Mahmoud El Zain Hamid just watched his homeland split in two. Sudan, until this week the largest country in Africa, became two countries after the Christian-dominated south declared independence from the Muslim-ruled north Saturday at midnight.
Hamid, a University for Peace professor and expert on international conflict, saw new borders arise in his country from a distance. When he arrived to Costa Rica in 2005, university officials told him he was likely the only Sudanese citizen here. A female Sudanese colleague was hired recently, but she’s currently in England.
On Saturday night, in the Sudanese capital of Juba, wild celebrations rocked the streets. Meanwhile, Hamid remained stuck in a traffic jam in Santa Ana, southwest of San José, after a mid-afternoon car wreck, thousands of miles away from his home in Kurdufan, west of North Sudan’s capital of Khartoum.
“I believe in the unity of one Sudan, the continuity of one country,” Hamid, 47, said. “But having seen the suffering that continued for half a century, it is great that they have freed themselves from this cruel government in the north.”
Two civil wars consumed the country for five decades, leaving two million dead. The second ended in 2005 with the agreement that southern Sudan would have the opportunity to secede if the people so chose. They did, overwhelmingly. In January, 99.9 percent of southern Sudanese residents voted for independence. Six months later a new nation was born. The various powerful guests at Sunday’s festivities included North Sudan President Omar Bashir, a military man wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes committed in the Darfur region.
Costa Rica’s Foreign Ministry also welcomed South Sudanese independence.
“This event is a window of opportunity for all Sudanese, both north and south, together to build a future of peaceful coexistence and common development,” the ministry said in a statement.
Hamid fears for both countries’ futures. South Sudan seems unprepared. North Sudan could face even bleaker prospects. While most media coverage has focused on a fledgling country’s historic day, not much has touched on his home in the north, where his wife, family and friends live. Hamid said the south always represented a moderate voice against an increasingly more militaristic government. Without that dissension, Bashir’s government could have an easier time enacting strict, oppressive Islamic laws in one of the most underdeveloped and impoverished areas of the world.
Since the University of Peace hired him in 2005, he’s returned to Sudan several times. However, he’s never made it to the southern half. His most affecting encounter regarding atrocities committed their occurred in Costa Rica.
A couple years ago, he encountered one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” at a restaurant in Ciudad Colón, southwest of San José. The Lost Boys were some 20,000 young refugees that were relocated to other countries. One arrived at Finca Bonanza while Hamid ate dinner. He was on a field trip with a U.S. university in Costa Rica. Like so many of his compatriots, the Lost Boy was a former child soldier. In a country without an army, he told Hamid of war and torment and his continued efforts to help his home.
“He had a very clear political mind, [and] even though he was very young, he was working for the cause of people in southern Sudan,” Hamid said.
On the border, the fighting continues. Religion, language and ethnic backgrounds divide the north and south. Perhaps, more practically, oil severs the region too. Deadly conflicts rage in oil-rich disputed border territories, most notably Abyei.
Oil is not the only precious substance at the center of conflict. At the university, Hamid teaches a class called “Water, Peace and Security.” The now-halved Sudan figures into this topic. South Sudan harbors the heart of the Nile River Basin, a marshland the size of Switzerland, in an area suffering from water scarcity. Hamid anticipates controversy. Still, he respects South Sudan’s democratic future although some regret remains.
“To come to terms that we have failed at achieving [one peaceful Sudan],” Hamid said. “This is very bitter.”