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Sudan Tribune

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South Sudan in the marketplace for peace

By Andrew England, The Financial Times

NAIROBI, Feb 2, 2005 — On Mondays the market in the small village of Manger Ater comes alive with bustle as livestock, sugar, salt, perfumes and other goods are traded noisily all day.

It is a scene typical of rural Africa, but in conflict-ridden southern Sudan, Manger Ater is an exception, providing a rare glimpse of co-operation between communities whose leaders took them into war for decades.

The village is close to the informal border between north and south, an area that was at the front line of the 21-year civil war between southern rebels and successive northern governments. But in Manger Ater’s so-called “peace market” it is business between northerners and southerners, not conflict, that appears to thrive.

Arabs from the Muslim north, some fingering their prayer beads, sell goods to Africans from the south, most of whom follow traditional beliefs or are Christians. Southerners, in trousers and baseball caps rather than Muslim robes, sell goats and cattle at auctions formed in circles in the dust.

Traditional leaders set up the market in 1991 to promote trade and relations between those living either side of the border. It lies in an area of Bahr al-Ghazal region that is controlled by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the main southern rebel group.

Northern militia razed it to the ground three times, residents say, but the commerce continued and now the traders look forward to doing business in a country at peace.

“As citizens we have no problems. It’s the system, it’s the ruling system,” said Abdulkarim Suleiman Abdullah, a northern trader trying to explain why north-south conflict has raged for all but 11 years since Sudan gained independence in 1956.

The SPLA signed a comprehensive peace deal with Khartoum on January 9, marking the end of the second southern war which erupted in 1983 and caused 2m deaths. Now the hugely challenging process of reconstruction and reconciliation is supposed to begin.

In theory, peace will open up the isolated south to northerners, see roads built where now there are just dirt tracks, and provide opportunities for development. The market is a foretaste of how life could be – if things go to plan. “If there was not peace I would not have come,” said Jalal Abdullahi, a 50-year-old Arab trader visiting a SPLA-controlled area for the first time. “There was a feeling that I would not be welcome, that people would be aggressive. But when I came here I had no problems.”

Mr Abdullahi brought three bicycles laden with sugar to Manger Ater as a “trial”. It proved profitable – the sugar sold in less than two days. In the north, where there is greater access for traders and more competition, it would have taken eight days, he says. At next week’s market, Mr Abdullahi plans to bring five bicycles.

But under the surface the picture is not so rosy. Bahr al-Ghazal region suffered hugely during the conflict and many southerners will struggle to trust or welcome their northern neighbours: the memories of the conflict and its brutality are too fresh. In the 1980s and 1990s, Arab militias unleashed by Khartoum launched camel and horseback raids into southern villages, plundering livestock, killing many civilians and abducting thousands of others as concubines or forced labour, according to Unicef. Bahr al-Ghazal was also a key recruiting ground for the SPLA.

“How do you trust people who have been fighting you?” said Wek Deng, an SPLA official in the region, “GOD IS LOVE” emblazed on his sweater.

Yet creating trust will be key to ensuring the peace deal – and ultimately the country – holds together.

Under the accords, southerners will vote in a referendum on whether to remain part of Africa’s largest country at the end of a six-year transition period.

John Garang, leader of the SPLA, says it is up to his movement and the planned northern transitional government to create the conditions for a “unity” vote. But while Commander Garang publicly supports a unified Sudan, many southern Sudanese think the south should separate immediately and he will be tested just keeping the south, where southern factions have often fought each other, together.

“The deal is not good and it’s not bad,” Mr Deng, 50, said. “Six years is too long” for the referendum.

He later says he would rather the SPLA was still fighting. And it is not just the older generation who will find it hard to live with their northern neighbours. Bahr al-Ghazal’s young have also witnessed the violence and suffered its repercussions.

Mary Adel, 12, sits in a mud-hut primary school classroom that has no desks, chairs or electricity and few books – a common feature in a region that has seen virtually no development in decades.

Her father and brother are SPLA members, her uncle was killed during fighting and Arab raiders abducted her sister. She has seen her fellow southerners killed and their livestock looted. “I’ve been told Arabs are not good people,” she said.

The task of changing the mindset of a generation born into war, not to mention that of their elders, will be one of the biggest challenges facing the peace process.

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