Southerners in North Sudan fear future after break
The young mother of three bids her neighbours farewell as they pack up and leave the Khartoum slum where they have lived for years to return to their homeland in South Sudan, jubilant at the imminent realisation of their dream of independence. But Ajak Majak is not joining the celebrations—she’s staying.
The 27-year-old Majak says she can’t leave the north for the time being. Her children are in school and she has a decent job. In the meantime, she’s deeply afraid of attacks by northern Sudanese angry over the south’s imminent secession.
She has locked herself in the safety of her home for the week of voting in the independence referendum that began on Sunday in the south and among southern Sudanese in the north.
“I am really afraid,” she told the Associated Press. “On the second and third day [of voting], if it is better, I may go out. If not, I will stay inside.”
The status of the estimated 1,5-million to 2-million southerners living in northern Sudan is one of the major sticking points that needs to be resolved in negotiations between north and south if south Sudan, as expected, votes for independence in this week’s referendum.
The tens of thousands of southerners who remain in the north—either short or long term—are deeply anxious. Northern officials have said that if the south becomes Africa’s newest nation, remaining southerners will be stripped of their nationality and jobs. The southerners fear being left vulnerable to angry mobs.
‘They forced us’
The southerners came here over decades, fleeing the long civil war between the mainly Arab Muslim north and the largely Christian and animist south that killed 2-million people.
The refugees packed into impromptu slums that rose up in the deserts around the capital and other northern cities. Majak’s neighborhood was dubbed “Jabarouna” by its southern residents, Arabic for “they forced us”. Over the years, they have built their lives and become part of the north’s social fabric—an uneasy part, facing discrimination, sometimes violence, and having to adjust to Islamic customs.
Many are now elated at the prospect of having their own nation and are streaming home. The UN Refugee Agency said 120 000 southerners returned ahead of the referendum and that they continue at a pace of 2 000 a day crossing south.
Majak’s neighbor, Angelina Aliel (55) is eager to get back. During her 27-year stay in northern Sudan, Aliel said one of her sons was stabbed to death by an angry Arab mob.
“I have put up with living here and death here. It is time to go home,” she said.
But her situation raises yet another problem. Aliel packed her belongings and left her home nine days ago and since then has been waiting by the side of a dusty road for a space on the buses heading south. International referendum observers say repatriation was hastily organised by the southern government and many like Aliel have been left stranded.
They “have sold their homes, are stranded under the sun and in the wind, some waiting for 30 days. There is fear at the end of the polling of what will happen to them. What kind of security do they have”? said Charles Kariuki, an observer from Kenya.
‘I will just have to go’
Many more—perhaps tens of thousands—intend to stay behind because they have children in school or businesses and properties here. Or they just don’t want to leave the place they were born or have lived long stretches of their lives, especially to uproot themselves for the impoverished south, a Texas-sized territory with almost no infrastructure.
Johnson Makier, a 60-year old originally from the southern town of Rumbek, has worked in the police force in the north for 18 years. His children were born in Khartoum and are in schools.
“I know nothing about Rumbek. I have no land and no home there,” he said. But, he added, “if the government says I can’t stay, then I will just have to go.”
Majak says she wants to return eventually, but not until her children—the eldest of whom is nine—finish this school year at least. She says she also has a good job, working in a restaurant kitchen in Khartoum.
But for however long she stays, she worries about reprisals against her children. “There will be many problems, and there will be envy. I will fear for them. There is no safety,” said Majak, her hair and shoulders covered with the scarf she wears to fit in with the Muslim northerners.
Northerners and southerners have clashed in the past. After the 2005 death of the south’s iconic leader John Garang in a plane crash, southerners in the north protested, suspecting it was an assassination. The protests sparked ethnic violence that left nearly 50 people killed, homes torched and properties damaged. The government beefed up security around Khartoum and elsewhere in the north ahead of the referendum, and there have been no reports of violence here so far.
Father John Denghi, parish priest of Khartoum’s Catholic Saint Matthew Cathedral, said his church is stocking up supplies in case violence breaks out and people seek refuge.
Further fanning anxiety are President Omar al-Bashir’s repeated vows to step up enforcement of the Islamic Shariah if the south secedes. Denghi fears Christians may be targeted or church lands seized by the government.
“I am sure if Shariah law is implemented all the women will be covering their faces,” he said. “It is worrying because we are not sure of the future.”
Government and ruling party officials dismiss those fears. But they say that southerners employed by the government—about 20% of the government work force in accordance with the peace accord’s provisions—will be removed from their jobs, if the two nations separate.
The officials are also firm that southerners will not be granted dual citizenship. It’s not clear if that means southerners will be given a choice or if their Sudanese nationality will simply be taken away. All that is being discussed in ongoing negotiations. The prospect of arbitrary stripping of nationality is worrying to many. The UN refugee agency warns that if left unresolved, the issue could spark even larger movement south.
“There will be no dual nationality. There may be reciprocal arrangements ... Nobody will be without a nationality, but [it will be] given according to the national interest of the country,” Ibrahim Ghandour, a senior ruling party official said.
Many northerners, meanwhile, are stunned at the prospect of losing a large chunk of the country.
“This is a part of our body being torn away,” Mohamed al-Hafez, a 22-year old northern university student, said. “I just can’t imagine this separation. Politicians have been trying to prepare us but I am really upset ... For us, Sudan is still one.”—Sapa-AP