Southerners in northern Sudan going home despite fears of new violence

They carry all they own from desert slums and stack it near big trucks. They’re packing to go home to southern Sudan, even those who have never been there but have heard stories of tribal chiefs and cattle herds roaming the grasslands.

Boys haul bed frames; women bundle blankets. Rare trinkets of a poor man’s wealth — a TV, a fan — shine in the dust. But most families claim much less: bags of grain, tin pots and memories that have kept a lost place alive.

“Our children were born in north Sudan, but their hearts are southern,” said Francis Jackson, a slender tribesman holding a folder crammed with the names of those preparing to leave. “The south is much better. We have no freedom here.”

The 1.5 million southerners living in the north are a legacy of decades of civil war that ended in 2005 with a peace treaty that promised the south a vote on independence. The semiautonomous south is dominated by Christians and animists, and the mostly Muslim north is the base of the national government led by President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir.

Many southerners who fled the war-torn region never felt welcome in the north, but they stayed rather than return to an unpredictable land of burned villages and mass graves. That is changing in an exodus before a Jan. 9 independence referendum expected to split the country and give rise to a new nation on the precarious map of northeast Africa.


There is persistent fear that if voters choose secession, the north will seek retribution against the south, which accounts for about 80% of the oil output in a country riven by militias, racism and tribal bloodshed.

Bashir said this month that the north would change its “constitution and that at the time there will be no time to speak of diversity, culture and ethnicity. Sharia and Islam will be the main source of the constitution.”

A senior member of Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party warned that southerners who remained in the north would be stripped of citizenship and denied healthcare. A southern tribal chief responded by threatening to block the flow of the Nile before it reaches the northern capital of Khartoum.

The question remains whether Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity in western Sudan’s Darfur region, will allow the south to secede peacefully. The United Nations estimates that at least 50,000 people have left the north to return home to vote. The southern population is estimated as high as 9.7 million, out of a nationwide total of about 41 million.

Not all southerners are heading back; many have reinvented themselves in the north and learned to cope with the racist behavior of some lighter-skinned northerners toward darker-skinned southerners. But daily trucks loaded with belongings and buses jammed with women and children trundle past crescents and mosques and enter a land of crosses and steeples.

The divide between north and south in Africa’s largest country can be traced along the mud-brick alleys of a desert that has grown into a clutter of cooking fires and displaced families on the outskirts of Khartoum. Southerners can see the city’s new skyscrapers, yet thousands haven’t graduated from high school and thousands more don’t have jobs.

Those old enough to remember the menacing hum of helicopter gunships and the bodies piled in jungles during the civil war walk this outpost in anger. Exile is their mirror to all that was taken in a war that claimed about 2 million lives in the 21 years before the peace treaty. They pray in makeshift churches, listening to rattling generators, men fixing cars and women stirring pots. Prospects aren’t much better in the poverty-stricken south, but at least, they say, they’ll find refuge in families and tribes.

“I was born in the north and I grew up here,” Wol Akehy said. “We don’t have a house, faucet or electricity. The northern government says, ‘Development, development,’ but we have nothing. They look at me in a strange way as if I’m not human because of my dark skin. I have no good memories to take with me.”

Bernaba James has been in Khartoum for 16 years. He doesn’t know how old he is. He told a stranger to look into his face and, maybe, guess. James thinks he was 11 when fighting ripped through his village and separated him from his father. His uncle brought him north, but the old man, like many who fled the war, died before he could return home.

“An illness killed him. I’m not sure what kind. I’ve stayed in this place because I didn’t have the money or the power to go back,” said James, leaning on a wall at a baby-feeding center run by the St. Vincent de Paul Society. “But now there will be a new southern Sudan and I will have a chance.”

Garang Deng arrived in Khartoum after his cousins were killed. He never finished high school and doesn’t like the way newspapers here intimate that northerners are superior. His marriage was arranged years ago to a girl in his tribe, but it can’t be consummated until Deng pays a dowry of cattle. He can’t do that until he returns to the south.

“Patience is a good thing,” he said. “I’ve been homesick for 18 years. Even though you escape your land, it never leaves you. Look around. This was all nothing when we came and we built this little city. We’ll have to rebuild our lives in the south the same way.”

The chiefs from southern Sudan kept their tribes together in these slums over the years. Dressed in colorful shirts and pressed trousers, they seemed diminished totems far from their ancestral lands. They made lists of who would go south: a newborn, a 95-year-old man, a motherless son. Some would be given plane tickets; most would take a bus.

The peace treaty ended the war but not the ill will. The chiefs don’t trust the north’s Islamic ways, which, among other things, condemns drinking beer and dancing. The north is Arab and the south is African, and that is why, the chiefs said, the caravans were loaded, despite the possibility of more bloodshed.

“My stuff’s on the truck,” said one man, who wandered north as a child in 1988 after militiamen on horseback kidnapped his brothers.

He thought they were dead. But he found them years ago when he went back south to visit. They had escaped from their captors and were herding cattle on tribal grasslands.

Special correspondent Alsanosi Ahmed in Khartoum contributed to this report.