scale it with my hand in this photo but it still does not do justice to the creature.

Malakal at this time of year is teaming with all kinds of massive bugs. As I stood in that sweltering bunker, wet, dark and infested, I wondered if I might take brave a few rounds rather than sleep the night inside. Filled with people for days on end, I can imagine few situations that would require more fortitude.

Brutal.

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Upper Nile: A Bellwether?

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The two armies that drove Sudan into the throes of civil war remain camped on opposing sides of the Malakal airport. Their installations are unimpressive, but their implications are daunting. Since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, which ended more than twenty years of civil war, this desolate town has been a flashpoint between the formerly competing militaries of north and south Sudan. The forces, which were technically combined into so-called Joint Integrated Units, have repeatedly defied their name with violent and costly clashes here. Northern Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) control one end of Malakal, and the South Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) controls the other. They are divided by makeshift checkpoints manned by soldiers of questionable repute.

As we pass the airport along a battered, unpaved road our United Nations escort explains a recent surge in military interest around this remote landing strip. “The SPLA used to be several clicks (kms) from the airport,” he explains in the clear and confident tones of a career military man. “The SAF were camped very close to the airstrip,” he says. “The SPLA knew that in the event of hostilities, the SAF held a more strategic position and could likely seize and hold the airstrip.” He points out a small cluster of grass thatch huts, explaining that they house SPLA soldiers. To me, the area looks more like a camp for displaced persons than a base for soldiers. It’s a common look of military camps in impoverished African countries. It always strikes me as odd that places with such dependence on the military make so little effort to give the job any appeal.

To me, the repositioning of troops in Malakal is an alarming bellwether. This sweltering and, I’m sorry to say, filthy town is the capital of Upper Nile state, one of the frontline areas along the defacto border between north and south Sudan. As the referendum approaches with little progress made on formal border demarcation, some fear that conflict could erupt in contested areas. While Malakal is clearly within south Sudan, its airstrip would prove critical in any conflict between the armies in areas along Upper Nile’s northern border. That the armies appear to be positioning themselves to gain the upper hand in conflict is a concerning preparation.

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Malakal’s unpaved streets bear the damage of unrelenting rains. In a bid to curtail flooding in the roads, the town ordered drainage ditches dug along the side of major thoroughfares. Today, the ditches are filled with stagnant, filmy water that reeks of rotting garbage and proliferating bacteria. Despite reduced rains in recent weeks, seemingly parched earth forms only a thin façade over layers of heavy mud. My boots are caked with it.

Like most places in southern Sudan, taking photos in Malakal is a tremendous challenge. During an afternoon stroll, I stopped to snap a few frames of an interesting building near the banks of the Nile. I took a knee and took only a few snaps before I heard a man’s voice booming behind me. As usual, it came from a man that bore no visible signs of authority. In southern Sudanese Arabic, he demanded to know if I had written permission from the owner of the building. With a language barrier between us, a passerby intervened to explain the man’s growing list of inquires. He was soon joined by a police officer who, despite minimal contributions to the exchange, made me nervous. Many people have been detained in this tense and unfriendly town. I felt inclined to ask interrogator for identification but doing so is a gamble. If he’s bluffing, he’ll leave. If he’s not, well, things can get unpleasant quickly.

I find myself increasingly impatient with these kinds of hostile encounters. While I understand the sensitive nature of south Sudan’s current situation, I can’t help but feel that the aggression is deeply misguided. I am, at times, confounded by the idea that security personnel here seem to believe that Western governments acquire visual intelligence by deploying tall white men with big cameras into photo-averse populations. Do they believe that that’s how it’s done? I’ve never been much a fan of the CIA, but I’d like to think that even that crew might be able to devise a more effective plan.

I sometimes feel that my efforts to illustrate people’s lives and circumstances might be put to better use elsewhere.

State Referedum Committees Sworn In

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Mohammed Ibrahim Khalil, chairman of the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC), speaks to reporters after swearing in 50 members of the State High Referendum Committees in Juba on Monday.

The process of formalizing these state committees is an important step on the road to the referendum. According to SSRC spokespeople, the committees will be tasked with an array of responsibilities pertaining to the referendum including civic education campaigns, the formation of regional sub-committees and the identification of polling stations. Perhaps most important among these is the voter registration process which, at this late date, has yet to begin.

During the presidential, parliamentary and gubernatorial elections in April, registration discrepancies were a major problem. Many voters turned up to vote and were unable to locate their names on vast registration sheets posted at polling stations. Many were turned away as a result. The issue prompted considerable concern among southerners that similar issues during the referendum could have devastating effects.

Given southern Sudan’s remarkable underdevelopment, poor infrastructure and limited experience with the voting process, the logistical and administrative aspects of the referendum present serious challenges. The formation of these state committees is a good and encouraging sign. Upon chatting with newly sworn-in members, however, I was surprised by many of their ambiguous answers to specific questions regarding the coming months. When I asked what they planned to due upon returning to their home states, few had specific answers. “I plan to do something special for my people,” one new member told me. I respect the optimism but would have been more encouraged by specific plans.

Often times it seems that these things have been well plotted on paper but their actual manifestations leave something to be desired.

National Day of Prayer

Here’s a little video of me tooling around Juba town with some pro-independence activists. They were out trying to rally folks to attend the national day of prayer for the upcoming referendum. (Disclaimer: Terrible audio and hasty compression on this one…apologies!!!)

The prayer service itself was uneventful. It was heavily attended by various Christian denominations but the Islamic community was largely absent. One imam appeared as a token but it seemed exactly that. Many here believe that significant portions of the southern Islamic community is sympathetic to the northern National Congress Party. I’ve been trying to understand whether being supportive of the NCP amounts to support for unity. The claims vary depending on who’s talking. I worry, however, that there is more tension between the communities than most will confess to a foreigner.

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Referendum: 5 Months Out

Hundreds of activists rallied in Juba today in an expression of support for southern independence. The rally was held exactly five months ahead of a referendum during which southerners will decide whether to secede from the north and form a new, independent country.

Despite torrential rains, spirits ran high among activists. “Even the rain has come to support southern independence,” a female activist told me. “We’ve got God on our side.”

The rally comes amid mounting concerns that administrative and logistical challenges could force the vote to be delayed, a prospect abhorred by southerners. The commission tasked with overseeing the referendum was slated for formation in 2008 but was only put in place one month ago. Among other responsibilities, the commission is tasked with the formal demarcation of the north-south border, a difficult and as-yet unresolved sticking point between the two sides. Owing to heavy rains and impassable roads, on-the-ground demarcation activities were temporarily suspended until conditions improve.

Northern Sudanese officials have been recently clamoring about the border issue. Members of the ruling, northern National Congress Party have warned that a failure to agree on the border could lead to renewed conflict. Some cite border conflicts between Ethiopia and Eritrea and India and Pakistan as examples of what could occur between north and south Sudan.

When pressed on the issue, organizers of today’s rally insisted that the referendum would be held on time and that border demarcation is not an essential prerequisite for moving forward with the vote. E72S3684_MG_3502E72S3586E72S3825E72S3545E72S3856