If a bomb drops in Sudan and no one hears, did it make a sound?
On November 15th, a friend of mine in South Sudan sent me a message that on the previous day, bombs had been dropped on several sites near him, one wounding a United Nations observer. I searched the US news websites and none of them mentioned the bombing. Three days later, another acquaintance told me that bombs were dropped near their orphanage resulting in unknown casualties. The orphanage was undamaged and the children were safe. Several African papers ran the story which was picked up even by Aljazeera, but as I searched for any US or western reports of the bombing again I found nothing In a country where the temporarily suppressed civil war has lasted longer than the average life expectancy of its inhabitants, where upwards of two and a half million people have been killed and millions more displaced into abject poverty, and where life in the best of times hangs by the slimmest of threads, war seems to be so much a part of normal life that it is no longer newsworthy.
On January 9, 2010 the most important event in Sudan’s history is scheduled to take place. On that day, in keeping with the Comprehensive Peace Accord forced upon the central government by the previous US president, the people of South Sudan will vote on whether they stay a part of a greater Sudan or they will secede from the union. By all accounts, the South will vote to secede. By the majority of accounts, the mostly Muslim central government will then resume its war upon the largely defenseless people of South Sudan. Last week’s bombings appear to be a prelude to this war.
Before its partition, the modern borders of Sudan make it, by area, the largest country in Africa. Northern Sudan, which includes the states of Darfur, has come under increasing Muslim influence while states in the southern regions have resisted such changes. The regime in Khartoum is recognized by the United Nations, the African Union, and the United States as the only legitimate government. It is also led by the only sitting head of state to be indicted by the World Court for crimes against humanity and to have an outstanding arrest warrant still in effect. Since obtaining independence in 1956 the northern central government and rebel forces in the South have maintained separate legislative bodies, armed forces, cultural identities, and economies. Sudan, therefore, has functioned in effect as two separate nation-states whose interactions have been characterized primarily by conflict and not cooperation for the good of its citizens. The result is the longest running civil war in modern times.
South Sudan experiences crippling conflicts that overlap and perpetuate one another. Family feuds erupt into violence often years after the initiating events. Clan wars expand to involve tribes. Tribal wars expand to involve government forces. Multiple rebellions trigger disproportionate retaliation from the central government that escalates to genocidal levels. International intervention is hampered by complex loyalties and agendas that treat human life as a commodity to be bartered. The discovery of oil in South Sudan may not be the blessing that many hope as it raises the stakes in a global economy where human life, especially life so different from our own, appears cheap and expendable. China already develops, exports, and protects the oil interest while providing weapons to the central government which are in turn used exclusively against its own people.
Brutality, mass rape, slavery, and genocide fill the history of this region where traditional African societies interface across a harsh landscape with Muslim/Arab societies. The region also lacks a history of successful peacemaking devoid of external involvement. Often the struggle for survival has forced ethnicity onto people who are not well served by modern political or cultural boundaries. Theses identities can turn with disturbing rapidity to a type of ethnic-bound loyalty which expresses itself in the recurrent retaliatory massacres, Darfur’s ongoing genocide, and the wholesale rape and enslavement of women and children—often with senseless violence and disregard for human life so horrible that the senses numb. Sudan is truly a country of extremes within extremes, but inhabiting these extremes are a highly marginalized people who deserve recognition and a voice. They are not, as I have heard them described, a “primitive people”, in any way except that they lack most modern technologies. They possess intricate relationships, a rich and complex culture, history, and sophisticated philosophies—in many ways more so than those found in Western urban cultures. In a word, they are humans whose similarities with the rest of us far outweigh their differences and whose worth is equal to our own. I am blessed to have known them during my time with them as both a physician and an anthropologist. I would plead with Western powers, including our president, to commit whatever resources are required to make known to Khartoum that we will not sit idly by as another generation of Sudanese are again ravaged by their own government and by neglect, by ours as well. If AP, Reuters News, CNN, and all of the major US papers and networks did not hear the sounds of bombs dropping it was only because they (we) did not listen.