As the people of southern Sudan prepare to vote in a referendum that may see them secede from the North, filmmaker Jamie Doran looks at the history of a troubled country.
It was the giant of Africa: a nation which once represented the greatest hope for peaceful coexistence between Arab and African, Muslim and Christian. That hope is all but gone. The promise of Sudan was just an illusion.
It is already a fractured country and, in the longer term, this is unlikely to be an isolated matter of north and south breaking apart following the referendum on southern secession. Separatist movements in regions such as Darfur and the Nuba Mountains are watching with more than curiosity. And it is not just Sudan: in other African and Arab countries independence factions are eyeing developments with a view to making their move either through the ballot box or the gun.
In the run-up to the referendum, I travelled to Sudan to make the film. I have been fortunate enough in my life to have visited most of the world's countries and yet, this would be the first time I had set foot in Africa's largest.
To say that the northern Sudanese people are enormously friendly may be clichéd, but it is also very true. Soon after our arrival, the car we had hired in Khartoum broke down and we quickly found ourselves surrounded by young men, all of them trying to help discover and rectify the fault. No-one was looking for money; it simply came naturally to them to help out and was just one example of many we would discover in the following weeks.
Unfortunately though, I also discovered self-delusion: in the coffee shops, restaurants and streets, the vast majority of people I spoke with wanted desperately to believe that it was not too late and that, surely, the South will never leave the union. It will.
Sudan's lost unity
In the South I found determination and certainty: that independence is the only goal and that they will face up to any other problems once that goal is achieved. This naivety is an ironic repetition of events in 1956, when Sudan gained independence from the British/Egyptian administration. Then, as now, internal problems and disagreements were set aside until the target was reached.
Almost five decades of conflict followed and, today, the prospect of intra-tribal war in the South, following its own independence, is very real ... but no-one wants to talk about it until the referendum is over.
As always, it is the innocent people who will suffer. Well over two million may have died in the civil wars, but I have little doubt that the self-destruct button humanity has pushed so often in the past will be employed once again.
So who is to blame for Sudan's predicament?
Most northern politicians and historians will tell you it is the British. And they have a strong case. The splitting of the country in 1922, when northerners were not allowed to travel south (over the 10th Parallel) and southerners north (over the 8th), ensured that Muslims were stopped from spreading their faith southwards while the British openly supported the influx of Christian missionaries to the South. This created much of the division that exists today.
The two cultures were never given a proper opportunity to interact, which is a genuine tragedy as they could have learned so much from each other. Most certainly, I met very many individuals from both sides of the soon-to-be border who could have coexisted with ease. I think here of the Tabibi brothers in Omdurman, Aban Raphael in Malakal, villagers in the Nuba Mountains and their counterparts in Bor; all of them good people, wishing only for peace.
But is it really just the British who are to blame? As the youngest son of an Irish nationalist, I am not about to defend the actions of colonialists. But a question must be posed: why, in the 55 years since those colonialists departed, has the Sudanese government failed to invest in the South?
To this day, there are just 50km of paved roads in a country the size of France. Illiteracy amongst women is almost 100 per cent; poverty is rife, healthcare virtually non-existent and starvation a frequent blight.
Add to this the attempts by northern politicians to impose their own interpretation of Sharia Law (the infamous 'September Laws') on southern Christians and another picture emerges. The North imposed its dominance by force and, inevitably, the South rebelled.
'The forgotten tribe'
As the country awaits the outcome of the referendum, I cannot help but think that, whatever the outcome may be, we have not seen the last of conflict. Eighty per cent of the oil is in the South, while the pipeline runs north. There is Darfur, potentially insoluble. And there is Abyei, situated right on the proposed border, inhabited by the southern Dinka Ngok tribe but used by the northern nomadic Misseriya tribe on a seasonal basis for grazing their cattle herds.
Frequently, the Dinka have come under attack from Misseriya militias, resulting in massacres and destruction. But the Misseriya see themselves as the forgotten tribe, and they have a case.
Under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which brought civil war to an end, two referenda were agreed: one for southern secession or unity and the other to give Abyei the opportunity to choose to be part of the North or the South.
There is simply no question that the Dinka Ngok would vote for the South but, under the terms of the CPA, the Misseriya were not given the vote and feel massively aggrieved. They fear that Abyei, as part of the new south, would attempt to stop them crossing the border, denying them the grazing rights they have enjoyed for centuries. As the Misseriya chief, Babu Nimir, told me:
"If Dinka Ngok say that they will not permit the Misseriya to reach the waters, I tell you, we will fight them. We will fight them. We will fight them. And we will go through even beyond Abyei to drink water and to take pasture."
The Abyei referendum has now been effectively abandoned, leaving a dangerous state of limbo which could ignite at any time.
Sudan is already a broken land and it is difficult to envisage any form of lasting peace in the near or even distant future. I can only hope, on behalf of the many good people it was my privilege to meet, that I am wrong.
Source: Al Jazeera