South Sudan Watch: Many Ethnic Groups, One Goal?

LUONYAKER, Sudan—This month, I’ve had the chance to travel to several different corners of Southern Sudan. Reporting trips have taken me to the fertile, green jungle forests of Western Equatoria state, which borders Congo and the Central African Republic; to the frontline North-South border zone of Abyei; and most recently to Warrap state, where the traditional culture of the Dinka people is firmly enshrined in villages like Luonyaker, whose people depend on their cattle and move seasonally with them to cattle camps in the rainy season and to the Jur River for watering during the dry season.

As I’ve noted in other posts, Southern Sudan is a hugely vast territory and its peoples are extremely diverse; looking at a U.N. map showing the distribution of ethnic groups across the south in different colors is like looking at a patchwork quilt.

Despite this diversity, however, it’s hard not to notice the unanimity of opinion among southerners about the upcoming independence vote. Although southerners undoubtedly have internal disputes amongst each other and various communities also have legitimate grievances against the southern government, people seem more united than ever over their desire for the south to separate from the north. After my ten months living in the south, I can only recall a handful of Southern Sudanese people who spoke openly about their desire for Sudan to remain one country after the south’s self-determination referendum on January 9, 2011.

Walking through the market in Luonyaker during my trip to Warrap state this past weekend, a young man who spoke good English strode up to me while I was taking photos of some people playing dominoes. He said he had heard that I worked “in the news” and asked me about the news from Juba about the referendum. He told me that I should know that “Southern Sudan is going,” a turn of phrase I’ve heard more than once from southerners. “We’re going to be independent,” he said. “Tell the people outside [of Sudan].”

Southerners certainly share a common experience of marginalization, and often persecution, at the hands of the northern government. Mistrust and resentment of Khartoum are widespread. These commonalities will likely keep southerners united when they head to the polls in less than five months. After the referendum, however, could be a different story. More on that soon.