The situation in Darfur is not an isolated problem but rather reflects the wide-spread instability throughout Sudan. Why we should pay attention to the situation in South Sudan.
Alexandra Sicotte-Levesque was a Radio Producer based in Khartoum with the United Nations Mission in Sudan. She has recently been awarded a Global Youth Fellowship by the Toronto-based Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation.
“Congratulations Celine Dion. Many thanks for making us proud to be on air.” Those were Ayuen de Gabriel’s words to me following the inauguration of Mirror FM in Juba, South Sudan. Teasing me with my French-Canadian origins, Monsieur de Gabriel as I like to call him, never abandoned the nickname his colleagues at the radio used for me. Also known as Ayuen de Gabs on the brand new airwaves of Mirror FM, Monsieur de Gabriel is one of the radio’s best presenters, and as many of its national staff, a former child soldier. “If I had to write a book about my life one day,” he told me one rainy evening, “I would speak of all the suffering I went through from the age of 9 to 14.” Today, at 25, Monsieur de Gabriel hopes for lasting stability in his country, thanks to the promised implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed between North and South Sudan in January 2005.
Mirror FM, inaugurated this past June, is the United Nations Mission in Sudan’s most promising project to promote peace in Africa’s largest country: an independent radio station by Sudanese for all Sudanese. Launched in South Sudan almost exactly one year after the tragic death of Sudan’s First Vice-President and President of South Sudan John Garang, the station is not yet allowed to broadcast in North Sudan, which is predominantly Muslim and ruled under Shari’a law. Despite shudders from Khartoum officials who still refuse to this day to see UN peacekeeping troops in Darfur, John Garang’s successor, President of South Sudan Salva Kiir, was present the day of the launch to cut the ribbon which officially opened the studios of Mirror FM.
The suspicious death of John Garang, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and Movement (SPLA/M), in a helicopter crash last year caused many to think that peace in South Sudan was in peril. With the peace deal in January 2005 that put an end to two decade of civil war, John Garang, once simply a rebel leader, had become a South Sudanese hero and Sudan’s First Vice President next to President Omar al-Bashir, said to be the world’s worse dictator. The peace agreement allowed for Christians and Animists from the South not to be subjected to Sharia’ Law and for wealth and power sharing between North and South. For some like Monsieur de Gabriel however, Garang was far from being a hero. When he had the chance to meet Garang in 2001 in Kampala, Uganda, during a ceremony where de Gabs was receiving a scholarship from the French government, the former child soldier couldn’t help but shake his head. “He caused our people so much suffering,” he explained to me, “how could I ever forgive him?”
In 1990, at the height of the war in South Sudan, Monsieur de Gabriel was taken from his parents to the Eastern Equatoria region, where he joined a camp of 8,000 children who were being educated and trained by the Sudan Liberation Army. “There came a time when everyone became a soldier,” he explained to me. As he sat in Mirror FM’s studios, Monsieur de Gabriel refused to speak of those years in detail. “It brings back too many horrible memories,” he said. “They tortured us because we were kids. On the positive side, it has changed our lives because to some extent we became strong.” But Monsieur de Gabriel was lucky. On January 16th, 1995, he remembers precisely, he was taken by a French doctor, along with a few other children, to Uganda where he attended a local school. His benefactor had first obtained permission from John Garang to bring the children to Kampala and financed their education with the help of the French government. De Gabriel was able to finish his secondary school, but by 2004, his benefactor had gone and he could not get any sponsorship to attend Makere University in Kampala. In 2005, he was recruited by the United Nations, along with dozens of other South Sudanese living in the Diaspora, and returned for the first time to South Sudan. Being a good student had saved him from being part of the 2.2 million people who perished during the civil war.
Today, peace in South Sudan is undoubtedly fragile. The international community’s attention is now turned on Darfur, where the world’s worse humanitarian crisis is taking place while overshadowing South Sudan’s insecurity. Juba with its green and humid surroundings—a stark contrast to Khartoum’s dry and desert-like features—suffers from a complete lack of infrastructure and suitable roads. Although late John Garang’s wife, Rebecca, is South Sudan’s Minister of Roads and Transport, her notoriety doesn’t seem to suffice—many South Sudanese wonder where money to repair roads is going. Internally Displaced People and refugees who return home after decades find no buildings left and the few tukul (traditional mud huts) found are rented for hundreds of dollars. UN international staff live in tents, in temporary privately-owned camps, for which they pay almost US$2,000 a month. Monsieur de Gabriel, who has no family in Juba, lives in one of these tents with five other people. As a local staff, his bed is subsidized by the UN but still costs him US$150 per month, one third of his salary. Many say that no one wants to invest in infrastructure in Juba—only 10 kilometers outside town, the paramilitary group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) still loots villages and kidnap children to use them as soldiers. The LRA’s reign of terror in Northern Uganda spreads much beyond the country’s borders with South Sudan and despite peace talks between Uganda and the rebels, armed bandits also take advantage of the region’s instability. Meanwhile, SLA soldiers who have fought for 20 years now seem bored, drinking their days away, waiting for their pay which often comes three to four months late. SLA drunken soldiers carrying guns and falling off their bicycles are a likely sight in Juba. So are constant reports of rape and abuse. But Darfur is the only region of Sudan which remains in the spotlight. Funding is now rare for the Swiss-based Fondation Hirondelle, the UN’s implementing partner for the set up of Mirror FM. To be successful, funding proposals now need to contain the Darfur magic word. In 2011, the people of South Sudan are to take part in a referendum where they will choose between secession and unity with North Sudan. As most of Sudan’s oil resources lie in the South, there is little doubt that a likely unilateral vote for secession would create another bloody conflict. As a UN Dutch military observer pointed out to me, South Sudan is “still a ticking bomb that should not be ignored. The situation in Darfur and the South should be as seen as a whole, not as separate problems.”
Less than four hours after Monsieur de Gabriel sent me his congratulations, I and other staff at the radio received an email from him, in which he announced his resignation without any explanation. Shocked and sadden, I replied to his message immediately asking what had happened and telling him how much the radio needed his talents. Monsieur de Gabriel didn’t write back. In the next few days, I learned from the radio’s management in Juba that De Gabs had an argument with one of his Kenyan supervisors. His first gut reaction had been to resign. Eventually, the radio’s staff was able to convince him to stay, and he returned to the studio somewhat reluctantly. Throughout my stay in Juba, I had come to see the past, present and future of South Sudan through the eyes of Monsieur de Gabriel. Somehow, I wonder if Monsieur de Gabriel’s impulsive and unpredictable reaction, less than a week after the launch of the radio, is a mirror of the fragility of the region. What is to be expected from South Sudan’s new generation who grew up holding guns twice their size? As the real Celine Dion’s voice resonates on Mirror FM alongside peace songs by Sudanese artists, I wonder if the international community is still standing alongside Monsieur de Gabriel.