A Genocide Foretold

The New York Times
Op-Ed Columnist

JUBA, Sudan

The Sudanese government started the first genocide of the 21st century in Darfur, and now it seems to be preparing to start the second here among the thatch-roof huts of southern Sudan.

South Sudan is rich in oil, but its people are among the poorest in the world, far poorer than those in Darfur. Only 1 percent of girls here finish elementary school, meaning that a young woman is more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than to become literate. Leprosy and Ebola linger here. South Sudan is the size of Texas, yet it has only 10 miles of paved road and almost no electricity; just about the only running water here is the Nile River.

The poverty is mostly the result of the civil war between North and South Sudan that raged across the southern part of the country for two decades and cost 2 million lives. For many impoverished villagers, their only exposure to modern technology has been to endure bombings by the Sudanese Air Force. The war finally ended, thanks in part to strong American pressure, in 2005 with a landmark peace agreement — but that peace is now fraying.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is backing away from the peace agreement, and prodding Arab militias to revive the war with the South Sudan military forces. Small-scale armed clashes have broken out since late last year, and it looks increasingly likely that Darfur will become simply the prologue to a far bloodier conflict that engulfs all Sudan.

Even my presence here is a sign of the rising tensions and mistrust. The Sudanese government refuses me visas, but the authorities in the south let me enter from Kenya without a visa because they want the word to get out that war is again looming.

The authorities in disputed areas such as the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile State also welcomed me, rather than arresting me, even though those areas technically are on the northern side of the dividing line. Local officials in both areas warned that President Bashir and his radical Arab political party are preparing to revive the war against non-Arab groups in the south and center of the country.

“If things go on as they are now, war will break out,” said Sila Musa Kangi, the commissioner of Kormuk in Blue Nile. “And it can break out at any time.”

Although people speak of renewed “war,” the violence is more likely to resemble what happens in a stockyard. If it is like the last time, government-sponsored Arab militias will slaughter civilians so as to terrorize local populations and drive them far away from oil wells.

Under the 2005 deal that ended the war, Sudan is supposed to hold elections early next year, but President Bashir is unlikely to allow them because he almost surely would lose. Likewise, Mr. Bashir is unlikely to abide by his commitment to allow the south to hold a referendum in 2011 to decide whether to separate from Sudan because southerners would likely vote overwhelmingly for independence — and more than three-quarters of the country’s oil is in the south.

Already, the Sudanese government is backtracking on its commitments under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or C.P.A.: It still hasn’t withdrawn all of its troops from the south; it hasn’t accepted a boundary commission report for the oil-rich border area of Abyei; it keeps delaying a census needed for the elections; and it appears to be cheating the south of oil revenues. And the U.S. and other countries have acquiesced in all this.

“We say to the international community, ‘you midwifed the C.P.A., and then you left,’ ” said Rebecca Garang, the widow of the longtime southern leader, John Garang. “You must come back and check the baby.”

Those who focused on Sudan’s atrocities in Darfur, myself included, may have inadvertently removed the spotlight from South Sudan. Without easing the outrage over Darfur — where the bloodshed has been particularly appalling lately — we must broaden the focus to include the threat to the south.

One of the lessons of Darfur, Rwanda and Bosnia is that it is much easier to avert a genocide ahead of time than to put the pieces together afterward. So let’s not wait until gunshots are ringing out again all over the south.

There are steps that the U.S. can take to diminish the risk of a new war. We can work with the international community to raise the costs to President Bashir of defying his treaty obligations.

We can warn Sudan that if it starts a new war, we will supply anti-aircraft weapons to the south to make it harder for the north to resume bombing hospitals, churches and schools. We can also raise the possibility of protecting the south with a no-fly zone, which might be enough to deter Mr. Bashir from starting yet another genocide.

Comment on this column on my blog at: www.nytimes.com/ontheground.