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Prelude to Partition

The story of a single family tells why southern Sudan is likely to vote on Sunday for secession.

india Updated: Jan 08, 2011 22:52 IST

The sound of gunshots and galloping hooves travelled far through the night. Amel leapt to her feet and ran out of her hut. Her three children quickly followed. They did not pause to speak; they did not need to. The enemy was coming — Arab tribesmen on horseback and behind them government soldiers from north Sudan.

Amel was soon cornered. With smoke from burning huts curling towards the dark sky, Bol, 10, and his sister Athoi, six, ran until they could run no more. They then lay down and hid in the tall, yellow grass among the acacia trees, praying they would not be captured and taken back to the north as slaves, as so many others had been.

But their brother Philip Ngor Bol, a small, serious boy of 14, kept on running through the night, barefoot, driven by terror and defiance. The enemy had already killed his father. He would not allow them to get him.

For three months he travelled through the bush, first alone, then with a small group of other people fleeing their villages, eating wild fruit and mangoes, tying strips of bed sheets over bleeding feet.

They waded through rivers and past rotting bodies before finally reaching a refugee camp in Kenya.

Now, 14 years on, Philip is preparing for the moment he thought would never come. On Sunday, in a polling booth not far from the village where he grew up, he will put this right thumbprint next to the symbol of an open hand on the ballot paper, the mark for separation.

PARTITION

Most of the nearly four million other southerners who have registered to vote will do the same. After the result is confirmed in five weeks’ time, Sudan, Africa’s largest country — which was always in effect two countries — will be formally split in two.

A new nation (South Sudan is one of the names suggested) will be born.

The referendum was put on the table only at the end of a two-decade civil war with the north, in which an estimated two million people lost their lives.

Modern history has not been kind to southern Sudan, whose people are ethnically and religiously distinct from the predominantly Arab, Muslim north. During British colonisation, the two regions were administered separately, but the south was barely developed.

Fearing, correctly, that the Arab leaders in Khartoum would dominate the country once independence was achieved in 1956, the southerners launched a rebellion the year before.

The war ended in 1972, but the marginalisation continued.

In Warbek village, where Amel and her husband Bol Deng lived, there were no services: no clinic, no proper school, no water, no road. Their first five children died soon after birth.

So did Chan, Philip’s twin brother. Philip was only a year old when the second north-south civil war broke out. The Sudan people’s liberation army (SPLA), which was fighting on behalf of southerners, was not strong in Northern Bahr el Ghazal state, where Warbek is located. And so the northern army and its proxy militias of Arab horsemen repeatedly swept in, looting, killing and raping at will.

One day in the early 1990s, when Bol Deng was alone with his herd of cows and goats, soldiers shot him dead and took his animals — the entire family wealth. In the years that followed Philip began dreaming of avenging his father’s death.

But then one night he heard the terrible sound of guns and hooves, and started to run.

Behind in the bush he left his brother Bol, who eventually found his way home after three days. Athoi was already there. She had discovered their mother lying on the ground, half-dead. Amel had been beaten with the butt of a gun on her head, her back and her chest. Philip was presumed kidnapped or dead.

PEACE

He had been in Kakuma nearly a decade when the war ended in 2005.

Philip was keen to return home, but volunteered to help convince other refugees in Kakuma to do so first. He finally left Kakuma on a truck bound for Sudan in March 2009 with a bag of clothes, a small mattress and six textbooks.

He was flown to Northern Bahr el Ghazal, driven to Warbek market. Immediately there were shouts and screams. People whose faces he did not recognise hugged him so hard he had to pull away. He had left a boy and returned a man, but he was not forgotten.

Amel was in her hut when a child came running to say Philip was home. “You are deceiving me,” she said. A few minutes later he was at her door. Philip immediately burst in tears. His mother was alive — old, so frail, but alive. As they embraced she said: “Don’t cry my child. You have found me.”

Within hours his sister Athoi had arrived, running from 10 miles away after getting the news. But where was his brother Bol? Philip travelled to the state capital Aweil, and spent a month looking for Bol before finding him in another town. They returned together to Warbek.