South Sudan is being baptized in blood. On Saturday, July 9, when the south formally declares its independence from Sudan, civilians in the disputed border region of Southern Kordofan will be scrambling to survive a sustained campaign of aerial bombardment. A report by an aid worker in the Nuba Mountains of Southern Kordofan described a campaign of "ethnic cleansing" carried out by "troops, artillery, tanks, and machine gun carriers" as well as Antonov bombers. Since Khartoum has blocked the United Nations, NGOs, and the media from the region, it is impossible to know how many civilians have been killed in recent weeks, though aid workers cited in the New York Times put the number at "hundreds." And hundreds more were killed last month in Abyei, another border state.
You might think that Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for carrying out genocide in the western region of Darfur, has decided to violently nullify the January referendum in which the people of the south voted overwhelmingly for independence. But that's almost certainly not the case. A recent report by the International Crisis Group speculates that Bashir has launched the onslaught in order to improve his negotiating position on a range of issues between north and south, including the drawing of borders and the division of oil revenues. This is Bashir's idea of statecraft. As Sudan scholar Gérard Prunier once wrote, the regime's "policy and political philosophy since it came to power in 1989 has kept verging on genocide in its general treatment of the national question in Sudan."
The essential story of Sudan over the last several decades is the story of the regime against the people. This is, of course, a perfectly familiar African story, but what makes Sudan's story distinctive is the way a small, homogenous class of riverine Arabs has used massive and barely controlled violence to maintain control over an immense and vastly diverse country. In Darfur, it has succeeded. In the south, it has failed; and on Saturday's independence day the beleaguered people of the south will explode with euphoria before settling down to face an extremely grim future, for South Sudan will be one of the world's poorest and least-developed countries.
It did not have to be this way, and a remarkable new book of essay and photographs titled We'll Make Our Homes Here: Sudan at the Referendum offers a powerful reminder that that is so. Tim McKulka, a staff photographer for the U.N. Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), took the pictures, compiled and edited the essays, and somehow -- this may be the most impressive part -- persuaded UNMIS itself to publish the book. McKulka's pictures show Sudan in all its topographical and human variety: deserts, mountains, rivers, and the oil-boom capital of Khartoum; nomadic cattle-herders, Arab traders, and Nuer tribesmen with ritual scarification. Sudan is a vast migratory space -- at almost 1 million square miles, the world's 10th-largest country and the largest in Africa -- which tribes have crisscrossed over the centuries, depositing one layer of culture and habits atop another.
The book's 13 essays, most of them intensely personal and all written by Sudanese, are shot through with nostalgia for this densely layered past and for the vanished ethos of tolerance that allowed such varied peoples to live alongside one another. Leila Aboulela, an author and playwright, recalls the cosmopolitan Khartoum of her childhood in the 1960s: "The city was spacious and languid; close-knit and unconventional; a place to be innovative and adventurous." (Afghans who remember the Kabul of that time describe it in much the same language.) Abdalla Adam Khatir, a Darfuri journalist and activist, describes his days as a university student in the 1970s traveling from the Blue Nile to Port Sudan to the massifs of Kordofan. This act of discovery, he writes, "deepened my commitment to the notion of a Sudanese nation."