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SOUTH SUDAN: Dinka and Misseriya Build Peace Along Border

Skye Wheeler

JUBA, Dec 9 2008 (IPS) - Two Sudanese communities that face each other across one of Africa’s most contentious borders sat together recently in the shade of three large red tents to discuss a future tied to a recent past of bloodshed.

Well, almost together. A bank of northern Muslim Misseriya in white turbans, robes and long scarves filled one tent, an air of the desert about them. Two tents on either side were taken by Malual Dinka from the south. Tall and very dark, Dinka government officials wore safari suits, chiefs wore hats, and women leaders were decked out in luminous, West African styles.

Between the two groups: a history of trade, mutual pastoralist struggle, battles, grief and fear that reaches into the fiercest depths of survival.

In 2005, north and south Sudan officially ended Africa’s longest civil war. Kenya, Norway and the United States were among the many countries that helped broker the peace deal between Khartoum and the main southern rebel party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M). All have watched nervously as the two sides have sparred over implementing it.

Relations between the communities – pitted against each other during the war in a bloody patchwork of rebels, militias and garrisons – have received less attention. But the inter-communal nature of much of the conflict and its remembered, localised pain means the ability of groups like the Dinka and Misseriya to live together again is crucial to confidence in a lasting peace for many rural populations.

Thousands of southerners joined the SPLA, which was itself viciously split along tribal lines during its insurgency. Khartoum armed militias within the south as well as northern pastoralists including from the Misseriya that already had a tense, competitive relationship with the Dinka over the land’s scarce resources.

They swept down into the south, often on horseback, where they set hundreds of villages on fire, raped, killed and abducted thousands of women and children. The legacy of fear left behind runs deep, holding hands with anxiety about renewed north-south conflict.

But participants from both communities in the conference made much of special peace markets set up in the rural wilds of the Dinka’s Northern Bahr el Ghazal State, describing them as a lifeline for the Dinka southern rebel-held areas.

"SPLA guaranteed safety for northern traders who came in defiance of the northern government to sell salt, sugar clothes and take away cattle," analyst John Ryle, a professor of anthropology at Bard College in New York, explained. The word Misseriya may be linked to dread in Northern Bahr el Ghazal but it is also remembered in connection with access to food when no one else could or would help.

Bearing this important precedent in mind, increased trade could again, Ryle said, have a major stabilising role in a naturally competitive relationship aggravated by decades of divisive politics.

Peace and pragmatism

Misseriya government official Safi Galaeldin Gibriel estimated that a million Misseriya north of Northern Bahr el Ghazal depend on access to the south’s pastures for their survival as pastoralists.

"We know they are looking for peace. That is why they are here," Dinka Chief Deng Luol said, adding that with the dry season fast approaching, the November peace conference’s timing was crucial.

As the rains dry up, the pastoralist Misseriya bring their cattle from the arid north into the swamps of Northern Bahr el Ghazal, to graze alongside Dinka Malual herds.

"Dinka don’t need anything [from us] but security. In the end we are one country… you cannot stop me or I will fight you," Gibriel explained.

Since 2005 the Misseriya have been encouraged by south Sudan’s President Salva Kiir to graze in south Sudan as they have for generations. But they have to leave their guns behind. Misseriya argue that this is an unreasonable request saying they are threatened by thieving gunmen from neighbouring Darfur and armed civilians in the south.

Fighting on the border between the southern army and armed Misseriya broke out just before Christmas last year. The south quickly blamed Khartoum for arming and inciting the nomads, making much of machine-gun equipped Toyotas they said the Misseriya used.

Misseriya at the conference denied receiving assistance. They said they armed themselves only after the southern army moved well north – at least 60 km they said – of the still unclear border between the semi-autonomous south and northern Sudan.

"We come to the water and then the SPLA shoot our cattle and then they take the cows and eat them," Al Hirika Osman Omer, Misseriya headman said, adding that 106 of his people were killed in the fighting that continued into 2008.

During the fighting, armed Misseriya closed down the roads that bring crucial trade from Khartoum into Northern Bahr el Ghazal and further south. Retaliation, they said, for the SPLA obstructing their access into the south.

For the Misseriya the presence of the SPLA was a worrying sign for the future.

In 2011 southerners will get a long-desired referendum on separation and most say they will vote for independence. "With the possibility of a new sovereign state in 2011, there is a new element of uncertainty [for the Misseriya]," Ryle said.

Much will have to take place before the referendum, including elections next year. The border between the north and south will also have to be demarcated through some of the most resource-rich parts of the south. In May around 50,000 people were displaced in fighting over control of oil-rich area Abyei.

SPLM governor of Northern Bahr el Ghazal, Paul Malong, said the Misseriya would have to trust in the new system of peace that includes a semi- autonomous south with its own police and army. "They should leave their guns behind. We will be ready to accept the blame if something happens and we will control our security," he said.

Malong, who was himself involved in establishing the peace markets admitted that SPLA soldiers – especially poorly trained recent additions from a former northern-sponsored militia – had been at least partly responsible for provoking the clashes. Leaders of this group were later dismissed.

"We are still going to live together. Nothing will change their need for the south for grazing," Malong said.

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