Mistrust mixes with hope as Nuba ponder Sudan deal

By David Mageria
KADUGLI, Sudan, July 23 (Reuters)

Amid the green maize fields of central Sudan, Nubian women wearing brightly coloured headscarves move rhythmically in a circle to celebrate peace.

Boys and girls cavort alongside as the ululating women hail the renewal of a ceasefire in the Nuba mountains, a region that has seen some of the worst violence in Sudan's long civil war.

"We want one Sudan. We want peace," a local man, Budur Abdulrahman, said on Monday as villages near central Kadugli town held festivities to mark the extension of the local truce.

Like most people living in the vastness of Africa's largest country, few in the mud and thatch Nuba villages know much as yet of a potentially significant advance made in high-level efforts to end the 19-year-old war.

For the Nuba, it is enough that a limited ceasefire between the government and the rebels in the Nuba mountains and plains was prolonged recently in a local experiment in building peace.

But among those who have heard word of the national deal hatched in faraway Kenya between the Sudanese government and the main rebel group, hope is matched by mistrust and pessimism.

"The problem in Sudan is the absence of real democracy -- a democratic system that can achieve a kind of equal distribution of wealth and power," said Suleiman Mikadi Kuku, 30, a Christian graduate of business administration at Khartoum university.

Broadly, the war that erupted in 1983 has pitted the Islamic government in the Arabic-speaking north against rebels seeking more autonomy for the largely animist or Christian south.

After weeks of talks in Kenya, the Islamist government and the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) said at the weekend they had agreed on key issues of religion and self-determination that had blocked progress in the past.


The new deal sees a transitional period of six years followed by a referendum, which would include an option for the rebellious southern states to secede. During the transition period, the states would be given a degree of autonomy.

Many in the Nuba villages and in Kadugli itself expressed fears that the six-year transition was too long and could lead to a collapse of the current goodwill between the combatants.

But many also said it was a step in the right direction.

"Six years is too long ... two years or three years, something like that (would have been better)," said William Abdullah, a Christian, adding he believed the government was likely to undermine the deal.

A different view came from tribal leader Ahmed Musa Haren, who said it was the rebels who were likely to kill the accord.

"They (the rebels) have been doing this -- they go five steps forward, then four steps back," said Haren, dressed in flowing white Muslim robes and head-dress.

Gloom about the conflict is nothing new in these parts.

The 80,000 square km (30,000 sq mile) Nuba region has been ravaged by government bombardments and a scorched earth policy that drove thousands off fertile plains and into the barren mountains. Once numbering an estimated 1.5 million, the population has shrivelled to 400,000.

In January, Khartoum and the SPLM signed an accord under U.S. and Swiss mediation to allow humanitarian relief to the mountains, which lie north of the front line but whose people have been allied with the southern rebels.

The truce is being overseen by the Joint Military Commission (JMC), an international force of peace monitors, whose mandate was recently renewed for six months along with the Nuba truce.

JMC spokesman Thomas Jenatsch said the deal reached in Kenya had lifted spirits among his colleagues. "It is a boost for us when we see that, as we advance on the field, on the diplomatic level progress is made," he said.

"It's raising morale, to see that on different levels efforts are made towards the same direction - a comprehensive agreement for the whole of Sudan."