Editor's note: "Divided they stand" is a three-part series on Sudan, covering the lead-up to January's referendum vote on the South's independence, the divisions that already split the country in two and the rise of Juba, South Sudan's capital in the making.
MALAKAL, South Sudan — “Independence means freedom for every southerner,” said William Gatkhor, 40, as he stood by the pile of his belongings on a dock in Malakal, the Sudanese town that clings to the bank of the Nile River.
Gatkor is moving back to the South.
Weeks before the January vote on whether the South should be independent, Sudan is already pulling apart.
Every month now thousands of ethnic southerners, like Gatkhor, are leaving northern Sudan for the South. At the same time northerners, some of whom have lived in the South for generations, are packing their bags and heading North, fearful of what an independent South will mean for them.
Nobody knows exactly how many are crossing into southern Sudan, but United Nations officials estimate that 6,000 a month are making the move and the number is growing. Some are coming home to vote in the referendum; some are coming out of fear for what might happen if, as expected, southerners vote overwhelmingly for separation and angry northerners turn on them.
Threats from some senior northern politicians to expel southerners if the South secedes have stoked fears, fed anger and prompted southerners living in the North to flee.
The U.N. is worried. “The protection of southern Sudanese who live in the North, and of northerners who live in the South, is of major concern,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon told the Security Council during a special session on Sudan in November. “So too is the possibility of a return to the suffering and loss of life seen during the long war between North and South.”
“The returnees are a big issue and a worry because it could go very wrong,” said one international aid worker in Malakal. “There have been intermittent, spontaneous returns in the past but since October there have been massive returns and here in Upper Nile it is unplanned.”
Most of the returning southerners simply melt into the community, as they go to live with relatives.
As more southerners arrive in Malakal, the separation of Sudan is already starting. River barges arriving from the North unload their human cargo here, the first major town in the South.
And just as the southerners are coming home so the town’s northern traders are preparing to pack up and head North.
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Mandour Abdelnoor, 45, came to Malakal in the early 1980s and has since become one of the town’s biggest traders. “In December I will close the shop and my family will go to Khartoum. I will wait to see how the situation is. I think there may be some problems,” he said.
Arabs dominate trade in Malakal and aid workers who use the town as a base for reaching the cut-off communities of fishermen and farmers inland and on the banks of the Nile say that prices are already rising, fuel is in short supply and storehouses are emptying.
One of the poorest regions in the world, southern Sudan has almost no manufacturing and produces almost nothing for export except the raw oil pumped from beneath its earth. Everything that can be bought — from sacks of onions and potatoes to mobile phones and televisions — comes down from the North or across borders from its neighbors, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The civil wars that have raged through the Sudan’s post-independence history have been fought over religion, ethnicity and resources. A 2005 peace deal stopped the last 22-year long round of North-South fighting in which 2 million people died, mostly from starvation and illness, and 4 million more were forced from their homes.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement guaranteed the mostly black Christian southerners a vote on whether to secede from the predominately Arab-Muslim North. The desire for separation feels unanimous in the oil-rich South where many feel distrust and bitterness towards the North.
“There are signs of coming insecurity,” warned Imam Ogony, a southern Muslim who leads prayers at the stone mosque that dominates Malakal. “Northerners and southerners do not trust each other, they see each other as enemies not as brothers.”
“My worry is for those southerners who are in the North,” said Simon Kun Puoch, governor of Upper Nile State who fears the tinderbox that Malakal might become after the referendum vote. “If anything happened in the North the same would happen in the South, this is our fear.”
Malakal is a trading center and a crossroads between North and South just 25 miles from the unmarked and disputed border. It is not a melting pot because there is little mixing of the people; it is a divided town.
The northern Sudan Armed Forces have barracks at one end of town, the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army at the other. In 2006 and 2009 the two armies fought each other with rifles, mortars and tanks killing hundreds. An uneasy peace has held since but with the referendum approaching there is a growing wariness.
“There is a problem lying ahead, a big problem between North and South,” said another of the town’s religious men, John Jock Riay of the Lutheran Church. “War is inevitable, nothing can stop it.”