On 9 January, 2011, southern Sudanese are due to vote in a referendum on whether to remain part of Sudan, Africa''s largest country, or to become independent. At the time of the accord, negotiators envisaged five years of work to build national unity and bring development to the south. Instead, southerners say, little has changed to incorporate southerners as full citizens, and a vote to separate is widely predicted. Along with that expectation, fears have risen that the north and south could return to disastrous, full-scale war.
Michael Abramowitz directs the Committee on Conscience, a genocide-prevention program at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is an independent agency of the federal government. It has a presidentially appointed board and sits on the mall in Washington D.C. The Committee conducts public education through exhibitions, public programming and its website, as well as programs directed towards policymakers – all designed to alert the world to cases of genocide or potential genocide. In September and October, Abramowitz visited Southern Sudan – a semi-autonomous region under the terms of a 2005 peace accord between the Arab, largely Muslin north and the African peoples of the oil-rich south, who mostly practice Christianity and traditional religions. A journalist for 24 years, Abramowitz was accompanied by Andrew Natsios, a former U.S. envoy for Sudan and administrator of USAID, the American development agency. Natsios now teaches at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and is writing a book on Sudan. Abramowitz talked to AllAfrica about the trip and his conclusions. Excerpts:
What''s your involvement with Sudan?
We''ve been interested in Sudan for a long time, both because of Darfur and also because of the larger north-south conflict, which took the lives of some two million people between 1983 and 2005 [when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed]. A lot of our attention for a while was really on Darfur, especially when the crisis was most severe in 2003 and 2005. In more recent years, we''ve been trying to have a larger focus. We''ve been very concerned about widespread atrocities targeting specific ethnic groups, both in Darfur and in the south.
You recently returned from Southern Sudan…
One of the reasons we wanted to make this trip is that there has been a lot of concern about the next step in the political process in Sudan. There are worries that the referendum might not come off peacefully and that there could be renewed war.
I also invited Lucian Perkins who is a former colleague of mine from the Washington Post and is a really skilled photographer. One of the purposes of the trip, in addition to meetings with senior government officials and civil society, was to document the stories of ordinary Sudanese people – actually many of them are extraordinary – to bring back and to use to inform and for outreach on the website and other communications.
Talk about your trip.
This was my first trip. It's important to point out that we wanted to go to Khartoum and other areas in the north, but we could not get visas. That was unfortunate, because we wanted to get a clear picture on what was going on. We''d been trying for close to a year to get visas.
However, we got a travel permit for the south. We went to Juba, Malakal in Upper Nile state, and Rumbek in Lakes State. We talked to about 80 to 100 people. We were there for about 12 days and spoke to five or six government ministers, the President of Southern Sudan, Salva Kiir, the Vice President, humanitarian groups, civil society, politicians, and people in the opposition. It's a huge country and it''s impossible to cover the waterfront in the amount of time that we had, but I think we covered a lot of ground.
The people you met – were they a diverse group?
Absolutely. We talked to a range of people - a mix of young people, women, and older people. In Rumbek, we stayed with Women for Women International, an NGO that is working there. They introduced us to a lot of women who had war experiences and hardships in the past 20 or 30 years. It''s very striking that everyone you talk to has some terrible story. The thing that was quite uplifting about the trip was just how much resilience the people of the south have.
Did you get a sense of which way the referendum will go – for unity or separation?
It was clear to us that the overwhelming sentiment in the south is for independence. Focus groups have found that there is no widespread support for unity. There was no one we talked to who indicated an interest in unity. One of the main messages was that the south really did not feel that unity had been made attractive, to use jargon, and they didn''t want to be part of the north any more. Did we do a scientific poll? No. But it was striking how much people desire their own state.
We visited Rebecca Garang, the widow of John Garang [leader of the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement, SPLM, who died in a helicopter crash in bad weather in 2005]. While John Garang was still alive, he had a vision of a unified, democratic Sudan, but that vision is gone in the south. They want their own country, and they want to be free of the north.
Did anyone say to you that they might have felt differently – or at least would have been open to a unified Sudan – had there been a different approach by the northern government to development in the last five years?
We didn''t ask that question directly to people, but I certainly would say there was a strong feeling that the north had not paid attention to the south economically, that the south had been ignored.
There''s one traffic light in the whole of the south! Outside of Juba, there are no paved roads. There''s still a high level of illiteracy, and they have had problems with hunger because of difficulties with the harvest, which was rectified last year.
What''s the reason for the Holocaust Museum's involvement with Sudan?
I want to be careful about the question, "Why is the Holocaust Museum interested in this problem?" I want to be clear, because the Holocaust is sometimes a word that is scary to people.
We''re not saying that in Southern Sudan, there is genocide going on right now. We''re not even saying that it''s the most likely outcome. But we know that there has been a past history of political disputes resulting in conflict, with the government in Khartoum directing violence against civilian groups.
We know at least 200,000 people were killed in Darfur, thousands of villages were burned, and millions were displaced. We know that similar crimes were committed in the south. We know there is a risk of this happening again.
The point we're trying to make is that we need to head off the worst ahead of time. We definitely do not believe that calamity is inevitable, and we''re very hopeful. It''s hard to know what the future will bring. I don''t want to pretend I have a crystal ball, but I want to make the point that the worst is not inevitable. It''s very important to make clear to the international community that while there can be negotiations and discussions, and while both the north and south have differences that need to be reconciled, it''s not tolerable to resolve the disputes with force and direct violence against specific groups of civilians, as has happened in the past.
Part of what you''re saying is that the job now is to make sure that doesn''t happen?
I would say that we''ve been heartened by the increase in focus on this problem from the United Nations, the Obama administration, the international community, and Sudan''s neighbors in Africa. There is a considerable amount of effort being undertaken right now to prevent the worst from happening. No one wants a return to war; it''s not in anybody''s interest.
Was any dissatisfaction expressed to you about the Southern Sudan government?
We spoke to some people in the opposition in Upper Nile. We had a long meeting with people associated with the party of Lam Akol [a former foreign minister, leader of the SPLM-DC party, and Salva Kiir's sole challenger in the April elections]. We heard an earful about corruption, human rights abuses and heavy-handed tactics by the SPLM in pursuing disarmament. I don''t know what all that means.
There''s definitely an element of violence within the south related to cattle rustling, disputes between tribes, and in fact that violence has gotten quite severe in some of the states in recent years. Nobody comes to this with totally clean hands.
But it does seem to us that the underlying political dynamic is one in which the north is really causing a lot of problems. What seems clear now is that if the south votes for secession, the north ought to let it go peacefully. That''s the way the worst violence can be avoided.
Did you get a sense of any growth in civil society groups that may be able to hold whatever administration is in place accountable in the future?
There definitely was a presence of civil society and it''s definitely lively. We spoke to one person who was part of an election-monitoring program in the south and another in Malakal who keeps tabs on what''s happening in the oil fields in terms of human rights abuses.
Since your program doesn''t make specific policy prescriptions, what message are you bringing from your visit?
It might be useful to know that we''re doing a fair amount of outreach from this trip, speaking on panels and at several institutions. What the museum really focuses on is individual stories and individual testimony. Stories really engage the public, and we wanted to come back with an ability to humanize the problem. This is not just dry, statistical numbers. These are real human beings who have endured much in the last 30 years and now have an opportunity for living a normal life. Here are some of our points:
There are a number of risk factors for mass atrocities and mass violence, but we do not believe violence is inevitable or a foregone conclusion. We know that Sudan exhibits some of the risk factors for mass atrocities. We know there's been past violence directed against civilian groups. We know there are major political changes forthcoming. We know there''s heightened chance of armed conflict – not only between the north and south but between spoilers. And we know there''s a presence in the north of hardliners who are interested in pursuing violence.
That''s something I think that's often lost in the west – the divisions within the north of Sudan. There''s sometimes an automatic assumption that if President Bashir were to go away, he would be replaced by someone more benign. I''m not saying he wouldn''t, but I''m not saying he would. There are elements in Khartoum that are even more extreme than Bashir.
And what can be done to avoid catastrophe?
For policymakers, our key message is that they should set clear red lines about what is not acceptable. Of foremost importance is a strong, unequivocal statement that a resort to armed conflict to resolve remaining issues is not going to be tolerated. Also, it''s very important to protect the most vulnerable populations in Sudan. We were very concerned about the safety of the displaced communities in the north, particularly in Khartoum. While we were in Sudan, there was some incendiary language directed at these southerners.
The other major takeaway is that the south has a really, really long way to go in terms of economic development. Juba has become a much more dynamic city than it was five or six years ago – dozens of new hotels, paved roads and new businesses. But when you go outside the capital, it''s a very mixed picture: lots of poverty, lots of underdevelopment.
One of the things the south is going to have to grapple with, to manage the transition to independence, is enormous expectations from the people as to what can be accomplished. Meeting those expectations could be very difficult. There really is an expectation that Nirvana is going to come when the south is free of the north. It''s really important to emphasize that the risks are going to continue for a long time. There''s an expectations gap that''s going to have to be managed.
Finally, what''s your message to the general public?
It would be helpful for people to understand why the Holocaust Museum is there and what our interests are. We want to do what we can to raise awareness about cases where we are concerned about the risks of mass violence directed against ethnic groups and civilians. We do see risks of this in Sudan, but we''re also hopeful that those risks can be navigated and avoided. It''s kind of a complicated message, because we don''t want to be alarmists, but we do want people to be concerned and to understand that this is a very serious and dangerous situation.