Eyewitness Report: Violence Growing As South Sudan Preps for Independence

Report of a shaky peace in region blighted by civil war.

June 4, 2011 — -- Karen Sherman, head of global programming for Women for Women International, recently returned from a trip to Rumbek, Sudan. The country has agreed to be split in two with the south seceding and becoming South Sudan. But tensions have risen in recent weeks when northern troops seized the contested area of Abyei, prompting fears of a border war erupting before a border is agreed upon.

On the cusp of independence, South Sudan is growing rapidly more unstable.

South Sudan is emerging from the longest civil war on the African continent, which decimated infrastructure, whole villages and all economic institutions.

As it struggles to rebuild, a dramatic increase in violence at all levels of society – tribal, roving militias, revenge killings – leaves Southern Sudanese grateful to survive each day.

The violence is not limited to the North-South conflict that has continued for years. It is deeply embedded in the history of this place, an unforgiving part of daily life.

It is increasingly evident that the North is willing to do whatever it takes to prevent the official declaration of Southern independence on July 9.

As we speak, Khartoum is working to isolate the South -- selectively bombing strategic areas, arming militias and inciting violence. Sudanese soldiers are moving north towards Rumbek from Juba, the capital of South Sudan.

And so it begins, again.

The price of fuel has skyrocketed in the South and is increasingly scarce. Fuel trucks at the North-South border are regularly turned away by government soldiers patrolling the area.

Power is regularly turned off in hotels due to fuel shortages. The cost of food has risen dramatically and can be difficult to find.

Many in the South think all-out war is inevitable and are preparing to fight.

On a recent trip to Rubek, Southern Sudanese people told me they are ready to die for independence. As one woman said, "I want my rights."

The concept of inherent, inalienable rights is one of the few things worth living for in a place where human life is undervalued, especially the life of a woman.

Women are increasingly victims of violence in South Sudan.

During a recent performance by a dance troupe made up of graduates of the Women for Women International program, one of the dancers received a cell phone call that her brother and his two wives had been pulled off of a bus and had their throats slit by the side of the road in what was described as a revenge killing.

At every turn it seems people here find themselves preparing for celebration only to find news of more violence, more loss.

In a separate incident of tribal violence, a man was beaten with a lead pipe by the side of the road. He was so mangled that our Women for Women International staff initially thought they were beating a dog.

The man later died on his way to the hospital.

Fears of Renewed Fighting in Sudan

These are not isolated examples, but daily occurrences. Armed militias roam the streets as twilight approaches, and the red dirt roads become unsafe to travel.

Men and boys with guns walk the streets, both protectors and predators. No one wants to be out after dark.

Women in South Sudan are ready to move to escape the violence. Their bags packed at all times in case they need to leave quickly.

Women will again be the ones to rebuild life for their families, finding food, building new shelters, caring for the children.

They will practice self-reliance, work together and support each other, which is what women around the world do best.

This past January, graduates of our Women for Women International program left their homes outside of Rumbek due to fighting and insecurity.

They moved to Yirol, another county in the Lake States, traveling by foot for days carrying only their most important possessions, among them their graduation certificates from our programs.

I met these women gathered under a large shade tree to block the harsh sun.

Since coming to Yirol, they joined other local women to start small businesses to earn an income.

Some women were doing embroidery, others cultivating small plots of land, a few opened a café in the center of town.

Most of the women are saving money, something rare when living hand to mouth but heavily emphasized in our training program.

The money is saved in a "black box," away from their husbands, only for emergencies.

Women were making mud bricks to construct small dwellings, working together to build one home at a time for each woman and her family.

One woman told me that she was "proud to be a woman, even if the men don't think we are important."

As the men fight, these women are prepared to build an independent nation in South Sudan. There is a fragile peace declared in South Sudan. But will this July bring the world's newest country, or yet another war?

Karen Sherman, head of global programming for Women for Women International, just returned from 10 days in Rumbek, in South Sudan.