National Catholic Register

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Mostly Christian Southern Sudanese Continue to Feel Effects of Civil War

BY Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

July 20-26, 2003 Issue | Posted 7/20/03 at 1:00 PM

 

KHARTOUM, Sudan — Even as President Bush prepared to visit nearby Uganda on July 11, there were indications the Islamic government of Sudan just north of there was preparing for more possible military action against Sudanese freedom fighters.

Sudan watcher Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., reported July 7 that the National Islamic Front government has been preparing military resupply efforts in a southern garrison town in violation of cease-fire agreements.

President Bush and the U.N. Commission on Human Rights have made assurances that a peace process is on track. Yet the people of Sudan seem to be no better off than they have been during a civil war that has dragged on since 1982.

President Bush did not make Sudan part of his five-nation African tour in early July.

The country's civil war has been primarily between the Arab Muslims in the north and black Africans in the south, where a significant part of the population is Christian.

At times, there has been inter-tribal fighting in the South, and some Southern tribes have even sided with the government against the Sudan People's Liberation Army, the main rebel group.

However, the Africans have borne the brunt of the war. War and famine have killed more than 2 million people and displaced in excess of 4 million — the vast majority being Southerners.

U.S., U.N. and Sudan

Last year, the U.S. Congress passed the Sudan Peace Act, which requires the president and secretary of state to make six-month reports to Congress on the progress of peace negotiations in the northeast African country.

If the president certifies that all parties are negotiating in good faith, then negotiations and financial support for them will go forward. If the opposite determination is made, the president has authority to sanction the offending party.

The first report, made in late April, found that the two main parties, the government of Sudan and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement and its army, have been negotiating in good faith. This finding came despite the fact that there were numerous cease-fire violations, most of which, observers say, came from government forces.

Since the April report, news reports indicate that not only has the government carried out aggression against civilians in the South, but it has also stepped up oppression in the North, including repression of media and those who oppose the government.

In early April, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which was chaired by Libya, narrowly voted to remove Sudan from a list of countries that have a “special rapporteur,” an individual who gives information to the United Nations on human-rights abuses. Sudan was also part of the commission but did not abstain from the vote. Many people, including Sudan's Catholic bishops, opposed this move since it would essentially give a free hand to the Islamic government to increase oppression.

According to Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House and a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the United States was ready to acquiesce and allow the vote to go forward without raising opposition to it. However, she said, a member of the delegation started working at the last minute and got the European nations to oppose such a move. It was not enough, though, and the African countries voted as a bloc on the issue.

The result is there is no longer a U.N. observer to independently verify reports of human-rightsabuses, something Sudan advocates say is necessary in order to keep international pressure on the government.

That pressure is clearly needed, but some critics say it's not coming sufficiently from the United States. These critics cite two recent attacks as proof. A midnight attack of 10 villages on May 22 by Sudanese government forces killed 59 people. And 13 months earlier, government troops in the same area of Sudan massacred 3,000 people.

The larger massacre was supposed to have been investigated by the U.S. State Department, but Dennis Bennett of the evangelical relief group Servants Heart, who reported both attacks, claims the investigation didn't happen soon enough, and Khartoum felt free to do it again — even when the ceasefire was in place.

State of Negotiations

Gen. Omar el-Bashir, president of Sudan, and John Garang, head of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement and its army, met in April for the first time in 20 years and stated that a peace agreement should be reached by the end of June. Talks resumed July 6 and were expected to last a week. More negotiations about permanent security were scheduled to take place later.

Additionally, issues on the status of Khartoum, the capital, are beginning to crop up. The peace agreement calls for the South to remain part of the country for six years, but it would not be under Islamic Shariah law (the religiously based law of Islam) as is the rest of the country. After six years, a vote would be taken on self-determination for the people of the South.

But Garang has recently asked for Khartoum to be given a secular status during that time and not to be under Shariah law, since it is the capital of a diverse nation. Bashir is opposing the move, saying Shariah is the law of the land and should be especially so in Khartoum. Bashir has also called for a renewed jihad in the South.

These events are happening at the same time that the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative in northern Uganda is claiming Sudan is again providing arms and equipment to the Lord's Resistance Army in northern Uganda.

The Lord's Resistance Ar Army is rebelling against the Ugandan government and has become a terrorist group, according to the United States. It has assisted the Sudanese government against the people of the South along with fighting its own war in Uganda.

Sudan denies the claim, but news reports cite several witnesses who have seen Lord's Resistance Army guerillas in the area with new uniforms and weaponry.

Additionally, the Lord's Resistance Army is targeting Catholic clergy and nuns. Father Carlos Rodriguez, a spokesman for the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, told Reuters news agency that the head of the Lord's Resistance Army, Joseph Kony, ordered his commanders to kill Catholic priests and nuns.

“We have no reason to doubt the message was authentic,” Father Rodriguez said. “In the last five weeks [the Lord's Resistance Army] has burned, bombed and desecrated churches on nine occasions.”

Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz is based in Altura, Minnesota.