Old ills could dash a new southern Sudan's hopes

The future of southern Sudan lies somewhere between the dreams of a man in striped pajamas and a woman dying of a snakebite in a thatched hut.

Twelve miles separate Clement Samuel and Pita Wani, but the space between their lives is much wider. Samuel is a county commissioner, a loquacious politician seeking tribal peace upon which to build a new country. Wani is curled up in her village, a cobra gash on her ankle. She has no doctor; no ambulance is coming. Hers is the old world tugging at Samuel's modern-day ambitions.

"I just want to build the confidence of the people," said Samuel, holding court in his pajamas on a bed near a lake. "We need electricity and sewage. We need to build. The majority of people here are yearning for independence."

That is expected to happen in January, when the mostly Christian and animist south votes in a referendum on whether to secede from the mainly Islamic north. The fledgling country would instantly become one of the world's poorest, lacking roads, schools, hospitals and government institutions to improve the lives of Wani's family and millions of others scattered across hills and grasslands.

But the more pressing concern is preventing generations-old tribal animosities, which left more than 2,000 people dead over the last year, from sparking a wider conflict that could spoil independence and seep into neighboring nations. Much of the bloodshed stems from cattle raids.

The northern-led national government of President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir has been accused of exploiting tensions by funneling guns to rival tribes in the semiautonomous south. With secession poised to rob the north of the bulk of the country's oil reserves, there are also fears that Bashir's army will instigate a new conflict just five years after a civil war with the south ended with 2 million dead.

The U.S. worries that an increasing flow of weapons could further upset countries in the terrorist-laden Horn of Africa. The south's government, controlled by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement and its army, known as the SPLA, is trying to disarm clans. That program is having limited success in Samuel's Terekeka region, home to the Bari, Mundari and Dinka tribes.

A weapons smuggler who gave his name only as James said guns collected by the SPLA's underpaid soldiers are often sold to dealers who resell them to tribesmen. Many of those arms, including machine guns, are hidden in sorghum bags brought in from Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

These caches give muscle to cattle raids. Cattle are the currency of the land; a man's wealth is measured not in cash but by the size of his herd. This has led to a cycle of attacks and reprisals that has deepened suspicions between tribes and left the issue of divvying grazing lands key to a peaceful independence.

"We need reconciliation," said Samuel, a Mundari. "Between January and February, I had our tribesmen return 4,000 cattle to the Bari tribe. It was a gesture of goodwill. I have not done that yet with the Dinka. But I tell you, the Mundari handed over all their weapons. There are no guns in this county today."

In late 2009, Mundari clansmen armed with Kalashnikovs killed at least 10 Dinka in a raid. The Dinka, one of two tribes dominating the SPLM, responded by setting fire to a Mundari village and chasing families across a landscape of water holes and thicket. There have also been allegations of SPLM soldiers raping Mundari women.

Such an atmosphere keeps Bgusha Kayok close to his cattle as they graze over a 20-mile stretch along a clay-colored road beneath low rolling rain clouds.

"I can't cross that road or I'll fall into a trap and be shot," said Kayok, a Mundari, lifting his spear and pointing. "I have only this as a weapon. It's a dangerous time. The Dinka come with guns and take our cattle. My tribesmen and I had guns, but the government is taking them away because when the tribesmen get drunk they sometimes shoot one another."

Kayok drove his herd toward the village where Pita Wani lay in a dark hut with rags wrapped around her snakebite. The men and women here have three Vs etched into their foreheads, the mark of the Mundari. The village chief, Polino Dogale, said 101 of his tribe's cattle were stolen by armed marauders in October.

"I'm suspicious of who they might have been. It could be the Dinka or maybe southern soldiers," he said. "The SPLA troops came and took all our weapons, but they came back the next day and accused us of hiding more guns. My son argued with them. He was determined to protect our land. The soldiers shot my son and killed him. That was in December."

The chief, a willowy man, peeked into Wani's hut. He shook his head. Other tribesman gathered. They said she was collecting firewood when a cobra struck; they couldn't suck out all the poison and the wound was infected. There was no clinic, and the tribe didn't have money for a car or a bus to drive her to a doctor in the city. The chief said she would die in coming days. Wani listened.

"We have no hospitals, no schools," the chief said. "Our children are dying of malaria and other diseases. We need education so we can think for ourselves and have open minds. I'm illiterate. My children are illiterate. How can we ever improve ourselves?"

Miles away, past tin-roofed shops on a roadside, a light breeze riffled Samuel's pajamas. He said that for years the Mundari have been misunderstood, relegated to a warrior status that has kept them from political power. The tribe's enemies, he said, want to keep "us down, paint us as savages and primitive."

That will change, he said, now that he's county commissioner.

While he spoke of arranging a peace conference with neighboring tribes, men and women balancing jugs of water on their heads walked toward a broken-down electric plant. The county has no sewage, no paved roads, either. Samuel can see all that his land lacks through the tinted windows of his SUV.

But when asked what he would build first, he said, "A new home for the country commissioner, new offices for the commissioner and a new guesthouse so visitors will have to place to stay when they come to our county."


Special correspondent Alsanosi Ahmed in Sudan contributed to this report.

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