Today, July 9, 2012, marks the first anniversary of South Sudan’s independence. And, as expected, political analysts and experts are pointing out the challenges that are still plaguing the new nation. According to the International Monetary Fund, 47 percent of South Sudanese are undernourished, which means that they are living below the poverty line. Inter-communal conflicts over cattle and other resources continue to terrorize, displace and kill people in states like Jonglei, Unity and Warrap. After the shutdown of oil production last January, which constitutes 98% of revenues, the new nation is nearly bankrupt. Civil societies have reported also that the government has been tamping down basic freedoms such as the right to speak freely. In short, the South Sudanese government has come short in providing development, stability, democratic transformation, or the basic aspirations of South Sudanese. While am aware of these challenges, I hope that analysts won’t equally hesitate to qualify these assessments with the phrase: One year later, South Sudan. This is important, because nations aren’t built, secured, or developed overnight.
It is also important because the 9th of July does not simply mark the political divorce from Sudan; rather its significance, for many South Sudanese, is informed by realities of a personal nature. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005 was signed while I was still a refugee in Egypt. I celebrated the historic moment because it meant that my father—whom I hadn’t seen since I was six years old, was technically safe. We were separated when Northern Sudanese militia came to arrest him and demanded that I tell them where he was. When I refused, they dug a hole, threw me in and began to fire. Luckily I was not hurt, but my father feared a recurrence, and sent my mother and siblings and I to Khartoum. From there, we sought asylum in Egypt.
I survived, but over two millions people were killed in the war. The death toll continued even after 2005—and even today. The CPA was informally known as “peace on paper.” Even as late as 2008, I did not know if I would ever see my father and extended family again. What did the peace treaty mean, if it did not bring guaranteed peace? Not until I visited my village in 2010 did the ceasefire and the peace accord become tangible evidence of peace. It meant that after twelve years of separation, I could hug my father and meet my siblings and relatives.
Ayeit, the village of my birth, is less than fifty miles away from Abyei, very close to Northern Sudan. I was born in 1991, when the Sudanese government was heavily employing Antonovs and helicopters to bomb areas in South Sudan. So Ayeit at the time was a ghost town. We fled frequently into the forest to hide from the bombardments and lived on tree leaves and seeds exhumed from ants’ colonies. The Ayeit I visit today is unfamiliarly normal and disturbingly stable. I fall asleep to the euphony of humming insects instead of the cacophony of roaring guns that was the soundtrack to my childhood. I have caught up with my old friends. Last summer, we played soccer together, barefoot, and we swam naked, in this local mired river where we used to fish as small boys whenever we could. And we watched Bollywood DVD’s and downloaded the music of Beyoncé and Kanye West and Celine Dion from iTunes and danced to house music at parties and trekked across villages to meet girls.
When I return to Duke, we stay in touch, texting each other across the world and sharing photos on Facebook. So what, you may think? Everyone does these things! But for me they are the happy denouement of the nightmare I lived in South Sudan. The music, dancing, and swimming remind me that my country is a place like anywhere else, no longer stigmatized by the North, or occupied by gunfire. Ayeit, marked by tukul huts and cattle borders, characterized by life, not death. The harsh contours of a militarized landscape have dissolved, softened by the simple joy of the inhabitants as they go about their daily routine—milking cows, cultivating maize, fishing in the afternoon, drinking homemade beer, cracking jokes, living their lives.
When I visited my village the first time since I was six, I looked for my six-year-old self. I looked for the spot where the Northern Sudanese militia dug my grave. I couldn’t find either one. For twelve years, I’d regarded my homeland as the scene of a horror movie. That movie ended. Life is not perfect. The German philosopher Georg Hegel said that man is always in the process of becoming. I urge the analysts to consider what that process entails in the context of South Sudanese post-secession. Wait and see what becomes of South Sudan.