AKRON, Pa. — Neighbors have warned Rose Nydiar of Rumbek, Sudan, to move to the countryside before the Jan. 9 referendum. In a wheelchair, Nydiar may be especially vulnerable to any violence that might take place as the people of southern Sudan decide whether or not to secede from Sudan.
Nydiar says she’s not going to go.
“This running away is what we did last time for the war,” Nydiar told Kaitlyn Jantzi, an MCC worker from Kitchener, Ont., living in Rumbek. “I am preparing for peace. I will stay in my home. If my home becomes my tomb, at least I have prepared for peace.
“Last time I ran to the bush, I was young. I did not think. Now I have a home. I have planted okra. I have planted flowers. This is my home and I will not run.”
For the hundreds of thousands of people like Nydiar who have already suffered two decades of war between the north and the south, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and the Sudan Council of Churches call upon Christians everywhere to pray for a peaceful referendum.
The right to hold this referendum was established as part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, which brought two decades of Sudanese civil war to an end. The vote is widely expected to lead to the development of two separate countries, one in the north and one in the south.
However, as the time for the referendum approaches, anxieties are high in the north and the south. Reports of coercion, threats and actual violence are causing some people to move out of Sudan or into the countryside in case the referendum leads to more intense violence or even war.
One of the key issues of contention is the country’s oil resources, located along the north and south borders and in Abyei, an area of southern Sudan. Leaders of northern and southern Sudan have not been able to agree on how oil profits will be divided, and international mediation attempts in October failed.
The Sudan Council of Churches (SCC), an MCC partner, offered its services to resolve Abyei-related conflicts when the council met with the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) for three days of meetings in early October.
The Sudanese churches, some of which are also MCC partners, are the only part of civil society to have survived the civil war, said Leroy Willems, MCC representative in Sudan with spouse, Joan Willems, both of Peoria, Ariz. The church has a strong ecumenical presence in Sudan and recognizes it has a “high, moral responsibility” to speak to the government on behalf of the people, said Willems, who represented nongovernmental organizations that support the SCC at the meetings, known as Kajiko II.
At the end of the meetings, the SCC and GOSS resolved to monitor elections, educate voters about their rights and do everything possible to be sure the referendum will happen on time. The two groups also committed to integrating thousands of southern Sudanese who are returning from northern Sudan, where they had moved to escape the violence of the war.
Even as people are moving to southern Sudan to relocate in the south, others are sending their children out of the country in anticipation of violence. Joyce Teria, a local intern with MCC Sudan, said she knows of five families in her Juba neighborhood that have sent about 25 children to extended family in Uganda.
In Rumbek, Jantzi said only five women came to a program for malnourished women and children last week instead of the 30 to 35 women who normally come. “They are heading to the villages where they believe they will be safe from the threat they perceive is coming,” said Jantzi who serves with spouse, Luke Jantzi.
MCC Sudan has security plans in place to deal with the safety and security of MCC Sudan staff.
While a strong sense of fear is present for many, others paint an almost utopian picture of life after the referendum, Joan Willems said. She summarized the mindset: “Once the country (Southern Sudan) is established, there will be elections, offices will be filled on merit, corruption will be decreased or eliminated and development funds will only go to peaceful purposes.”
No one knows for sure what effect the referendum will have, but what is certain is the need for prayer, said Willems.
“We hear the churches crying for a peaceful referendum,” she said. “Let us hold in prayer those in power, those who have authority, so they will listen to the cries of the people and make decisions that keep the peace.”