The Nile River links the people of North and South Sudan as it has done for thousands of years [Al Jazeera]
This is a love letter to Sudan.
To the 2.5 million Sudanese from north and south who died in its civil wars.
To the cruise ships with names like Nimule, El Geneina, Wadi Halfa and Port Sudan to denote the four corners of the country. They once carried honeymooners down the Nile to the South. Now they lie rusting along its banks - washed up and broken like the dream of a united Sudan.
To people like Deng Kon Deng, a southerner who, like thousands of others travelled north as a young man in 1972 during the nation’s brief peace, believing he would be part of a great country. Today, he returns south on a cargo ship, a disillusioned old man carrying everything he owns.
During various moments in history, the Sudanese had an expansive and hopeful vision of their country - one that could include disparate races and tribes, climates and ways of life, all linked by the world’s mightiest river. It was a microcosm of Africa: Sahara and rainforest, Arab and African, and everyone in between.
The scale of that noble vision is equalled only by the magnitude of its tragic and bloody failure.
Now after 37 years of civil war, the country is likely to split following the 9 January referendum on southern independence.
"They ask us to talk. What shall we say?" says Deng Kon Deng on the deck of a cargo ship full of southerners headed south, "we are hungry and we are here in our own country."
Deng sits alone staring for hours down the Nile, looking for something to soothe his soul. He is headed for his tribal birthplace of Bor in southern Sudan. However, this is no homecoming, for Deng it is a journey of disappointment, filled with questions about what happened both to his life and his country.
|Deng says he's given up on the North and is returning to his homeland [Al Jazeera]
"You are in your own country, on your soil and you are totally uncomfortable. What does that mean?" he asks.
Despite living and working in Khartoum for 35 years, Deng lived in a ghetto for southerners called "They Forced Us Here." His Arabic is broken - the tell-tale sign that he failed to integrate into the mainstream of northern society.
"The police in Khartoum go inside our homes and smell us and ask have you been drinking? And maybe you haven’t been. Maybe you don’t even drink alcohol. Sometimes they lash you with a whip. Can you really say people are equal when things like that are happening? Your northern brother gives you something to eat because you are hungry. But he has something much better that he is eating all alone by himself. How can we be brothers then?"
A ripple of sad laughter crosses Deng’s face. "I’d rather eat the grass in my own land." With southern Sudan on the eve of its own independence, Deng and thousands of other southerners see no point in remaining in the north and are making the journey home.
Galwak Deng is another Southern returnee who lived and worked for decades in the north - only in his case, as a cabinet minister, a governor and a close, personal friend of President Omar al-Bashir dating back to their military service together.
"We have been living together 50 years. And yet we were unable to believe and trust each other or exchange," says Galwak as he watches ships glide down the Nile from his new home in the southern port town of Malakal.
When Galwak talks about Sudan’s President his eyes get a faraway look, "Bashir is my brother who I could never fight, because he’s a lovely friend until the end of the world."
Then a crease slowly appears in his brow.
"But to be frank my family does not know the family of al-Bashir. Now what kind of friendship is that?" asks Galwak. "When you are real friends with someone you know him inside and out. You know his wife, children, parents, and brothers, so that you are loyal to all of them, and they also must know and be loyal to all of you- to be a big family, in the real meaning of family. We have to be family."
Galwak says some northern colleagues treated him as less than human, saying "I take refuge with Allah from hated Satan" when they saw him coming.
"Some of us southerners have been living in the north for 30 or 40 years. But no matter how long you live there you just stay as a foreigner, you stay as someone who is not a Sudanese because northerners see us as different. And that is the reason the south is not developed," says Galwak pointing to barefoot travellers splashing through mud beside the port.
"It is because they look to us as different people altogether."
In Khartoum, independence day has brought northerners face to face with the impending end of a united Sudan, and deep sadness pervades.
|In Sudan Arabs are black and blacks are Arabized. The fact is that the Sudanese are related [Al Jazeera]
"Northerners are not just sad right now, they are crying," says Hassan Ibrahim, a journalist and filmmaker from the North.
"Because we are being stripped of our identity. The South is part of our identity. Whether we want to admit it or not there is a southerner inside each one of us. All Arabs in Sudan are the result of marriage between Arabs and southerners, all. That is why people are sad."
Northerners have traditionally sought to orient themselves toward the Arab and Islamic worlds - light skin is considered beautiful - and some feel ashamed of the black skin and pagan traditions of their African ancestors. Hassan says it is that shame and self-hatred that led northern Sudanese to marginalise their southern brothers.
"I feel… distressed," stammers Safwat Fanous, a northerner and political observer. An excruciating silence follows from the other end of the telephone.
"We are losing the southerners as a part of Sudan," he says finally. "We are losing the map of our country as we grew up knowing it. I’m trying to hide my agony and sadness by pretending it is a new year. It is independence day. But deep down we are hurt. They never found themselves in the big united Sudan. The African identity of Sudan has always been looked to as inferior by the northerners. The southerners have always been treated in a very bad way, by the state and also to some extent by the people. Now because of the mistakes we made, the price is the independence of the south. And it hurts that this couldn’t be overcome any other way than for the south to go when states like South Africa were able to correct injustices within the framework of their country."
But it was not always this way.
Sudanese history is filled with stories of intermarriage, and great tribal and military alliances between northerners and southerners like the legendary friendship between Abyei’s Dinka Sultan Deng Majok and Arab Sheikh Babo Nimir. Or the Sulaim Arab nomads of Upper Nile whose sheikhs for centuries received their authority exclusively from the Black Shilluk kings.
And there are moments when southerners and northerners believed they could be one.
After the first peace agreement in 1972, southerners began entering northern universities, southern rebels were absorbed into the army, and educated southerners got jobs in the civil service. Northerners and southerners began to interact socially and there was a feeling of national pride and enthusiasm for building unity through diversity. Dance, music and cultural expression from different parts of Sudan were encouraged and people moved away from a narrow concept of Sudan.
After the second peace agreement in 2005, the southern rebel commander John Garang became a national leader and hero - not just to southerners, but to millions of northerners who dreamt of a more inclusive Sudan. Hundreds of thousands turned out in Khartoum to welcome him and catch a glimpse of the mysterious man who broke the northern monopoly on power.
|The late southern leader John Garang was admired by millions of northerners [EPA]
'Because of John Garang’s struggle, many northerners started to feel the other side of the story," says Safwat Fanous. "They started to realize that injustice had taken place. That didn’t mean they wanted to completely Africanize or secularize Sudan. But they welcomed Garang and the peace agreement as a correction of historical injustices - to truly share wealth and power with the southerners."
Now with north and south set to split, a myriad of potential issues could well be realised in the North.
"There will be crackdowns on freedom of expression," says filmmaker Hassan Ibrahim, "because the regime is now worried about its survival. Decreased income because of the loss of southern oil fields means there will be fewer services which means more social unrest and popular upheaval and the government will tighten the screws."
The international community could have done more to pressure North and South to unite and work through their problems.
"No one wanted a strong, powerful Iraq," says Safwat Fanous, "and by the same token, a united Sudan at peace with itself would be a huge powerful country with massive resources of oil, water and fertile land, which no one is interested in having. Whoever is in power in Khartoum would not be serving the interests of the neighbouring countries or the US. And they would rather live with the problems of four or five Sudans, each very weak and fighting against the other, than live with the problem of a very powerful united Sudan."
But in the end, it seems, Sudan’s worst enemy was itself.
"Southerners were unionists for such a long time," says Galwak Deng, a man who was personally loyal to President Omar al Bashir and the northern government to the bitter end.
"But to me it is northerners who rejected us not to be brothers forever." The crease re-appears in Galwak’s brow and his mouth remains open but silent.
"They had no vision how to rule Sudan," he says finally looking out at the Nile. "They were the rulers. They should have had the vision of how to rule us, how to unite us, how to keep us. But they never had that."
|Deng and his family on board a cargo ship heading south [Al Jazeera]
"Look at this water," says southern returnee Deng Kon Deng waving his hand across the river’s gentle, steady waves. "Is it not the water of Sudan?"
With each hour the cargo ship he and his fellow travellers ride edges slowly closer to their homeland.
"And those trees and this grass," he continues, pointing to the lush vegetation on the Nile banks, "They all belong to Sudan. Do they not belong to us? If we had shared equally then Sudan would be the most powerful country. It has so many riches. But no one distributed them fairly. And this belongs to all of us—to all of Sudan. It hurts."
Deng looks down for a long time. In the depths of his pain and confusion lie a still undead belief in a united Sudan.
Finally he looks up.
"Let them divide it," he says suddenly laughing at his own idea, "Divide this river, divide everything. Let each one go his separate way. But you want Sudan to be one? Who is going to guide us to a united Sudan like before? There is no one."