I went to Kassala, earlier this week, a city in East Sudan, close to the border with Eritrea. Kassala lies at the foot of a mountain shaped in the form of a huge sleeping camel in the middle of the desert, an unforgettable image.
View of part of the mountains just outside of Kassala
Photo: Paula Souverijn-Eisenberg (c)
East Sudan is full of conflict. It is poorer than Darfur. Like in Darfur and in South Sudan, many people in East Sudan feel neglected by Khartoum. The area was disputed between the Government and the Southern liberation movement, SPLM. There are still SPLM troops in Eastern Sudan. According to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed in Nairobi a year ago, they will have to be redeployed to the South before 9 January. Thereafter the Government army (the Sudanese Armed Forces, SAF) can move in. However, there is also a conflict between the Government and some Eastern rebel movements, which joined their forces into the so-called Eastern Front. The Front, which had close connections with the SPLM, has announced that it will attack the SAF as soon as the army tries to fill the void resulting from SPLM withdrawal. That would imply a resumption of the fighting, after the gentlemen's agreement not to attack each other, which was brought about last year in informal discussions by the UN with each party separately. The objective was to transform these informal discussions into 'talks about talks' and later into peace talks proper. Both parties had agreed to such a procedure, but in October they announced that they had accepted a Libyan offer to mediate the talks. The sidelining of the UN meant that the parallel approach between the talks and the redeployment of SPLM was lost. The talks, to be facilitated by Libya, have not yet started. It will never be possible to get an agreement before the crucial date of 9 January.
This weekend the Sudanese Government and the SPLM agreed to postpone the redeployment with one month. This is a wise decision. If the time will be used effectively an escalation of the conflict can be avoided. However, there is a third conflict: between the Eastern movements themselves. The two strongest movements, together forming the Eastern Front, are of a tribal character. One of the movements, the Beja Congress, has its stronghold within the oldest tribe, the Beja. The other, the so-called Free Lions, finds its basis in particular amongst the Rashaida, a tribe which is said to have come to Eastern Sudan less than two centuries ago. The tribes and the movements had had their disputes, but seemed to have become rather united after they had realized that other opposition movements in Sudan had neglected the interests of the people in the east. However, last week the Rashaida reached a separate agreement with the government, which greatly upset their partners in the Eastern Front. Statements by the government and the Rashaida that this was nothing more than a technical reconfirmation of some old agreements were met with disbelief by the Beja, who were suspicious that land claims - one of the major sources of conflict in both East and west Sudan - by the Rashaida had been granted by the Government. Thereupon the Beja announced not to be willing anymore to go to Tripolis, because they had lost their confidence in Libya as an impartial mediator.
It is the old Sudanese story of spontaneous and manipulated splits within movements either fighting or negotiating together, thereby strengthening the position of their adversary, the Government. It has happened often in the South, where SPLM saw the emergency of a number of split factions. They were partly due to tribal conflict, partly to personal power ambitions. Often they were orchestrated by the Government, promising money and positions. A similar pattern we see in Darfur with recent splits in the two main movements, SLA and JEM. Last year the leader of the Eastern Front had told me that he would not wish to make the same mistakes as the movements in Darfur. That is exactly what has happened.
East Sudan is suffering from a fourth conflict too. The region has a border with Eritrea. Despite some recent cooling off, there is much tension between the two countries, after armed conflicts in the not so distant past. Both countries harbor refugees from their neighbor. Both accuse the other of supporting rebel movements across the border with arms, money and refuge. Any escalation of this conflict would have consequences for the security and stability in East Sudan. Both the Eastern Front and the SPLM have always enjoyed hospitality within Eritrea.
The most contested part of East Sudan is the region Hameskoreib, which is controlled by SPLM and the Eastern Front. It is of strategic importance, not only because it borders Eritrea, but also because the main road between Khartoum and the harbor of Port Sudan is very near. The present economic boom of Sudan and its newly won position as oil exporting country make Port Sudan of crucial importance to the country as a whole, including the South.
Last but not least the increased tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea may result in a third war between these countries in four decades. This too would have major consequences for their common neighbor, and in particular East Sudan. UN agencies have already started preparations for a massive inflow of refugees
So far the rebels have denied access to Hameskoreib to the UN. Humanitarian assistance to the people in that region is necessary, but it could not be provided. This part of Sudan cannot be entered from Sudanese territory itself, but only through Eritrea. I visited Kassala to discuss the possibility of access by the UN, together with the Government and SPLM. We hope to launch such a joint mission in a week or two. This could catalyze the peace process in the East, provided that wisdom would prevail at all sides. If not, a conflict with proportions similar to that in Darfur could result.
The Nepali contigent in Kassala, which, shortly after writing this weblog, gained access to Hameskoreib en is now conducting regular patrols there together with the Government and SPLM.
Photo: Paula Souverijn-Eisenberg (c)