Cedric Gerbehaye | Land of Cush
Country of origin: Belgium
Project location: South Sudan
Program: Magnum Foundation Fund
South Sudan became the world's newest country in 2011, but the young nation faces old troubles. The lack of societal and economic infrastructure has left an impoverished nation. Peace remains fragile between the North and the South.
CONVERSATION WITH CEDRIC GERBEHAYE AND REBECCA HAMILTON
On November 2nd 2011, photographer Cedric Gerbehaye spoke with Rebecca Hamilton, journalist and author of Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide. Cedric and Rebecca worked together in Sudan during the months leading up to the 2011 referendum. Sudan in Transition, a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting project, features their reportage from Sudan.
CEDRIC: I would like to ask you, for the readers, to go back to the major events in Sudan in the past year.
REBECCA: It's helpful to go back to 2005 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the decades-long war between the government in Sudan and the rebels in South Sudan known as SPLA/SPLM, who became the leaders of South Sudan and were given semi-autonomy from the government in the north under the peace agreement. The peace agreement set up a six-year transitional period, in which Sudan was supposed to make a transition to democracy. A 2010 national election notwithstanding, that democratic transition never really happened.
This transitional period also set up a vote in January of 2011 for the people of South Sudan to decide whether they wanted to remain part of the unified Sudan or to separate and become an independent nation.
Of course you and I were lucky to be there documenting the day voting started. 98.5 percent of those who voted, voted for an independent South Sudan, and as a result, on the 9th of July, South Sudan became the world's newest nation. Since July we've seen South Sudan having to transform itself from a government comprised of a rebel force into a functioning government, and there are many questions over what that means for South Sudan. But also, Northern Sudan, which is now called just Sudan, is facing a lot of challenges too, as it works out how it's going to function, since it no longer has access to the oil resources in the south, which have been a core part of its economy.
CEDRIC: Now that people have independence, after what they called "the final walk to freedom," there is still fighting in Southern Sudan, and also at the northern part of the border with the North. First, I would like to know the reason why they are fighting, why there are all those splintered groups fighting in Southern Sudan. My second question is, what threat do these rebel groups pose for the government of Juba?
REBECCA: I think history is really instructive here. When you look at this from the other side of the world, it is easy to imagine that the long war was between a unified South and a unified North. Actually, the South has always been very diverse and splintered. Even during the war years there were different factions and rebel groups within the South who were fighting each other. Part of that was because there were genuine disputes over land, but part of it was because the government in the North found it was much cheaper to execute the war by getting groups within the South to fight each other, rather than just using the Northern army to fight the Southerners.
In January we saw the nation coming together for this "final walk to freedom", the vote for independence. Now, after getting past that hurdle and achieving independence its underlining conflicts that were never addressed are starting to bubble up to the surface â€“ a huge challenge for this new government of South Sudan. Are they going to be able to prove to their citizens that they are not just the winners of what was an internal Southern war? That they're not just the rebel group that happened to get the backing of the international community, but that they are actually representing the people of South Sudan as a whole, including the people who fought against their group during the war years?
It's a huge challenge and they are living up to their promised ideals of a democratic government to varying degrees. At the moment, the legacy of the main rebel group, the SPLA, dominates the government. The SPLA is associated with the Dinka, the majority ethnic group within South Sudan. But even considering that they are the majority they are disproportionately overrepresented, which is making minority ethnic groups feel uncomfortable and leads them to ask if the government in Juba really represents them, or whether it just represents the Dinka.
CEDRIC: Just before the independence, conflict started in several areas next to the border between North and South. First in the Abyei, then in the Nuba Mountains in Southern Kordofan and now after independence, in Blue Nile. Can you explain the situation in those three areas?
REBECCA: The status of those areas was never resolved by the peace agreement. The people of Abyei were supposed to get their own referendum to vote on whether they wanted to stay part of Sudan or, if the South separated, to join the South. But that vote never took place. And that was in large part because the political elites in the North and the South could never agree who would have the right to vote. There was a dispute over whether the permanent population of Abyei, which are predominantly Ngok Dinka, would get to vote, or whether the Misseriya, who are largely nomads, would also get to vote. That was disputed because both sides expected that if only the Ngok Dinka voted, the Abyei would go to the South, whereas if the Misseriya voted, there was a chance Abyei would go to the North. The impasse over this question meant that referendum never happened, leaving deep uncertainties in Abyei over its status. Then in May, after the vote, but before South Sudan formally became independent, the Sudanese government took over the area of Abyei by force, displacing thousands of people, who walked for days and days with nothing but the clothes they fled in.
The two other places in dispute, the states of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, unlike Abyei, are without question part of Northern Sudan. But there was a question over how they would be governed, and again, the people who live in those areas were supposed to have a say in this through a process called popular consultations. Large parts of the populations in both Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile were hugely supportive of the southern fight during the war years and many people there fought alongside the SPLA rebels during the war. These people feel very marginalized within Northern Sudan. Since the separation of South Sudan, the government in the North wanted to disarm everyone in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. But as a result of the dispute over the disarmament, the government in the North mounted a military campaign, which they said was to clear the rebels from Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. What this has looked like in practice includes relentless aerial bombardments, causing deaths and injuries, terrifying the population, again leading to thousands of displaced.
CEDRIC: Concerning South Sudan itself, most of the products in the Juba markets come from Uganda and Kenya. Oil makes up 95 percent of the state's revenues, so the major challenge for the government of Southern Sudan is to diversify the economy. How can they achieve that?
REBECCA: You're exactly right that diversifying the economy is a major challenge. The good news is that South Sudan is an incredibly lush and fertile region so there is a huge amount of promise for agriculture. One of the few positive consequences of a lack of development is the unspoiled natural resources in certain areas, which creates a huge potential for eco-tourism. People say that South Sudan could become a breadbasket for the whole region. It seems crazy to an observer that they are importing all their fresh produce from neighboring countries in East Africa, when they can and should be growing it for themselves. But that requires, amongst a whole lot of other things, a cultural shift among a population that has been forced to live on food aid for a very long time.
I remember one of the most striking conversations that I had when I went to Sudan during the war years, before the peace agreement was signed. I was in a very remote village where people were clearly hungry, and a local NGO had managed to distribute seeds to this village. And yet, in spite of having this incredibly fertile land, they weren't planting the seeds. And when I asked about it, people looked at me as if I just had no clue, and said, "Why would we plant when we can't be sure that we'll still be here for the harvest?" They were so used to having to be on the run all the time, to being displaced as a result of the war, that they just couldn't think on the kind of time frame that it takes to see a crop through to harvest. Now that has been changing since the 2005 peace agreement was signed, but it's not as simple as giving people seeds and saying, "You have a field, now plant."
CEDRIC: The population of South Sudan had always criticized the government of the North for not building infrastructure, like roads, schools and hospitals, for example. Do you think that the government of the South Sudan will be able to bring them soon enough?
REBECCA: It will never be soon enough for the population who needs them. One of the things that was very clear when you spoke to people outside Juba, in the rural areas in the build-up to the referendum, was that the reason people voted for independence was not just because of an abstract notion of nationhood, although that was important for some people, but it was because they believed that if South Sudan controlled its own resources, then they, the local population, would have roads, electricity and schools for their children to go to.
In the rural areas, much of the population who doesn't have access to media or high levels of education, imagined that it would be like a switch, that it would happen instantly as soon as South Sudan got its independence. But of course the process of building roads is both slow and extremely expensive. Building that kind of infrastructure takes many years, particularly if you don't have roads to start with, it's hard to transport the kind of infrastructure that would lead to more development. During this transitional period of six years, since the signing of the peace agreement and before the referendum, the government of South Sudan was getting money from the oil revenues that were being split between North and South Sudan, but it was spending the vast majority on security because it was worried about a return to war. My concern is that this continues to be a worry for the government of South Sudan. The telling indicator will be when we look at the next year's budget's allocations, how much of their revenue is going to the military and security, and how much of it is going to go to development? It's development what the people on the ground are really asking for.
CEDRIC: Right, I have two more questions, Bec. What do you think about the media coverage of South Sudan? You live in the States, I'm from Europe, I know that it's quite different how media are interested in South Sudan. People in the United States are much more linked to what happens in South Sudan than here in Europe. But what do you think of that coverage during the referendum or independence?
REBECCA: There's no question that there was a huge spike in media coverage during the referendum. As you know, we saw this firsthand-there were just a handful of foreign correspondents along with us who were in Sudan before the referendum and suddenly, at the time of the referendum, there were crews and crews of people, including many journalists that hadn't been to Sudan before and probably weren't ever going back again. And a similar thing happened on the 9th of July when South Sudan formally separated. So you do get these peaks in international media attention around the major events, which is I guess only natural, but it distorts the overall picture if you don't also get to see what happens at other times.
One positive development though, is that with the separation of South Sudan we've seen the potential for local media to really be strengthened and there's a huge amount of interest among South Sudanese journalists to cover their own country, and cover it well. With Internet access increasing in South Sudan, those of us who are sitting in front of our computers in America or Europe are able to access the reporting of South Sudanese journalists. That has got to be the best way forward.
CEDRIC: Can you tell me why people speak about de-stabilization of the entire region when they refer to the conflict in Sudan?
REBECCA: Nine different countries surrounded Sudan as a whole, before the separation. What happens within the borders of Sudan and South Sudan has a huge effect on the entire region because if there is fighting, there are invariably refugee flows beyond those borders. Basically, those surrounding countries will have to pick up the tab for the conflicts that happen inside Sudan and South Sudan. And even if it doesn't escalate to conflict, there's just a lost opportunity if neither country can fulfill its potential â€“ economically, culturally, and politically - in the region. The other major concern comes from transnational terrorist groups, with the classic example being the Lord's Resistance Army that originated in Uganda but, because of the lack of security across the borders, has been able to move into South Sudan and Congo.
CEDRIC: And the presence of the LRA is also the reason why it's so difficult to develop the agriculture in the South and try to diversify the economy.
REBECCA: Exactly right. Now I'm keen to focus some attention on your incredible photography. There were a couple of images in particular I wanted to talk about, like the photo in the school in Bentiu we were at for the first day of polling where you can see five people lined up to vote in what looks like a very orderly fashion. To put some context around that, outside that room was chaos! People had been lining up since 3 a.m. and were scrambling to get inside to vote; a total contrast to what you see in the photo.
The photo to me is so striking because of the dignity that comes out of being able to cast a vote for your own destiny. So many people we spoke to on that day were very old and in some cases very sick, but they were committed to cast their vote because they believed that this was the moment when they could try to determine a better future for their children and grandchildren. It was incredibly powerful to witness that process. It was also a good reminder for those of us in democracies where we often get apathetic about voting, just what a meaningful activity it can be.
There's another photo from Bentiu, with the trucks, the returnees, and all their possessions. You see the photo and it looks chaotic, but when you spoke to people, it was very organized, where each bedframe was numbered and people knew exactly which was their bed.
They were returning from the North back to the South on the promise of a new nation, and how powerful that promise of nationhood was for people who would pack up all their worldly possessions, put them in these trucks, and send them off in three- to five-day long journeys to get to a place where many of them hadn't been to in decades, and in the cases of the children we spoke to, many had never been to the South at all I think about those teenagers often coming "home" to a place they have only ever heard about through the stories of their parents. It's going to be an enormous period of adjustment ahead.
The other photo is of the man at the water pump at the Nile, just outside of Juba. We saw a lot of these formal and less formal efforts to get water from the Nile to the local population. Again, in this picture you get a sense of just how basic the challenges are, just providing the most simple and straightforward of services to the population in South Sudan.
In any case, those are just a few I wanted to single out, but people really should look at the entire slideshow. Now though, I'm keen to ask you a question Cedric.
I was not able to get into the North this summer. But you did go, and got some rare access in the Nuba Mountains. What was the sense among people there, with the ongoing aerial bombardments? How did they feel knowing that people they had supported during the war now had independent nationhood in the South, meanwhile they were stuck in the North, facing attacks by the government?
CEDRIC: There's a great need to get access to the Nuba Mountains to documents the situation. You cannot mention places in the captions for the security of the people. For instance, the picture in a medical center: it's always better not to say where it is, because people are afraid of more bombings. The villages and the markets where empty. Many people had been fleeing or hiding in caves in the mountains. It's difficult for them to work their land. They have to decide between staying in the cave and not having anything to eat for weeks or months, or going outside and maybe getting bombed. On the eve of the independence, the Nuba people felt the South and the international community would abandon them.
REBECCA: In the Nuba Mountains there's a history of the government using food effectively as a weapon of war, and during the war years it was often impossible for humanitarian activists to get in. This population is used to not being able to depend on food relief.
CEDRIC: Yes, that is one of the strategic reasons for the conflict there, the fight for the land itself. It's one of the most fertile areas in the country, and it's the first fertile place you see when you come from the North.
REBECCA: In Sudan, when we talk about resources we often focus on oil because it's a large part of Sudan's resources and an important factor in the conflicts. But what becomes much clearer when you're there is that it's not only oil that matters. Land resources are also incredibly important in these conflicts and in the livelihoods of the people living there.