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  • Sudan’s Conflicts, an Introduction
    July 31, 2012
    I thought I’d do something different and write an informative post about the major conflicts happening in Sudan. I hope there are some who will find it interesting and helpful.

    Sudan’s conflicts are many and complex. I lived in Khartoum, the capital of the North, for two years, and am by no means an expert. Still, during that time I traveled in the North, studied many maps, read press releases from every political faction under the sun, and most importantly, met people from every part of the country and heard their stories. When I read about the continuing conflicts in the news, I do so with a strong sense of place. I find that many people here in the States are interested in the conflicts in Sudan – Darfur, North/South, Nuba Mountains – but find it difficult (and understandably so) to piece together the different things they have read and seen in the news into a comprehensible whole. Dealing with a topic like this is a bit of a stylistic departure for this blog, but I thought that some might find it interesting, and it is an important topic to me. I’ve decided to approach the conflicts from a regional perspective, giving an overview of the situation in each region.

    North Sudan :: North Sudan (which is now just Sudan since the South seceded), is a large and ethnically diverse region. The capital of North Sudan is Khartoum, and the majority of the population are of Arab-African descent and speak Arabic as their first language. Sudan is a member of the Arab League. Although Sudan is offically a representative democracy, in actuality it is a one-party state ruled by the National Congress Party (NCP) led by President Omar Al-Bashir (ba-SHEER). President Bashir has long had the overwhelming support of the Arab majority and is a member of the largest Arab tribe in Sudan. Following the events of the Arab spring in 2011, some opposition to Bashir has arisen among younger Arabs from other tribes, but Bashir’s position remains strong due to the loyalty of his own tribe and his willingness to wage merciless war against any and all opposition. Bashir’s government has practiced scorched-earth policies of suppressing rebellion in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains, and Bashir himself is considered a war criminal by the International Criminal Court and has been charged with genocide.

    South Sudan :: The Nation of South Sudan was formed last year on July 9, 2011. After decades of brutal civil war, which produced the refugees known as the Lost Boys of Sudan among many others, the North and South signed a peace agreement in 2004 which set up a power-sharing government over the whole country. While in effect, this joint government functioned like a two-state federation between the government of the South in Juba and the government of the North in Khartoum. The peace agreement was set to last 7 years, and during that time several things were to be accomplished: the disputed border between the North and South was to be settled, a census was to be taken, democratic elections were to be held, and finally, the South would be allowed to vote on whether or not to secede and become their own country in 2011. Of those items on the agenda, the census and final vote were the only two which happened with real success. Therefore, although the South has successfully seceded, the border remains disputed. This is hugely important because the border-land is an oil-rich region, and drawing the line in one place or another is the difference in hundreds of millions of dollars annually for each nation. Border skirmishes have become intensified since 2011. The South has begun aiding rebels in the regions just north of the border, which has brought an onslaught of Bashir’s military tactics into those regions. The South also faces some division from within because its government was initially formed around the loose structure of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which was made up of charismatic generals who essentially controlled their own smaller armies (think warlords). They have been working together for a long time, though, and they see a common cause in the national identity of South Sudan.

    The refugee situation in the South is incredibly bleak. Thousands of people displaced from the conflict regions have nowhere to go, and thousands more who, although they are ethnically Southerners, had lived in the North all their lives have been denied citizenship in the North and have been forced to move to the South. The majority of South Sudanese live according to traditional animistic practices. An influential minority are Christian, and a smaller minority is Muslim.

    Darfur :: Darfur is a region in North Sudan (or just Sudan), but the population of this region is mixed between Africans who claim Arab descent (or Arabicized people) and Africans who do not. All of these people are members of various tribes and sub-tribes, and the primary source of ethnic self-identity is found in their tribe. Major tribes in Darfur which do not claim Arab descent include the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit, all of whom speak different tribal languages. Many of the Arab tribes belong to an Arab super-tribe called the Baggara. Both the Arab tribes and non-Arab tribes are almost entirely Muslim and, though it is often overlooked, both are African. (Arab and African are not mutually exclusive categories in this case.) Because of famine in the late 80s, there began to be conflicts between all the tribes over resources. Arab tribes, all speaking the same language, formed natural alliances. They were armed and aided by the government in Khartoum and formed militias that were called the Janjaweed. After decades of raidings and government systems that practiced apartheid-like rule, in 2003 the non-Arab tribes formed their own militias and attacked government compounds, openly declaring rebellion. The Khartoum government responded with overwhelming force which has been labeled genocide by many. Possibly as many as 460,000 have died in the conflict (this includes both sides) and 3.2 million have been displaced. The most fierce fighting has passed, and the leadership of both sides have made serious attempts at discussing peace, but nothing firm has come about yet.

    The Nuba Mountains :: This region is experiencing perhaps the worst conflict in Sudan right now. The Nuba Mountains region comprises over 40 tribes, each with their own language. The tribes retain many of their traditional African customs, and are even famous and loved in Sudan for their traditional wrestling matches. In addition to this African traditionalism, many of the tribes are Christian and some are Muslim, each tribe practicing one faith or the other as a part of their tribal identity. The region lies just inside the border of the North, but many of the Nuba Mountain people have historically sided with South Sudanese. The non-Arab Nuba Mountain people have long lived under the same apartheid-like systems that sparked the Darfur conflict, and the South has a long history of allying with and arming the Nuba Mtn. rebel groups in the larger dispute over the North/South border.

    At times the brutal conflict in this region becomes about religion, and entire villages will be decimated for being Muslim or Christian, and sometimes nearby Arab Muslim tribes will back one side while Christians from the South will back the other. Thousands of children have fled the fighting in this region and are being talked about as the New Lost Boys of Sudan. Right now, one refugee camp just on the South side of the border in a city called Yida is growing at rate of 1,000 new refugees a day even though that camp is itself too near the conflict zones to be safe and is likely to be shut down by the United Nations soon.

    September 5, 2010

    Omak Streek, Khartoum
    July 2008

    African Wildlife
    November 30, 2008

    On Thursdays, I have class at 12:45 pm, so I typically spend Thursday mornings sleeping late, wandering around my flat groggily, brewing coffee, and browsing headlines on the internet. I’ll usually shower sometime near noon, and then spend an excessive amount of time standing in front of the mirror twisting my mustache into various shapes and parting my beard in odd places. This last Thursday was no different from any before until I walked into my bedroom and opened the top drawer only to find that it had been commandeered during the night by a rat. He’d shredded the inside surface of the wood into hundreds of shavings which he’d managed to work into a large pile in the middle of my boxer shorts which begs the question, why do rats love my underwear so much?

    despite all his rage...

    About a month ago after I hulk-smashed a litter of rats, I went looking for a rat trap so as to catch the mother. All the shop owners I visited sought to sell me glue, which I declined to purchase since it would have required that I personally dispatch the captured rat – a task that I did not wish to perform again despite having proved myself so, ehh… capable. I finally inquired about a rat trap at the maghalaq on Street 60, and was assured, yes, they had one. One minute, please, while the shopkeeper rummaged through a pile to find it. He ducked behind the counter and reappeared with a cage. “Isn’t there anything else?” I asked. There was not. Luckily the trap worked, and in a couple of days I caught momma, took a rickshaw to the other side of town, and let her out in a ditch.

    Then, as I’ve already told you, another rat began inhabiting my drawer on Thursday. Or two, actually, it seems to’ve been. I’ve spent the last couple of days entrenched in battle against these Rattus Norvegicus (as opposed to the much more terrible Rattus Rattus), but I have finally triumphed.


    So, today I have undertaken the cleaning of my drawers and clothes. I purchased a bottle of Dettol — a substance of ambiguous composition which claims to be a disinfectant that is recommended by “doctors” and is approved by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. And, I have put all the boxers in to wash. Jason is determined to find rat poison to feed to the offender, and I’m not entirely against that, although we’ve looked for it in 3 stores now to no avail. Should more rats attempt to take up residence with us, I have decided that I am going to begin a trade in rat pelts. It is winter, after all, and a rat-skin coat is just the thing to keep one warm on the 70°F winter evenings that will soon be upon us.

    July 15, 2008

    The last two mornings, I woke to the creaking of a mattress and the sound of skin sliding across cotton sheets. My back, by a miscellany of nebulous aches and shooting pains, decries the unfamiliarity of the mattress I’ve been sleeping on in this room-across-town that I’m sharing with my brothers, whose early movements are my alarm. A text message this morning from my “higher-ups” read, “no one leaves the house today ” – a mandate which was followed in spirit rather than letter.

    Reports home tend to include the sentence “I’m fine,” surrounded by a lot of obscure phrases about what I know or don’t know about the political situation that has undoubtedly been analyzed to death by news anchors who are paid to string words they haven’t thought about into sentences they don’t fully understand. And who could understand it, anyway? Perhaps the best ones at least know what it is that they don’t know.

    Once every few hours a phone call comes in from some source outside, and the caller’s information is passed around to all of the inhabitants (we are not alone, my brothers and I). The seven-foot walls of this little sanctuary are our primary protection from the activities in the streets, which so far have included an eager vegetable vendor and the mechanics who eat breakfast at the bean stand on the corner. Gut-wrenching drama, it is not.

    The phone calls tell us mostly the types of things we could guess on our own: sometime today, there will be a march downtown, and probably chanting. Or: Government officials are going to have a meeting. Yes, I bet they will. The calls tell us most when they tell us nothing because it means that nothing has happened yet, and as the hours roll by I find myself expecting something more like a glacier than an avalanche. Still, speculations of any kind are fairly worthless right now – at least any of the speculations that I could make. The most hopeful news is that the best possible outcomes still seem just as likely as anything else.

    I tend to see all of the suffering – the starvation, disease, and destitution of this place – in one of two ways. The first says that no Ending could ever be good enough to make reparation for the suffering of these little ones. The second says that there must be such an Ending for their suffering demands it. It is by the great Hope of this second perspective that I find myself so often with my eyes closed, measuring out my breathing like the long strides of a distance runner, and praying, finally, words which were holy long before I knew them. He has filled the hungry with good things.


    the cup
    June 29, 2008

    Something about coffee. Something about it that makes even bad coffee better than no coffee. “Caffeine”, some would say, but it’s not that, really. I’m lying in my bed at midnight, sipping coffee in spite of the caffeine – certainly not because of it. I’m not sure what it is. I could say “flavor”, and I think that’s closer, but not exactly it. It’s the flavor that brings to mind so many things. Its taste brings to mind a shape – roundness, I think, or close to it. Somehow in that smokey bitterness, there is also … not the sum of … but, i don’t know, the memory of all things that have happened since I became a “drinker”. And then, of course, there is the smell which is so akin to the flavor. And there is also the feel of the freshly roasted beans, slick with oil. And what is coffee, anyway? Perhaps you could call it drink… but no one could ever call it food, as you might could call most other drinks.

    It is a perfect lesson in cultural presuppositions, over here. You know, those things which are so perfectly natural to us that they are invisible? Most people over here drink coffee in the Arabic fashion – quite strong, with plenty of sugar and sometimes cardamom and ginger. I have a certain comedy routine here. A well-worn shtick, by now.

    “I drink a lot of coffee,” I say, “but I drink American coffee,” by which I mean that I drink it black and often stretched relatively thin with water as is true of drip-coffee.

    “Yes, yes,” they say, agreeing, but without the foggiest notion of what is meant by “American coffee”, as if I had told them that I drink “American milk”.

    I say, “American coffee doesn’t have anything in it.”

    “Ah, yes,” they reply. They still don’t understand. They think they do, but they don’t.

    Then I say, “No ginger, no cardamum, not even any sugar.”

    This is when they say “What? No sugar?!”

    And some laughter ensues. Usually I am told that I am insane.

    You see, sugar is as presupposed to be in coffee as water is. As a matter of fact, they sweeten fruit juices with sugar, here. I have tried, on multiple occasions, to explain why this is utterly unnecessary, utterly unhealthy, and utterly ridiculous. My pleas are usually met with laughter – surely I can’t be serious. Apple juice is far tastier with a heap of sugar added to it.

    “Bllleugghhehshgshgahlllkh!” This is the sound that I make at the thought of Apple juice with a heap of sugar added to it.

    But, back to coffee. Well, actually, I don’t have much else to say about it. I’m drinking it, though. Right now. With no sugar in it. It tastes like America. Like dearest friends that I feel like I am only always saying goodbye to. Or, like hanging out with girls and feeling possibility hovering in the air. It is early-morning reverence and it is also staying up too late. It is celebrating, but it is also coping, and lately it is more of the latter. But, perhaps I have no palate for sweeter things.