AKRON, Pa. – As people of South Sudan eagerly anticipate the official creation of their newly independent country on July 9, their hope is tempered by the realities of increased tensions and the recognition of difficult economic and political challenges ahead.
In Abyei, a contested oil-rich area between northern and southern Sudan, thousands of local residents, most of them subsistence farmers, were forced to flee their homes and leave cattle and crops when Sudan Armed Forces, the northern government’s army, occupied the area in May.
Across southern Sudan, where six Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) service workers and two national workers live and work and where most of its partners are based, tensions are high.
“People everywhere live in a state of controlled fear knowing that at any moment they could become victims of massive bloodshed. While there are certainly parts of South Sudan where the threat of violence is more immediate, there is no truly ‘safe’ space,” said Jacob Mathre, MCC Sudan program officer from Bartow, Fla.
“In spite of this there are also profound hopes for the new nation,” said Mathre, who works in Juba, the new capital of South Sudan.
The people of southern Sudan voted in January to secede from Sudan and create their own country. The right to hold this referendum was established as part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, which brought two decades of Sudanese civil war to an end.
For the past several years, MCC, which has been working in Sudan since 1972, has been focusing its work on supporting partner organizations that are creating development opportunities for refugees returning to their home communities in southern Sudan. MCC also supports peace and reconciliation initiatives among southern ethnic groups.
Partners who work with MCC in development see many opportunities in the new nation, Mathre said. “Women participating in the Episcopal Church of Sudan (ECS) women’s empowerment project see gaining skills in tailoring and running small business as not simply an act that will benefit their households, but as something they can do to build the future of the new nation in which they live.”
The immediate priority, though, for MCC and partner organization ECS, is responding to needs for food and shelter for 250 households displaced from Abyei. MCC has committed $50,000 for the purchase of food, enough for two meals a day through July, and material for temporary shelters.
Many Abyei residents fled 30 kilometers south to Agok, where they had found shelter several times in recent years when Abyei became too violent. This time, however, Agok residents also felt threatened by the northern army and fled into surrounding communities in May. When people from Abyei and Agok returned to Agok in June, the usual resources were no longer available.
The ECS churches of Agok appealed to the denomination’s relief arm, Sudan Development and Relief Agency (SUDRA), to help them respond to the needs of their neighbors. SUDRA turned to its partner, MCC, who provided assistance.
In other work related to the upcoming southern independence, MCC is collaborating with partners to prepare communities to respond to emergencies and to resolve local conflicts that could flare out of control as they are fueled by national tensions.
Through the Sudan Council of Churches, a partner organization, MCC supports Peace Mobilizers, people from volatile areas who are trained to resolve conflict and mitigate potential violence. The Peace Mobilizers also work at state and regional levels, helping to resolve conflicts between rival ethnic groups.
In the southern city of Rumbek, where four MCC workers are based, some residents say the situation is worse now than it was during the war, according to Heather Peters, MCC worker and Peace and Justice coordinator for the Catholic Diocese of Rumbek.
“Long-held trauma and the increase of arms in this area have made for a lethal combination,” said Peters. She and her spouse, Joel Kroeker, are from Hanley, Sask.
The Catholic Diocese of Rumbek, also an MCC partner, has called people around the world to prayer, first in the 101 days leading up to the January referendum and most recently in the 10 weeks leading to southern sovereignty. The diocese held discussion groups during those 10 weeks, where the messages of peace, common good, solidarity and human dignity were discussed.
In Juba, MCC worker Jennifer Schutzman, of Edgewood, Ky., uses the information she learns from partners in Sudan to inform MCC advocacy workers in Ottawa, New York City and Washington, D.C. They, in turn, urge government leaders in Canada, the U.S. and at the United Nations to help resolve areas of dispute and assure the peaceful birth of a nation.
MCC advocacy workers ask people in both countries to keep the need for peace in Sudan on the minds of their legislators. Advocacy workers have highlighted the prayer campaigns of the Catholic Diocese of Rumbek, encouraging MCC constituents to stand in prayerful solidarity with the Sudanese.
In late June, the U.N. approved a contingent of Ethiopian peacekeeping forces to go to Abyei and the surrounding area to keep peace and protect civilians. Northern and southern leaders agreed to demilitarize Abyei and let the Ethiopian troops enter.
The concern for relief from violence and conflict are valid, Mathre said. Yet, he also finds encouragement in the “abundant hopefulness” of those who see the potential for development in the new South Sudan.
“The reality, as I see it,” Mathre said, “is that the future of South Sudan is one that will be filled with challenges, but they are challenges which can be overcome with a spirit of hopefulness.”
Linda Espenshade is MCC news coordinator.