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Resolving Sudan

Next week, Buffalo's Sudanese population hosts a conference to raise awareness and support to end the conflict in Sudan

Fifty-five years of civil war in Sudan has cost more than two million civilian lives and displaced many millions more.

The country has been split into warring factions since the mid-1950s when the British left Sudan and tensions between the North and South came to a head over race, religion, government, and natural resources.

The UN says that it can’t categorize the wanton, government-sponsored killings in southern Sudan to be genocide—though President George W. Bush called the humanitarian crisis in Darfur a genocide in 2005—because the causes of death can’t be determined as war crimes or dehydration and starvation. Whatever the causes, suffering is all that many Sudanese have known.

Refugees from the violence in Sudan have lived in Buffalo for years now. Next week, at a conference to be held at the Holiday Inn in downtown Buffalo, many will come forward to tell their stories and to talk about a referendum scheduled for January 9, 2011, when southern Sudanese will vote on whether Sudan should remain unified or be divided into two contries, North and South.

“Southern Sudanese citizens in Buffalo are free…in talking, eating, sleeping, drinking, and even their health,” says Akec Aguer, who has lived in the United States for seven years. “All of these things we don’t have in southern Sudan and we need these freedoms like we have in Buffalo.”

The upcoming referendum is a result of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the North and South that granted the southern Sudanese a six-year period of autonomous government and self-determination. At the end of the interim period the CPA outlined a vote given only to southern Sudanese that would allow them to choose whether they wish to secede or stay unified with the North.

The vote will not be easy, but to Aguer and his his fellow conference organizers, it is their only chance to win the freedoms they dream of.

“It will be a challenge for the southern Sudanese community in the US to organize themselves,” says Dominic Diing, who came to the US nine years ago. “First we have to find a way to help them go for voting station sign up. Funding that we need from the public can make a huge difference, not only here but in southern Sudan. Over 80 percent of southern Sudan is illiterate. We have to make sure that we are well organized here in America so we can mentor and educate those in south Sudan.”

Diing estimates that about 47,000 southern Sudanese now live in the US. To organize that number of people and to educate those still in Sudan is costly. Next week’s conference, hosted by Aid and Care, Inc. at the Holiday Inn at 620 Delaware Avenue, kick off on Thursday, June 24 at 6:30pm. The conference will educate guests on what the vote means to the southern Sudanese and the consequences of unity and separation. There will be keynote speakers as well as food and entertainment. Tickets are $40 in advance or $45 at the door. The reservation date is set for Sunday, June 20.

“We have two goals for this event,” Diing says. “The first is to inform New Yorkers and southern Sudanese in the US about how January 9 is the most important day in our lives, because that is the day we will make our decision of what is good for us. We need support because working for your rights isn’t easy. The second is about the contribution. Anything people contribute will help make that day happen.”

Challenges to overcome

There are many obstacles that stand in the way of the southern Sudanese referendum. One of the most challenging is that 58 percent of the southern Sudanese population must register in order for the vote to take place. If more than 58 percent do manage to register, then 51 percent or more must vote for one option or the other, secession or unity.

“Over 90 percent of southern Sudanese favor separation because the government failed to honor the CPA, but it is not our job to say what to vote for,” Diing says. “It is our job to educate on the two choices they have.”

Education and registration are made difficult by southern Sudan’s 80 percent illiteracy rate. Making sure that each individual is at the right place and votes for the option they want will be harder still.

“Some people don’t know how to find their name at the station that they must vote at because they don’t know how to read,” says Manon JokAleu, a US resident for 10 years. “So we need to send more volunteers back home to help the people who don’t know what it means for them to vote and become an independent state or a central state under unity.”

“In the last election a lot of people were very confused about how to vote,” Diing says. “They were voting by pictures and could have been voting for the wrong candidate because they didn’t know how to read the names.”

Registration to vote will be open to southern Sudanese across the globe. Buffalo’s southern Sudanese are unsure as to how this will work out, but fear it may involve complex and timely transportation.

“According to referendum law we need to be 20,000 strong to vote in New York State,” Diing says. “So we would need southern Sudanese from other states to come and register in New York. So we would need transportation to get Sudanese to the voting station, which means we may need to arrange it from different states. For example, if we are less than 20,000, the referendum law may say that Omaha, Nebraska is the voting station for the US. That is going to be difficult because I, and many others, would have to leave many things behind.”

JokAleu hopes that each US state will be considered its voting district, with a voting station in each state capital.

Southern Sudanese who live outside Sudan cannot register to vote until they’ve obtained national IDs to prove their citizenship.

After these challenges are met ,the southern Sudanese face the issue of oppression and intimidation from the North, JokAleu says.

“There was cheating in the last election [in 1996],” he says. “We worry about manipulation because we cannot guarantee what will happen when southern Sudanese vote in the North. [The government’s] authority may intimidate the people to vote in a way they don’t want to.

“The last election was an opportunity to transform the country to a democratic system, but what happened in the last election? The National Congress Party [NCP, the ruling northern Sudanese faction] is still controlling the government and the system. But how can I support a nation [in which] I see myself as a second-class citizen?”

The Refugee Project

On June 25, Massacusetts Avenue Project (271 Grant Street) hosts a tribute to World Refugee Day presented by the advanced acting class at the Nichols School. The production is essentially a documentary: Students of theater teacher Kristin Tripp Kelley collected narratives from refugees from Sudan, Burma, Iraq, and Congo, and deliver those narratives faithfully, with little stagecraft, no costumes, no makeup, offering a window into the lives and stories of these growing populations. Portraits of the interviewees are projected during the performance.

The Refugee Project: Unheard Stories from a Hidden Population takes place on Saturday, June 25, at 5pm, and is free and open to the public.

Six decades of civil war

Sudan achieved independence from British rule in 1956, but war between the North and the South began in 1955. The North, under Arab-Islamic influence, has largely been in control of the Sudanese government since the country achieved independence. The South, heavily influenced by Christian missionaries sent by the British, has long resisted the Arabic culture of the North.

In 1989 the government of Sudan underwent radical changes after the disbanding of the National Assembly that had been elected three years prior. A military junta led by General Omar Hassan al-Bashir took power and instituted Islamic law first in the North and eventually in the South, too.

“The government that took over was not secular and they are still running the country,” JokAleu says.

Elections held in March 1996 yielded sweeping victories for Bashir, but southern Sudanese believe those election to be invalid because voting did not take place in many districts in the South as a result of conflict between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement of the South (SPLA) and the NCP.

“None of the southern Sudanese voted in 1996 because of the civil war and their lack of a passport,” JokAleu explains. “Nobody in the South had a passport.”

The government has tried to spread Islamic teachings throughout the South, but many southern Sudanese wish for a secular state, according to Aguer and JokAleu.

“When we go back historically and look through the name Sudan, it means the black people,” Aguer says. “Sudan is ours. We accepted Arabic peoples to come and stay because they had nowhere to go, but we should have the right to tell them that they have to go.”

Making themselves heard

Since the coup d’etat, southern Sudanese have hoped and fought for a chance to express what they believe to be best for them. This referendum represents that chance, JokAleu says.

“When you talk about self-determination, you are talking about the people,” he says. “You are talking about democracy and freedom of speech. The freedom to express and say what you want without anyone telling you what to say. This referendum is for the people, not for the political party. The political party has its own agenda, but the people who suffer believe that suffering will end if they have their own country or unity the Sudan.”

“The referendum represents a choice for Southern Sudanese for the first time,” Diing says. “We do not want to tell people to say yes or no [at the conference], we want to help people understand what each choice means.”

“Our land should be free to have opportunity and Buffalo understands that,” JokAleu says. “Buffalo is old. It reminds us of a time of slavery, when people would stop here in order to cross [the river] to Canada and have a free life. Buffalo, within this history, will not let the people of the Sudan down. They will not let them be under oppression and control of Islamic ideology.”

“We are telling people to let freedom ring for southern Sudanese on January 9, 2011, and for freedom to ring we need their support,” Diing says. “We need a free state. So if Americans love freedom than they must believe it is time for us to have the same thing. This is opening that door.”

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