Independent Appeal: Where Unity is divided by oil

Peace Direct is working hard to ensure the riches underneath Sudanese soil do not reignite civil war. Daniel Howden reports
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The Independent Online

There is a straight line crossing the swamps of Nuerland where the earth has been methodically scorched and plugged. Rusting metal caps lie beneath fetid ponds of water six feet across. They are the only physical evidence of what will soon be the next generation of Sudan's oil wells.

They sit atop man-made hills, bulldozed from the burnt marshes and waiting to be connected to high-pressure pipelines that will pump the crude out of the ground of Unity State and send it north to Port Sudan.

The line of the plugs is matched by the fearsome symmetry of raised and graded roads that have been cut through the fringes of the great Sudd Swamp. This grid of dead-straight scars in the wetlands is a lasting reminder of a brutal meeting between the industrial world and the pastoral life that existed before the discovery of oil.

Nyadiat Kuol, 21, has a scar of her own. It splices her top lip and stays as a more personal reminder of the helicopter gunships that came to clear the way for the roads.

It is nearly 10 years since Sudan's North-South civil war came to her village. The government in Khartoum had relaunched oil exploration in Unity State after making peace with one faction of the south's strained guerrilla alliance. It began a scorched-earth campaign to empty the land of its people and make way for the oil companies to expand drilling and explore further south.

The helicopters were sent to strafe the villages that stood in the way before paid militia would mop up stragglers and survivors, killing anyone they found.

The onslaught came at Nyadiat's village at first light. She remembers four gunships that came in the morning and returned at dusk two days in a row. "When they came, some escaped to the river, some to the forest," she says. Her own escape was made harder by flying shrapnel that cut open her face and wounded her leg. There was no option of resting her injuries though.

"The soldiers were following behind to burn everything left standing," says Peter Gatlec. Two years ago, Nyadiat, Peter and the other survivors returned to their village. There was nothing left standing.

Now a line of tear-drop shaped huts once more divides their pasture land from their crops. People and animals live cheek by jowl. The smaller houses, called duels, are spaced evenly among the larger enclosures for the animals, known as luaks.

On the mud walls of the duel in which Nyadiat is sitting, the names of the children that live there have been written in chalk. John Kahn Diew and Samuel Lak Bowm have scrawled their names in spidery script, a skill they learned at the recently opened school nearby.

These uncertain letters are a sign of an uneasy peace that holds for now in Unity State, one of the handful of territories that sit on either side of the line that divides North and South Sudan. The contested states are also home to the bulk of the half a million barrels of oil that Sudan produces every day – reserves that many analysts believe could create another bloody chapter in the history of Africa's largest country.

Unity's own history has betrayed its name, and its oil wealth has proved to be a curse. The state has been fought over in a series of guerrilla wars and local conflicts that have allowed foreign oil companies to exploit its resources without reference to its people.

For Tom Gillhespy from Peace Direct – one of the charities for which this year's Independent Christmas Appeal is raising funds – the state is a terrifying example of how not to manage oil. Despite the immense challenges in a country that holds its first national elections in 25 years this coming April and from which the South is expected to vote overwhelmingly to secede in 2011, Mr Gillhespy believes that smart intervention can stop some of the mistakes of the past from being repeated.

Peace Direct has been working across the deep divide left by Africa's longest war with the practical aim of getting oil companies to behave better, getting communities to resolve their differences without violence, and getting politicians to respond to the root causes of conflict. In a country with seemingly scant prospects for reconciliation the results can be surprising.

"It's not just that we are coming to the North for the first time in 20 years," said George Ngoha, director of Sudan Women in Development and Peace (SWIDAP), a partner of Peace Direct. "It's also to find that our brothers in the North are doing the same work as we are doing in the South. The veil has been torn down."

The most effective device for tearing it down has been the Sudan Oil and Human Security Initiative (SOHSI), which brings together oil companies, the government and representatives of the communities affected by exploration to develop trust and work together on issues such as security and the environment. According to Mr Gillhespy the point of SOHSI "is to work in co-operation with oil companies to avoid what has happened elsewhere" from happening in the states in which SOHSI is working.

Those states include the contested South Kordofan, currently within the domain of Arab-dominated northern Sudan but which many residents feel should join the mainly Christian South.

Duria Adam is a "peacebuilder" with the charity, which began working in Sudan in 2006. One of the northern pioneers of the Collaborative for Peace in Sudan, Duria (whose name has been changed for her own protection) has recently returned from mediating a dispute over oil compensation in South Kordofan.

The project began with workshops on elections with local people attending. The people were given the chance to elect their own peace committee at the end of the workshop to give them a taste of democracy and also to provide an elected body to address local conflicts.

During the workshop, Duria was approached by a member of the local Koyat people who warned that his tribe had recently bought 40 weapons. Separately, a member of the neighbouring Kolba tribe approached her to reveal that young men he knew had been sent to Kenya for military training. All the ingredients were in place for a fight with wider ramifications.

Duria tasked the newly elected peace committee with mapping out all of the local points of conflict.

It turned out that oil compensation was at the bottom of the Kolba-Koyat dispute with one tribe claiming a health clinic should have been given to them; two years before, three people had been killed and 14 injured in fighting over this. Using a "Rapid Response Fund" of $3,000 the committee was able to intervene quickly.

The voluntary group spent a fortnight visiting the tribes involved. Once the groundwork was done they got the heads of the tribes together, along with the local government, security forces and the oil companies concerned. Thanks to Duria, it was agreed the firm would provide a second health clinic for the community that had previously missed out. "Had the project not existed this would have undoubtedly led to further bloodshed on a large scale and it is this kind of approach that we are looking to replicate in Unity," says Mr Gillhespy.

As Sudan enters its most critical period since the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the civil war of 20 years, Peace Direct believes its work building relationships with local partners can be a model for keeping the peace in one of Africa's most complicated crises.

The replacement of the usual NGO and aid agency structures with funding given directly to local organisations means money can be used more effectively and efficiently, Peace Direct argues. "This demonstrates how, even when oil companies try to do the right thing, they could get it wrong," says Mr Gillhespy. "And it shows how valuable a local body like SOHSI is, not just to the peace of the local communities but to the oil companies themselves." With the support of Peace Direct, and generous giving by Independent readers, women like Duria can continue to build peace in this troubled region.

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