Sudan: No Longer At Ease
By Bob Odhiambo*
June 13, 2006 - THE UNIFORMED SOLDIER sat by himself in a corner of Malakal's Mer Restaurant. He sported a long black goatee, contrasting with his greying hair. He was the only customer on his own.
Mer Restaurant is one of the best eating joints in Malakal. The main eating area is about 10 feet by 30 feet and has round plastic tables and seats. The waiters are all women dressed in red dustcoats with "Mer Restaurant" written in English on the front and repeated in Arabic on the back, attesting to the border location of the town, which acts as a gateway between the north and south Sudan.
There were about 10 other people in the restaurant. Everyone seemed to be eating the same dish, bread with meat in soup simmered with milk. The white concoction that resulted was eaten with spoons. The other customers were in groups of three or so, all civilians, engaged in hearty or light conversations.
The soldier's camouflage army uniform made him stand out. Next to him was a pedestal fan labelled "Gulf Fan," rotating and left to right blowing much needed cool air to mitigate the over 35 degree Celsius afternoon heat. On the right of the fan was a radio cassette, speakers blaring loudly: Yesu Messiah Yesu Messiah Yesu eeeh, eeeh (Jesus is the Messiah).
On the soldier's table was a full coke bottle, a recent addition to the menu dating back to January when the soldiers began receiving a regular salary. For 21 years, their service had been voluntary, a national duty.
That was now history. The peace had come. Many soldiers had been redeployed to different parts of the south to serve as national guards. For the 21 years, the war had given the soldiers a reason for living. They were skilled in the art of war, albeit the guerrilla variety. They are now grappling with the challenges of peace.
The waiter was clearing away the soldier's plates. The coke was now half drunk. In January, when the first salary was paid, the scenario was different. The soldiers spent entire pay packages on beer and meat. They were the talk of the town. They slept in the bars, on the streets and outside the villages. They sang and shouted. They engaged in bar brawls and village fights. The story was the same with the second and third pay package. Now they are settling down, and once in a while can be found in a good restaurant in town, having a quiet meal and a soda.
As the music played on, the soldier's face suddenly lit up; he had seen a familiar face. The man was on crutches, a common legacy of the war. They hugged warmly and talked heartily for about 15 minutes. Then they shook hands vigorously, and the other man was gone. The lone soldier slumped back into his pensiveness. His lips move as if were talking to himself, and he changes position frequently, at times supporting his upper body by resting his chin on his palm with his elbows resting on his knees. At other times he lies back on the plastic seat. He is obviously a man no longer at ease with himself.
The State Interior Minister in the Government of National Unity, Brigadier Aleu Ayieny Aleu, captures the new scenario during his many addresses to those returning from exile, "The war with the guns is over. The war with poverty, famine, ignorance and disease is starting."
THIS SECOND PHASE OF THE war requires a totally different weapon - education. The previous war took a few months of training, this new war requires years of training. "My war is over, yours has just began," says Aleu.
The heroes of the previous war are now finding themselves irrelevant to this new war. Do they go back to school? It is, sadly, too late for many accustomed to the previous life. Do they leave the running of the country they risked their lives to liberate to those who chose to go to school instead of fighting? Hardly an option they are ready to consider at this moment.
The situation will unfold in the coming months. In the meantime, everybody playing it safe: The many skilled and educated Sudanese in the diaspora are cautious about leaving their lives of luxury (it is said that anywhere outside South Sudan is luxurious, by local standards) if they are to be mere spectators and the South Sudan government is cautious that ruffling the feathers of the already confused post war soldiers.
Meanwhile, the civilians are waiting for some tangible dividends of the peace. A road construction here, a school building there is all they have seen so far.