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Sudan: Guarded joy at registration

By Nils Carstensen

Gibson Missa is holding up a deep blue index finger. “I finally got to register today. When we signed the peace agreement back in 2005, I never imagined we would actually get to this point.”

Officials of the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission hang a poster to encourage voter registration. Photo by Peter Martell, IRIN.

Kenneth Duku, showing his blue finger, says: “I’ll be ready to vote from very early in the morning on January 9. And if the result comes out the way I wish for - but only then - I’ll be the first one to start jumping up and down.”

Missa spent 10 years of his young life in the bush with the southern rebel movement but now works with an aid agency in Juba. Duku worked for more than a decade discreetly in northern Sudan trying to help some of the millions of displaced living in huge ram-shackle camps on the brink of the dessert in different parts of the north. Today he continues supporting people in need, only now from Juba in the south.

Looking at the huge smiles on the faces of Missa and Duku, you recognize how deep emotions run in this referendum. It comes at the end of a six year long peace agreement, which many hope will end several decades of war and instability between northern and southern Sudan.

But following on the heels of the cheers and joy at voter registration centers, comes fears the referendum could trigger a major crisis in Sudan. Few expect a return to full-scale war between north and south but many fear mounting political tension and numerous possible local conflicts may trigger a large scale exodus of southern Sudanese from the north. The number of southerners remaining in the north is essentially unknown but likely to be in the magnitude of one million.

Tens of thousands have already left Khartoum, some on transport organized by the government in the south, others setting out on their own. They all embark on a journey likely to take weeks using local lorries, buses and river barges down the Nile. All will have to cross the border between north and south where political tension and military build-up has increased significantly over the last months.

Early reports of people getting stuck along the route and running out of basics like shelter, food and water are already coming in from Bentiu in Upper Nile.

“From pastors and officials with local churches, we already know that tens of thousands of people are on the move,” explains John Ashworth who works with the church network Sudan Ecumenical Forum. He is monitoring the movement of people and has already received the first reports of harassment, violence and rape against some returnees.

In the face of these events, 21 fellow Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) partners and members of ACT Alliance in Sudan are preparing to assist people over the coming weeks and months as they return to the south, in possibly large numbers.

All working together under an ACT Alliance emergency preparedness appeal, the organizations have started emergency training in all 10 southern states and the three contested areas bordering north and south. As well, they are working to procure essential relief items, along with bicycles, motorbikes and satellite phones.

As in the past, local churches and international church agencies have a crucial role at this moment in the history of Africa’s largest country.

“The church in Sudan now has a very strong network with churches all over the world - even to universities and schools,” explains Catholic Bishop Paride Taban. “All these contacts mean we can sensitize people in Sudan and all over the world, uniting them in different ways.” Bishop Taban was recently a member of a church delegation that met UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon and senior White House officials in Washington DC.

According to Bishop Taban, the most important things the churches can do are organize prayers for Sudan, use church networks to appeal for a peaceful and fair referendum, and support people in need, such as those who may flee because of threats or violence because of the referendum.

As Kenneth Duku and Gibson Missa leave the registration centers, their papers are stored in grey plastic boxes alongside more than a million voters registered already. Back at the offices of ACT Alliance members DanChurchAid and Christian Aid in Juba, Duku and Missa face a different challenge – buying relief kits and transporting them over long distances and near impassable tracks to where more than 25,000 returnees will need them in the coming months.

Nils Carstensen is a journalist with ACT Alliance member DanChurchAid.

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