The young woman with the glaring eyes, high cheekbones and smooth skin thinks she might be 25-years old, after all the eldest of her six children is 10-ish. She thinks she came to this place – a clearing of stick-walled grass-roofed huts two days walk from the nearest town – a few months ago but she’s not sure.
Time seems to pass differently here: days, weeks and months drifting into one another in a haze of punishing heat and empty stomachs.
What she does know is that Sullivan Dolayi is dead. Her husband was shot by armed raiders because they wanted his farm for grazing. Afterwards they burned down his house and torched his grain stores. Widowed, Mandelina Nyi-Bo fled with her children and thousands of her neighbours. “There is nothing I can do but cry, and live,” she told me.
Over the last year or so the fighting between neighbouring communities in southern Sudan has killed more people than the war that still sputters in the country’s western Darfur region. It is easy to write off the local, scarcely visible conflicts that riddle the south as ‘tribal’ a term that carries all the obscuring power of prejudice. But they’re not. They are about poverty, power and politics.
An internationally brokered peace deal to end the decades of north-south civil war that had dominated Sudan’s independence years was signed in 2005. The most recent round of fighting between 1983 and 2005 killed an estimated 1.5 million people.
Key to the so-called Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) were the recent national elections and the referendum, due in January next year, in which southerners will vote on whether to remain part of a unified Sudan or to break off as an independent state.
The 2005 treaty gave the rebel “Sudan People’s Liberation Movement” (SPLM) a degree of autonomy. It has its own government in the south and its current leader, Salva Kiir, is a vice president under Omar al-Bashir, national president of Sudan and head of the National Congress Party (NCP).
April’s long-awaited elections should have sealed Sudan’s path to a peaceful and democratic future but instead the election was beset by boycotts, accusations of fraud, and shambolic organisation that left many of the 16 million voters dismayed and disenfranchised.
In the north of Africa’s largest country billions of dollars of oil wealth has allowed the capital Khartoum to boom in spite of Western sanctions and the opprobrium poured on Bashir. He is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC), but a combination of economic growth and Islamist tub-thumping mean Bashir has some genuine support.
In Darfur the United Nations reckons around 300,000 have been killed since 2003 and a further 2.7 million have been forced from their homes to live in temporary dust-blown camps. The ICC alleges that Bashir ordered the attacks and is responsible for the deaths.
In the semi-autonomous south war has ended but little has changed outside the regional capital Juba, sprawled along the banks of the White Nile. To visit only this town would suggest a country on the move: there are tarmac roads, garish new government buildings and overpriced hotels aimed at aid workers and businessmen.
But Juba – and the development it promises – is a mirage. As soon as you reach the outer limit of the inner city the tarred roads end abruptly, replaced by red dirt and rock. Beyond Juba, nothing has changed. For hour after hour we barely see another vehicle, we pass village markets clinging to the edge of the road selling only mangos, charcoal and rocks.
“Welcome to Mvolo, the least developed county in southern Sudan!” exclaimed Sapana Abuyi, the director of a local development agency which functions thanks to the support of Save The Children.
He listed some of the improvements in the area since the peace deal, but all were partial victories: new schools had no teachers, new health centres had no electrical wiring (or electricity) and new dirt roads were impassable when the rains came. Although the war is over, fighting over access to scarce resources continues, encouraged by politicians who emphasise ethnic allegiance and stoke ethnic enmities.
Out here the litany of horrors compiled by aid agencies and dubbed the “Scary Statistics” are a summary of daily life. One in every six pregnant women will die in childbirth, only five out of six newborns will make it to their first birthday, less than 2% of those who start primary school finish, more than 90% live on less than a dollar a day, millions will need food handouts this year and 85% of people can neither read nor write.
That last figure partly explains why April’s elections did not work. At one rural polling station in a mud-walled school that had been abandoned due to lack of teachers an old woman shuffled across the dirt floor to pick up her ballot papers.
She had never held a pen and never voted before but was now expected to vote a dozen times for the various layers of Sudanese administration. She struggled to clutch the tip of a biro between shaking fingers and, confused by all the party symbols and unfamiliar politicians, traced little scrawls next to the bottom-most name on each ballot paper.
The first multi-party election in a generation, the first time for most to choose their leaders or hold them to account, and instead of excitement there was a kind of learning-by-rote apathy, a feeling that people were going through the motions. Bashir, the enemy of the south, would win – so what?
It didn’t matter, explained Leben Nelson Moro, a professor at Juba University, because in January the vote that counts will be held, the one that will in all likelihood split Sudan in two. If the vote goes in favour of secession then South Sudan will become Africa’s newest country, breaking the rule that colonial boundaries are not redrawn.
But with the majority of the country’s oil wells lying on the southern side of the disputed border there are serious doubts as to whether Bashir would ever let the south go freely. Any attempt to sabotage the vote could be taken as a declaration of war.
“People in the south simply know that there is a real possibility of [a return to] war,” the professor said. “We need to get the south first then we can get development, governance, proper elections. If we build now and then we go back to war what did we build for?” While not an excuse for bad government, it at least offers hope for the people of the South after January.
Whether the referendum takes place – and how it is conducted – will determine if southern Sudanese are at last allowed to choose their own future and may give birth to Africa’s newest nation. Until then, it seems, nothing else will be allowed to matter.