Can Peace Between North And South In Sudan Last?

Sudan's long civil war between the Muslim North and the Christian South ended in 2005 with a landmark peace deal. The agreement is a rare, war-ending document in Africa, and the template that Darfur rebels and other factions hope to use when they lay down their arms against Khartoum. But there's an uneasy peace between North and South Sudan.

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Sudan's long civil war between the Muslim north and the Christian south ended in 2005 with a landmark peace deal. The comprehensive peace agreement is a rare war-ending document in Africa, the template the Darfur rebels and other factions hope to use when they lay down their arms against Khartoum. But there is also an uneasy peace between North and South Sudan. Some places are more uneasy than others.

NPR's Gwen Thompkins has this report on the latest shootout.

(Soundbite of children)

GWEN THOMPKINS: Malakal is a tight-lipped town in Southern Sudan near the border with the north. It's not friendly. It's not unfriendly. But the people here divide in so many different ways that a wrong word in the wrong quarter can land you in trouble. You can offend the army of the semi-autonomous south, or you can offend the Khartoum-based army of the north. You can set off the Shilluk tribe, or the Dinka or the Nuer. Or you could rile up the town's black Christians or Arab Muslims. And once the fighting starts, it usually doesn't stop until somebody needs a grave.

Governor Gatluak Deng Garang is a rare southerner who counts the south's war-time nemesis, President Omar al-Bashir, as a personal friend. The governor says he's been ambushed near Malakal twice.

Governor GATLUAK DENG GARANG (Malaka, Sudan): To me the misunderstanding and the lack of confidence between the north and the south is the core of all the problems. I am like a person between two enemies.

THOMPKINS: In late February, an ill-wind blew through hot old dusty Malakal and the cemetery has the graves to prove it. A major general in the northern army arrived unannounced at the airport. He said he was here on a family visit. But General Gabriel Tang Ginya isn't just anybody. He's the guy who's been fighting southern army soldiers in this area since the south was in civil war with Khartoum. And in peacetime, Tang has made deadly mischief.

In 2006, Tang stirred up a joint patrol of northern and southern soldiers here so badly that they started shooting at each other, and scores died in the crossfire. James Young(ph) is the pastor of Malakal's Presbyterian Church. He says neither side has forgiven the other.

Reverend JAMES YOUNG (Presbyterian Church, Malakal, Sudan): Even now we are still divided by two groups, those supporting the fight of the Khartoum, those supporting the fight of southern people.

THOMPKINS: So in February, when word got out that General Tang had reached the barracks where the northern soldiers were staying, emissaries from the Southern People's Liberation Army hurried over to persuade him to go. And here's where nearly everyone says diplomacy went straight into the crapper. Tang reportedly agreed to leave town. Then he received a mysterious call on his cell phone, and when Tang hung up, he said he wasn't going anywhere. Governor Deng was out of town at the time, but when he learned that Tang was making trouble in Malakal, he wasn't surprised.

Governor GARANG: Because I know Tang is that such a person who can be easily used by anybody or by an enemy. So I learned that something wrong is going to happen.

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THOMPKINS: Tanks rumbled onto the streets. And just after dawn the following day, soldiers from the northern and southern armies, who were supposed to be in Malakal to keep the peace, started shelling each other. Reverend James Young says he stood frozen in the courtyard of his church during the battle. When his neighbor cried out for help, Young said he couldn't bring himself to move. The neighbor died.

Ibrahim Saied(ph) is a young carpenter. He says he scooted under his bed and stayed there for

Mr. IBRAHIM SAIED: About two days. It's horrible. Many people scared.

THOMPKINS: The funny thing is Malakal in and of itself is not much to fight over.

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THOMPKINS: It's a river town on the Nile with skinny dogs and shadeless trees and the occasional pig nosing through trash along the side of the road. The most fun the townspeople seem to have is when they wash themselves in the muddy water near the ferries. But this area's most beguiling asset may be below the surface.

Abuk Payiti Ayik(ph) represents Malakal in the Parliament of Southern Sudan.

Ms. ABUK PAYITI AYIK (Representative, Parliament of Southern Sudan): That estate is along the River Nile. The whole upper Nile up to here is full of oil.

THOMPKINS: So in that context, Malakal looks just dreamy to both sides. Both north and south claim those oil fields, so much so that they have yet to agree on the official border between them. And that makes border towns like Malakal and nearby Abeye, contentious places. The disharmony could threaten the 2005 peace deal that is holding the nation together.

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THOMPKINS: Abdel Kazir(ph) runs a dry goods shop on the town's main drag. As soon as he heard the gunfire, he locked up, ran home and slid under his bed, too.

Mr. ABDEL KAZIR: (Through translator) Most of the time when they are fighting in Malakal, we are victims at our shops.

THOMPKINS: Arab traders like Kazir are often the collateral damage of these sorts of altercations. Southern Christians kill the traders for their merchandise, or sometimes they kill out of spite, because the traders are predominantly Arab and therefore associated with Khartoum. In this last round of fighting, 10 Arab traders reportedly died. Kazir says his business is way down.

Mr. KAZIR: (Through translator) The customers I'm getting now, they are not like the customers that used to come into my shop. So, only a few people, compared to the fighting.

THOMPKINS: A turning point in the February standoff came when the vice president of southern Sudan arrived and goosed Tang out of here. But more than 60 people died in the fighting and nearly 100 were wounded. Governor Dang says that his political enemies sent Tang to embarrass him.

But others blame President Bashir's National Congress Party directly. They say that the north promotes instability in the south to erode public confidence in the leadership of the governing Southern People's Liberation Movement, which is also known as the SPLM. And Abook Paiti(ph) says that after the Tang incident, public confidence in the SPLM has eroded.

Ms. ABOOK PAITI: The time I went to Malakal, they said you SPLM. Where are you people? Why are these things happening now in your presence?

THOMPKINS: Southern Sudanese are scheduled to vote in 2011 on whether to remain in a unity government in Khartoum or become an independent nation. But if the peace doesn't hold, then those plans will come to nothing, except another war. North and south are said to be arming themselves for the possibility. And if war happens, both sides will fight for those nearby oil fields and there won't be a bed big enough to hide under in Malakal.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Malakal, Southern Sudan.

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