JUBA, Southern Sudan—I was recently sitting on the bank of the Nile River in Juba, the capital of southern Sudan. I am in Juba to research some of the myriad challenges facing Sudan and the international community in the next 19 months—before the “interim period” of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, ends, and southern Sudan votes in a self-determination referendum for “unity” with or “separation” from northern Sudan. It would be untruthful to say that the situation in southern Sudan is anything other than very grim. The recent violence and death tolls in the South have surpassed the deaths this year in Darfur, and the number of risks and dangers threatening the fragile peace (fostered by the CPA when it was signed in 2005) between Sudan’s North and South are poised to multiply in the run-up to Sudan’s general elections in 2010 and the 2011 referendum to determine whether Sudan will remain as one country or split into two.
When I was sitting by the Nile, I was thinking about some of these dangers and becoming increasingly depressed by what I had learned during my research in Juba. I was absentmindedly watching an old, decrepit barge struggle upstream in the direction of the Nile’s source in Uganda. The barge moved slowly as it fought a rather strong current, and I observed the sorry state of the boat, its hull covered in rust and a torn flag of southern Sudan flying from its mast. Then I noticed that there were about eight men on a small, high platform where the flag was flying. They were dancing up a storm. I couldn’t hear the music, but it was clear that they were enjoying it, because they didn’t stop dancing for as long as I was able to see the barge making its slow progress on the Nile. They were just having fun on an ordinary afternoon of work on their barge.
These men may not know where their next meal is coming from, and their families may have been affected by the recent violence across southern Sudan, from Unity to Jonglei to Lakes states and beyond. I think it is fair to generalize and say that many people in southern Sudan also likely face a great deal of obstacles in their every day lives that would be hard for outsiders like me to fathom, much less grapple with myself. But they were still enjoying themselves that afternoon as they cruised down the Nile. I felt lucky to have witnessed this small moment of joy in the midst of broader circumstances that seem so grim. Witnessing this scene reminded me not to forget the human side of every “charged political climate” or “complex humanitarian emergency.” People are more than “IDPs,” and “inter-communal violence” is more than arms and proxy militias. Sometimes it takes having an unexpected, random experience like this one to remind oneself of the humanity we all share.
This is part of a series of posts on southern Sudan by Enough policy assistant Maggie Fick, who is currently conducting research for Enough in the region.