INSIDE SUDAN: Water and Blood and the Wars Within Wars
Veronica Nywadwe’s husband died of hepatitis and dysentery five years ago. The simple lack of clean, drinkable water left this 38-year-old woman with six children to raise alone. She paid a staggering price to learn a hard lesson in hygiene.
Today, Nywadwe takes a two-minute walk to fill a jug of clean water from an aluminum shed on the outskirts of this swampy town in southeastern Sudan. This rectangular wonder sports four faucets protruding from a pipeline built by the International Rescue Committee in August. Its impact has been profound.
“Before, we had to walk two kilometers (just over a mile) to the river, where the water is filthy,” said Nywadwe, pointing toward the White Nile that slithers around Malakal. “The old and the lame couldn’t make the journey. This water lifts a great burden from the women.”
Malakal is the scene of one of Sudan’s most unusual humanitarian problems. Roughly half the 60,000 people living in this humid backwater have fled from the countryside because of a feud between the two main ethnic groups, the Nuer and the Shilluk.
This conflict confounds the common perceptions of Africa’s largest country. Civil war erupted in the greater Sudan in 1993, when mainly Christian black Africans began a secessionist campaign against the Muslim Arab government. The two sides agreed to a U.S.-brokered peace plan in 2002.
Yet that agreement was almost immediately endangered when fighting broke out in the west Darfur region between black African rebels and pro-government Arab militias—both of whom were mainly Muslims. More than 1.8 million have been displaced and up to 70,000 killed.
Malakal offers a different twist: both factions are black African and predominately Christian. Yet the two ethnic groups have largely played out a proxy war for the government and the main southern rebels, with the Nuer currently backed by the government and the Shelluk backed by the insurgent Sudanese People’s Liberation Army.
Malakal is filled with paradox and intrigue. There is a huge government garrison in the city proper, though the region around it is overrun with rebels. Militias with competing interests prowl the countryside, where large numbers of displaced are cut off from any aid. Malakal is filled with informants and infiltrators.
The victims only understand that they get caught in the crossfire.
Nybang Ajang doesn’t know why a boatload of Nuer fighters stopped at her village of Owage last March, then started shooting. “The local people just decided to run,” she said. Two of her grandchildren—a 6-year-old boy and a girl, 8—vanished in the chaos. “Their lives are in God’s hands.”
The hostilities are sporadic and pale in comparison to the crisis in Darfur. Yet the humanitarian crisis is real and potentially devastating.
The International Rescue Committee began setting up water and sanitation programs here in 1999 to fight the dysentery outbreak that claimed Veronica Nywadwe’s husband. The organization built latrines and taught people to bury their garbage.
Behavior changed, and health quantifiably improved.
Now the agency is seeking money to expand operations aimed at teaching local people how to resolve conflicts without killing each other. It is also girding for what local humanitarian officials believe—if the big peace accord is finally signed—will be an influx of southerners displaced by the main civil war returning from the north.
The local politics, the rumors of the day and casual gossip are all exchanged during trips to the water station where Nywadwe lives, in a district called Goni that is made up of local people and the displaced. The water station, one of 20 in Malakal, is akin to the proverbial office water cooler.
The water station itself is maintained and monitored by a local committee of three men and three women. Soon, local residents will be asked to pay a nominal tariff—a fraction of a cent—in order to increase their sense of responsibility for keeping the water flowing.
“We’re building programs that will endure,” said IRC health officer Angelo Dere. “The IRC may not be here forever.”