A new tradition of peace

[MONTRÉAL]  A half-empty pint of double-fermented rye beer sits on the shaky table beside Ruszard Kapuscinki’s book, The Shadow of the Sun, which is described in the New York Times as “a marvel of humane, sorrowful and lucid observation” of Africa. It is a great read by a Polish journalist who was intimately familiar with the African continent.

Since the beginning of October, I’ve come to Le Cheval Blanc on Wednesday evenings to initiate a ritual meeting place among friends to establish tradition where non existed before. A recurrent gathering—without notice—to linger over a pint of locally brewed beer and discuss our respective projects and catch up on each other’s lives. Come after 17h00 and, barring lateness, I will be there. In my absence,  carry on without me.

This ‘tradition’ is important now because I’m feeling somewhat shaky these days, having left much of my former professional self behind to begin anew. Bye bye book publishing. It was nice knowing you. We shared ten great years. But without the meetings, editorial schedules and launch deadlines, I find myself with blank agenda pages and insufficient diversity on any given day. Since I closed the bed & breakfast 77 days ago, the early breakfasts, dirty laundry and evening check-ins cease to guide my days with their punctual familiarity. And now I’ve moved to another part of town. Terra incognita. A potentially dreadful place if one is captivated by fear of the unknown. A place of potential crisis if left untethered. A panic attack circling like a pack of hyenas. A pocketed paper bag in the onslaught of hyperventilation. Luckily for me I thrive on change but it sometimes takes a bit of adjustment.

I don’t fear the horizon ahead of me, of falling of the edge of the world. I enjoy facing the open ocean imagining the current taking me toward the rest of the world. These are moments when everything is possible. It’s the potential of it all that makes new projects worth pursuing. And it’s precisely this potential that leads me to Africa or more precisely to Sudan, a place devastated by post-colonial war. I read in this morning’s newspaper that just yesterday, at the National Forum on Darfur, held in Khartoum, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir called for a ceasefire in Darfur and the immediate disarmament of the Janjaweed militias 1, 2, 3, 4. Maybe the western region of Sudan will grasp the tenuous peace that continues in South Sudan, where I’m headed at the end of January or early February.

South Sudan may be one of the more remote and underdeveloped regions of the world but it is on the cusp of something new. Something great. Great because it has been at peace with the central Sudanese government since 2005, after two debilitating civil wars (1956-1972 & 1983-2005). Great because four million refugees are returning to their traditional homeland. Great because schools are being built to educate the girls and boys who have now experienced peace for the first time. Great because elections are coming in 2009 and the population is learning about democratic processes by state-sponsored, privately owned, and community media. Great because in 2011, the South can hold a referendum( as mandadted in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the northern Government of Sudan (GoS) and the southern-based Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement) that can give the South independence from the rest of Sudan. I’m not adverse to separation but I’d like to ask the South Sudanese what they want in their context.

Everyone knows that holding elections or referenda after decades of war can be volatile in the best of times, but its potential for holding onto the peace is palpable. I want to be there, as it unfolds, to witness, capture and understand this potential.

South Sudan, as a political entity in and of itself, is without tradition. Its existence is new, since the 2005 peace agreement. I am not referring to the traditions of the various community and ethnic groups, like the Dinka, Nuer, and 68 others listed by The Gurtong Peace Trust. Their respective traditions go back farther than anyone can accurately refer to. Theirs are oral histories that have been passed on through generations since the beginning of time.

The tradition I’m referring to is in the tradition of peace and co-habitation within a geographic area and political setting that did not really exist before the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The Agreement was signed on January 9, 2005, beginning a 6-year interim period and establishing South Sudan as an autonomous region within Sudan.

Now midway in this interim period, Sudan is preparing for elections. The Fifth National Population Census is underway to reveal the demographics of the country but I’m particularly interested in the South. How many people actually make up its population? A difficult questions considering about half of the four million refugees have yet to return to their ancestral lands. Some are internally displaced within Sudan, others are refugees in neighbouring countries,  while still others have taken refuge in Canada, the United States, and other western countries. How can so many people who are still on the move be accurately counted? And how accurate must the count be to consider election results fair and democratic? There hasn’t been an accurate census taken in Sudan since 1983 before the beginning of its 2nd civil war.

To give you an idea of the challenges, Southern Sudan’s land mass is huge with an area of about 640,000 square kilometres (about the size of France), with a population estimated somewhere between 7.5 and 9.7 million. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFDA), the population is expected to increase by as much as three million in the next six years due to the natural increase in population and the return of refugees and internally displaced people. Where will they all live? What infrastructure is needed to accommodate their arrival? What will they do when they get to where they are going? Humanitarian and development aid is needed in South Sudan to provide for those who are already there, so how much more is needed to accommodate the returnees? These are questions that are rarely discussed in Western media so how else is one supposed to genuinely understand without interviewing the few that follow the case closely and talking to the people living through the tumultuous changes? Although the peace holds a huge potential to rejuvenate a wounded land and its scattered people, its erratic interpretation by those who’ve only known war—and the geopolitical wrangling by those interested in the South’s resources—can foment crisis conditions reminiscent of the recent past.

If I can share challenges and successes of the peace process in written, audio and video reports and documentary films, which few others seem to be doing, then maybe it will be a little easier (if ever so slightly) for peace to settle in and make itself comfortable. That’s another reason I want to go.

Kapuscinski writes in the aforementioned book that experience has taught him that “situations of crisis appear more dire and dangerous from a distance than they do up close.” I tend to agree. He continues in the chapter about Zanzibar, that mythical island off the coast of Kenya, about when he chartered a plane from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar to report the previous day’s coup d’état there.  He adds, “Our imaginations hungrily and greedily absorb every tiny bit of sensational news, the slightest portent of peril, the faintest whiff of gunpowder, and instantly inflate these signs to monstrous, paralyzing proportions.” Corporate media thrive on this sensationalism but I want to get past it; closer to the truth. However, Kapuscinski doesn’t denigrate the havoc that can reign during such times. He wrote “about those moments when calm, deep waters begin to churn and bubble into general chaos […] it is easy to perish by accident, because someone didn’t hear something fully or didn’t notice something in time. On such days, the accident is king; it becomes history’s true determinant and master.”

I’ve never been prone to accidents and I plan on keeping it that way.

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