I sat in my hotel room in Vienna, amazed. There on the TV, on the German and English networks, was General Bashir of Sudan — a man indicted for war crimes in Darfur, an engineer of genocide — standing in the capital of a new country, one formed by splitting Sudan in two. That new country is South Sudan, whose people voted all but unanimously to split from the north, pursuant to a peace deal brokered by President Bush early in his adminstration.
In 1989, the National Islamic Front, driven by the ferociously racist and anti-Christian ideology of radical Islam, seized power in a military coup led by General Bashir. The NIF proceeded to unleash a whirlwind of hatred against their fellow citizens in the south. Millions — note, millions — died, and this was long before the atrocities in Darfur. The war against the innocent, defended by the SPLM army, raged until the Bush-led peace deal in 2003.
So to see General Bashir in the capital of the new Sudan as part of the celebration was, well, both moving and puzzling.
Certainly the birth of South Sudan is the occasion for genuine celebration. The southerners, though still at risk from a revived war at the hands of the notoriously duplicitous Bashir, are free, free at long last.
But there is a sour taste along with the champagne. What about the Nuba? And what fate for the forgotten southerners of Abyei, on the disputed border between north and south?
Around the year 2000, along with some colleagues and a Catholic Sudanese bishop, I founded an organization whose purpose was to respond to the desperate plight of these Sudanese, to bring aid to them in-country, and to bring political assistance by working the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. This was at the height of the north’s campaign against them, when they literally faced annihilation.
The proud warrior Dinka of Abyei were subjected to ruthless slave raids by northern tribesmen, armed by Bashir’s regime. The slavers killed the men, repeatedly gang-raped the women, and abducted the women and children for a life of slavery, during which their achilles tendons were deliberately cut and they were treated much worse than the animals they were forced to herd. It is no surprise that the northerners’ term for the black Dinka is “fire-wood,” i.e., the Dinka are not seen as human beings. That is brutal and ugly, and it led to devastating consequences for the Dinka. My colleagues documented this in extensive interviews with escaped slaves and survivors of the raids on Dinka villages, interviews compiled in a film and deposited in various human-rights archives.
But to a certain extent, the hatred of Bashir and his cronies is even more intense when it comes to the Nuba.
The Nuba have one of the most ancient cultures in Africa, as many anthropological studies and documentaries attest. They are ethnically African, and religiously, they are Christian, Muslim, and Animist. As they lived peacefully in this diversity, they drew the particular ire of the NIF, a regime committed to a unitary vision of Sudan, one of Arab cultural identity and (extreme fundamentalist) Muslim religion.
I have been to the Nuba Mountains. I saw the NIF’s planes bomb defenseless civilians, including schools and churches, killing and maiming children and others. I have seen them bomb make-shift landing strips, landing strips used only by planes bringing supplies to a beleagured people, people beleagured because the NIF denied relief flights.
And then, in the 2003 peace deal, there was hope. But among the Nuba and Dinka and other Sudanese, there was also suspicion. Would Bashir abide by the terms of the peace deal and allow freedom for Abyei and the Nuba Mountains?
It is now clear Bashir and the regime he represents will not.
As the south moved toward independence, Bashir and the NIF initiated — and then increased — brutal attacks on civilians in both areas. Their geographical location makes them vulnerable — Abyei on the north/south border and the Nuba Mountains in the north, through a cruel twist of fate (to “permit” them to secede would fracture the geographical unity of the north).
Thus, the wonderful, glorious celebrations of July 9 as independence day for South Sudan have no resonance in, or scarcely any meaning for, the Nuba of the mountains and the Dinka of Abyei. They face the same merciless enemy, who seemingly thinks independence for South Sudan will blind the world to the continuing, escalating atrocities in Abyei and the mountains (and in some other places as well).
Don’t let it happen. Already, on July 9, Bashir called upon President Obama to lift sanctions. He must not do it. The world must keep relentless pressure on Bashir and his gang to end the brutality against the Nuba and the Dinka of Abyei. Otherwise, I am certain the genocide begun in 1989 will be pursued to its ruthless end.
— William L. Saunders Jr. is a human rights attorney in Washington, D.C. The views expressed are his own.