Sudan: peace may take a long time, expert says

Sudan: peace may take a long time, expert says

More than 20 years of advocacy work for Sudan on behalf of the churches won to Marina Peter, European coordinator of the Sudan Ecumenical Forum, a decoration from the German government and a deep sense of the complexities of a country whose size is almost that of Western Europe and has seen internal wars over the last 50 years. Only addressing Sudan “in its complexity and as a whole” will bring about peace, she says.

Interview with Marina Peter
By Juan Michel

More than 20 years of advocacy work for Sudan on behalf of the churches won to Marina Peter, European coordinator of the Sudan Ecumenical Forum, a decoration from the German government and a deep sense of the complexities of a country whose size is almost that of Western Europe and has seen internal wars over the last 50 years. Only addressing Sudan “in its complexity and as a whole” will bring about peace, she says.

The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) has accused the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir of genocide in Darfur amongst other crimes. Which are the likely consequences of this?

The consequences of this controversial move are still unclear, but it does change something in Sudan. Although everybody fears the worst, I think it is too early to judge. The Darfur peace process has not been in very good health for a long time anyway.

Many peace advocates in Sudan, including international humanitarian organizations as well as churches and their partners in the Sudan Ecumenical Forum, need to properly evaluate possible scenarios and prefer to maintain a low public profile at this time.

I think one should focus on the independence of justice. The judges of the ICC have to evaluate the evidence presented by the prosecutor and act according to their evaluation.

You mentioned the Sudan Ecumenical Forum – an umbrella advocacy group for Sudanese churches and their international partners sponsored by the World Council of Churches – which promotes a “whole Sudan approach”. What does that mean?

Sudan is such a big country, with so many ethnic groups, cultures, peace agreements and conflict situations, that people find it difficult to see the country as a whole. Some focus on the south, others on the centre, and with the Darfur crisis everybody talks about Darfur almost as if it was a separate country. Any contribution to a better future for the people needs to be based on an understanding of the complexity and interdependence of the country.

Is Darfur being given too much attention, in detriment of the rest of the country?

No, I do not think so. Darfur is a terrible human tragedy; the war there deserves a lot of attention. But if you only look at Darfur and do not see how it is connected to the January 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended the two decade-long war between north and south, you miss the point.

Which is?

The root problems of Sudan are marginalization, lack of development and racism. Outside Khartoum, the capital, many people do not have basic services and cannot exercise their political rights. If people feel sidelined and learn that by taking up arms they will be heard, that is exactly what will happen – and it has happened.

The problem is that then the attention shifts and for instance the monitoring of the CPA implementation, to which those involved with peace talks between north and south had committed themselves, does not work any longer. Without a solution to the Darfur crisis, Sudan cannot have peace and the CPA will not work.

So, is Darfur the key to achieve peace in Sudan?

It is more complex than that. When the world’s attention shifts to Darfur, people in other regions of the country, like the east and the far north, feel sidelined as well. In the south, for instance, where most of the churches are based – as most of the Christian population is based in the south while most of the Muslim population is in the north – people feel nobody is paying attention to the CPA.

Additionally, many Darfurians took sides with the north in the fight against the south before, or at least did not express solidarity when the southern people suffered. That is why southerners, including Sudanese churches, may have found it difficult to show solidarity with the people in Darfur. And even if it is not necessarily true, many believe much of the aid pledged to the south is going to Darfur.

Southerners also feel that when they suffered – and they suffered a lot during 20 years of war against the north, which killed some 2 million people and left more than 4 million internally displaced persons – the world looked in another direction.

Do you mean that churches in Sudan do not care about what is going on in Darfur?

No, they do. At the beginning churches said we need to deliver humanitarian aid; whether those people in Darfur are Muslims or not, we need to do something. But they found it difficult, especially at that time but some still today, to do advocacy for Darfur, because they feel Darfur is somewhat overshadowing their own problems.

Meanwhile, according to UN estimates, in Darfur some 300,000 people have been killed over the last five years and more than two million have fled their homes…

The Darfur tragedy has gone out of hands. At the beginning, Darfurian rebels and the so-called Janjaweed militias received support from the main political parties in the south and the north, respectively. These wanted to have negotiation tools and thought they could contain the problem in Darfur later. Today, the Janjaweed have their own strategy, while the rebels have split into more than 20 groups.

Now we do not know who represents whom. I think it may take a long time to reach peace. And real peace needs real change in Sudan. So we have to address the country in its complexity and as a whole, and even the wider region needs to be taken into account, because the interests of neighbouring countries also play a role…

What else adds to the complexity of the picture?

The so-called transitional zones: the Nuba people, the people in southern Blue Nile – many of them feel they are again victims and not really recognized neither by Khartoum nor by the south, because they are not southerners. The same happens to the people in the far east – they also had a war and a peace agreement and nobody thinks of the east. Those areas – Abyei, Kordofan, the southern Blue Nile – would be at the frontline of a new war, which is always a possibility.

What does Sudan need most?

I would say justice for the people, but it is difficult to say… It would need leaders who put the people first and not their own interest. This applies to both, north and south.

How can the churches contribute to achieve peace?

One problem Sudanese churches and civil society organizations face is that after the CPA many of their advocacy activists were recruited by the government, the UN or international NGOs which offered better paid jobs. So suddenly all those voices were missing.

However, churches should play a more active role in addressing injustices, and in monitoring the implementation of the CPA. They are well placed for that as they are everywhere, but they need to train their members.
Churches should play a watchdog role, challenging the government when it does something wrong, because people in Sudan, including many Muslims, listen to the churches. And of course, the relief and development work are equally important.

Juan Michel, WCC media relations officer, is a member of the Evangelical Church of the River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

WCC member churches in Sudan:

WCC solidarity visit to Sudan, April 2008:

“German by birth, Sudanese by heart”

Marina Peter fell in love with Sudan “by coincidence” 21 years ago. Being a teacher of German language and history trained in intercultural education, at that time she knew nothing about the country, except that it had “hot weather and refugees”. But getting a job with the development agency EED of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) was the beginning of a learning experience that made of her one of the most recognized ecumenical experts on Sudan.

Over the last two decades, spending a big deal of time in a country ravaged by war, Peter has seen a lot. “It was very difficult sometimes: anything could really happen any time, attacks, bombings; you needed to be prepared and always have your back-pack ready with water, medicines, staple food. In fact I had to run several times”, she recalls.

But what impressed her most were touching experiences of hospitality and resilience. “When people who have almost nothing offer you their only, skinny goat, it is overwhelming, especially for someone coming from a wealthy society like mine, where people are always trying to get more”, she says.

“Sometimes, I wondered what I was doing in those remote places when I could have comfortably been at home, far from bombings, shootings, spiders, scorpions and snakes… But then one thinks of those people who do not give up hope even if they are displaced two, three times; those women who need to start again and again and they still have hope. And then you cannot stop, because if they have hope you are not entitled to give up.”

Last March, Peter was awarded the Cross of Merit on ribbon – one of the highest distinctions of the Federal Republic of Germany – in recognition of her service to the Sudan Ecumenical Forum (SEF), for which she has been the European coordinator since 1997. Created in 1994, the Forum is a network of Sudanese churches and international ecumenical partners, including several German church development agencies. Sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Forum promotes peace and human rights, with activities in Europe and Sudan.

The World Council of Churches promotes Christian unity in faith, witness and service for a just and peaceful world. An ecumenical fellowship of churches founded in 1948, today the WCC brings together 349 Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican and other churches representing more than 560 million Christians in over 110 countries, and works cooperatively with the Roman Catholic Church. The WCC general secretary is Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, from the Methodist Church in Kenya. Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland.