KHARTOUM, Sudan—"You see my home? You see my situation?" the chief from Tonj in southern Sudan asked me. Six wooden sticks were the sturdiest part of a shack that housed the chief and about 20 of his people in one of Khartoum's poorest suburbs. Woven grass and bamboolike material formed a roof that rain would pour straight through. There were no walls. Children between about 2 and 10 years old approached me cautiously, giggling when they came close. Several had orange-tinged hair, a sign of malnourishment. None were in school. "I have stayed here for 21 years, and I have failed to find a home or a job. How can I possibly send my children to school?" the chief asked, indignant that I had posed the question.
An estimated 1.5 million people from southern Sudan fled north to Khartoum during a two-decadeslong war between the Sudanese government based in the predominantly Muslim north and rebels in the predominantly animist and Christian south of the country. As many as 2 million people, mainly southerners, died during the conflict. Those who made it to the relative safety of the north have been marginalized ever since. They mostly live in makeshift shelters with no electricity and little access to clean water.
The war was brought to an end in 2005 by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which stated that in January 2011, southerners would get to vote on whether they wanted to secede from the north. In July 2010, the ruling National Congress Party promised southerners all manner of development projects if they voted for unity. (It also re-instituted censorship of local papers, removing articles that favored secession.)
I wanted to hear from southerners: Where was home for them now? What about their children who were born in the north and had never been to southern Sudan?
I was busy writing down the chief's answers to these questions when I felt a tap on my leg. "Look! Look around you!" I was being alerted to the arrival of the police. I caught sight of a few women running around the side of a building in the distance. Then blue-uniformed police, armed with steel bars and AK-47s, appeared. The women had all vanished.
The police officers pointed to a spot in the ground and ordered one of the young southerners to start digging a hole with his hands. After a while, they moved him aside and poked around the hole with their steel bars—finding nothing but more dirt. Next, they went to another spot and dug a hole with their steel bars—again finding nothing. After a couple more attempts, the police seemed to lose interest—or perhaps they were starting to feel a little self-conscious that there was a kawadja (foreigner) watching them dig holes in the ground.
There were two English speakers among the Tonj group. "What do you see around you?" one asked me.
I saw a dozen southern women and their toddlers in an armed police truck, the southern men and older children in their impoverished camp around me, and a group of policemen digging holes in their backyard.
"Do you see a people of unity?" he asked.
One of the chief's sons came to explain that the police were rounding up southern women on suspicion of brewing marissa.
For many southerners, marissa, brewed from dates and sorghum, is a traditional drink, similar to a light beer. Throughout Khartoum, displaced southern women who fled to the capital during the civil war brew and sell marissa. They are often the sole breadwinners in their households, but their high rate of illiteracy, coupled with pervasive discrimination against southerners in the north, means they struggle to find work in Khartoum. For many, brewing marissa, which can bring in $1 or $2 per day, is the only way they can feed their children.
The problem is that marissa's alcoholic properties render it illegal under the Sharia laws that apply here. Brewing marissa can result in three possible punishments (and often women are sentenced to all three): a whipping of no less than 40 lashes, up to six months in jail, and a fine of between $40 and $2,000.
The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement framed Sudan as one country with two systems, determined by geography. Sharia law would be applied throughout the north, to all residents, Muslim or not. (The Sudanese government's desire to have Sharia govern the whole country was one of the key issues during the war.) However, the peace agreement created a Special Commission on the Rights of Non-Muslims in the National Capital of Khartoum, which was supposed to protect the rights of non-Muslims here.
Joshua Dau, a southerner who chairs the special commission, says that he has struggled to implement the CPA's protections. The agreement required that special courts be set up for non-Muslims, but Dau says the commissioners could not get the government to agree.
Dau says he has been unsuccessful in arguing that since marissa brewing is not considered a crime by the southerners, it should be permitted in an integrated national capital. He says it is not the northern communities who complain. Indeed brewing dates was a traditional practice for some northern Sudanese before the current government, with its particularly stringent Islamic program, came to power.
One of the protection officers at the U.N. Mission in Sudan told me that the police raid settlements of displaced southerners on a regular basis, often in the middle of the night. Additionally, corrupt police use the cover of the marissa laws to harass and bribe southerners, even without evidence that they have been brewing. Threatened with a six-month prison sentence, women will hand over whatever money and valuables they have to the police.
Dau says that "instant justice" is applied to women who are arrested on suspicion of brewing marissa. They are taken to the police station, where the public attorney charges them, and then straight to the court where the judge sentences them. "They don't give you any chance to appeal or defend yourself" said Dau. "In most cases, the commission doesn't have the opportunity to intervene before the sentence is awarded." Lashes are administered immediately, and if a custodial sentence is handed down, the woman is taken straight to prison. Dau says that in most cases, the special commission does not receive complaints. "The women think, 'How will it help me to complain, I've already been lashed?' " Dau says that the appeals process often takes as long as the prison term—again rendering the commission's intervention useless.
In Jebel Awila, one of the largest camps for displaced southerners, about 90 minutes' drive from the center of Khartoum, I met Jacqueline Deng, who told me of her encounter with the marissa laws. Having fled the fighting in the south with her five children, Deng had managed to construct a shelter made of mud and sticks. Unable to find work, she turned to brewing marissa. One night, the police came to arrest her and many of her female neighbors. She had to leave her children behind, though the youngest, America, was just 4. She didn't see her children for the next six months. She says there were "many, many" southern women in the prison with her and that the food she was given was "not enough to feed a cat." When she finished her prison sentence and returned to Jebel Awila, she found that neighbors had taken care of her children, but her home had been destroyed.
Deng, like many of the southerners I spoke with in Jebel Awila, told me she had never even heard of the special commission. And community leaders who knew of it were scathing; "They have no power. If something happens they can't protect us," one leader told me. "They are just there for conferences and television—just for people to see them," said another.
If this is the situation for southerners in Khartoum at a time when the ruling National Congress Party is making a last-ditch effort to encourage southerners to vote for the unity of the country in the January 2011 referendum, what kind of treatment can southerners remaining in the north expect if the country splits next year? While the international community is rightly concerned about the viability of a new southern state on a territory that has been devoid of development since colonial times, this focus should not come at the expense of protecting the 1.5 million southerners who live in the north.