Awut Deng Acuil’s eyes have the haunted look common to people from Sudan’s war-ravaged south, but it is clear at once that neither national upheaval nor personal trauma can slow her down. The grassroots peace activist and women’s advocate—who once embarked on a speaking tour with her 40-day-old baby in tow, while in deep grief for the death of her husband—is not an easy person to stop.
When Deng talked with Sojourners earlier this year at the World Social Forum in India, she looked bone-tired from five days of speaking and conference-going. No matter how weary she is, though, Deng looks you in the eye and tells you the truth—whether about Sudanese women’s struggle for empowerment, the peacemaking process that has healed bloody conflicts within southern Sudan, or Deng’s own pain at her husband’s death. Simply dressed, with short hair and a direct gaze, Deng speaks with weight and quiet determination.
Deng is passionate about the need for women to play an active role in guiding Sudan’s future. She was one of six women delegates from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in its negotiations with the northern government in 2002—but later each of the six was taken off the official list, one by one, with no explanation. Deng herself was the last to go. As she describes female struggles to participate in the peace process—"a step forward, a step backward"—her face shows a patience that is anything but passive.
After being excluded from the north-south talks, women met to issue their own statements and organize demonstrations. Sudanese women have suffered profoundly from the rape, abduction, and economic devastation that accompany war—and, because of the ravages of war, women now make up the majority in southern Sudan.
Deng, who helped found the Nairobi-based Sudanese Women Voice for Peace and the Sudanese Women Association of Nairobi, has dialogued with women from northern Sudan around the issues they share in common, such as having their children taken away to fight: "The war is being fought, and there are no benefits," she says.
WHILE THEY HAVE often been excluded from the north-south negotiations, women, including Deng, have played a key role in a crucial peacemaking effort within southern Sudan: the "people-to-people peace process" that, over the last six years, has healed devastating conflicts between and within southern ethnic groups. A 1991 ethnic split within the main rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, had led to a civilian border war. Such conflicts, often encouraged by the northern government, had devastated communities and hamstrung the south’s ability to negotiate for peace with the government in Khartoum. The New Sudan Council of Churches (NSCC), which represents southern Sudanese Christian churches from pentecostal to Catholic, had been asked to mediate, but peacemaking attempts that were focused on the SPLA’s military leaders went nowhere.
So, recounts Deng, the NSCC "went to the people," organizing a grassroots peacemaking process focused on people outside the SPLA factions: tribal chiefs, traditional religious leaders, and women. The first fruit of the new strategy was a peace gathering in the small town of Wunlit in 1999. Aimed at healing violence between the Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups west of the Nile, the conference gathered more than 300 delegates—four-fifths of them traditional tribal and religious leaders, and one-fifth women.
Deng’s face shows quiet satisfaction when she recounts the involvement of women in the conference itself and in the local peace council that the conference set up, which was mandated to be one-third female. The first sign that the conference would work, says Deng, "was that the women from the Nuer and Dinka [in their opening remarks] said that, at the end, everybody must unite. It was a very moving moment."
One of those women was Deng, who is Dinka. After the initial male speakers, she and a Nuer female delegate addressed the meeting, emphasizing that "we must go out as brothers and sisters from this conference." Shaking hands and hugging, they began to sing the Dinka song "Door," which means "reconciliation." "It is a very popular song," Deng recounts, and "very powerful."
The conference began with a time for each side to air its grievances uninterrupted, and then moved on to working groups drafting a detailed peace agreement. It drew on traditional observances, such as storytelling and the ritual slaughter of a white bull, and also incorporated Christian prayer and exhortation. International donors helped fund transit for the delegates, the construction of the peace village where the conferees met, and equipment such as radios for the border security stations set up by the conference.
Although the military factions of the SPLA would not reunite for nearly three years, the Wunlit conference brought immediate results, and much-needed peace, to civilians in the area. Abductees were returned, an amnesty was declared on past raids, a peace council was set up to prosecute new violations, and trading routes and grazing areas were open once more. A few months later, when fighting with the government displaced thousands of Nuer, they were able to find refuge in Dinka territory thanks to the bonds forged at Wunlit.
Deng attributes this marked success, which contrasts starkly with the infighting among military factions, to the grassroots nature of the NSCC-sponsored peace process: "The people own it, and they respond to it because it is theirs." They become owners through painstaking and tireless grassroots dialogue and community organizing by people such as Deng, who spends three-quarters of her time traveling within Sudan to do the endless hard work of relationship-building that makes the process work.
Deng, who works for the NSCC, describes the Christian church’s central role in grassroots peacemaking as indicative of its central role in southern Sudan. "[The churches] are there for the people," she says. "They became the voice of the people." The war-torn region has seen rapid church growth, Deng reports, with thousands of baptisms. The NSCC has also spoken up about the north-south conflict, advocating for southern Sudan’s right to self-determination and fostering dialogue with Muslim leaders in Khartoum and Kenya.
SUDAN’S WAR HAS taken a personal toll on Deng, perhaps most deeply with the death of her husband in exile four years ago. "For him to [be exiled and] die in a foreign country was a big burden to him and a challenge to me," she says. In the 1980s, he had been detained for a year by the government for opposing the imposition of Islam-based sharia law, and he had later fought for the SPLA; she attributes his fatal stroke in 2000 to his sufferings during the war.
A widow with seven children, the youngest an infant, Deng found strength in the support of the Sudanese community in Nairobi, in the visits of women friends who came to pray with her, and in the cards and prayers from the Sudanese diaspora around the world. Her faith was deepened. "When I lost my husband, I had to take the Bible to guide my life. That has helped me a lot, has given me strength," she says.
She has also found strength in her drive to help her homeland. "For me to survive, I had to work, to console my children. I felt I had to play the role of father, I had to play the role of mother, I had to make a contribution to my people." She managed to take her husband’s body back to Sudan, and then traveled to Rome with her infant to begin a year of speaking engagements and grassroots work for the NSCC. Today Deng and her children, who range in age from 4 to 22, make their home in Nairobi, but her work for her homeland often calls her away.
In recent months southern Sudan has seen many signs of hope, but Deng’s work, and that of her country, is far from over. At press time, the government and the SPLA were close to signing the final piece of a wide-ranging peace agreement that would allow the south to have non-Islamic law, to share oil profits and government jobs, and after six years to hold a referendum to decide whether to become autonomous. (This accord does not affect the separate and horrific situation in Sudan’s western province of Darfur.)
Deng urges friends in the international community to contribute to the hard work that lies ahead: "It’s not enough to sign [a] peace [agreement]; you have to monitor it, you have to follow it up." In particular, she urges continued pressure to make sure that the autonomy referendum actually takes place. For the referendum to work, she emphasizes, it’s also vital to build up civil society so that it can inform and educate people in the vast, mostly rural south.
Deng’s years of experience resound in her qualified optimism about the new accord with the north: "The population has to own it," she says. "It is the people who make the government."
Elizabeth Palmberg is assistant editor of Sojourners. A comprehensive peace agreement was signed between the SPLM and the government of Sudan in January 2005.
40 Years of Conflict
Civil war between the Islamist north and the mainly Christian and animist south has raged since 1962, with a cessation in fighting from 1972 to 1983. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLA) is the primary, but by no means only, rebel group; the government in the north often encouraged and funded divisions among its southern adversaries.
In 1991, the SPLA split, largely along ethnic lines between the Dinka and Nuer peoples. Civilians in both groups were caught up in a border war with widespread casualties, looting, and abduction of women and children.
In 1999, the New Sudan Council of Churches brokered the Wunlit peace gathering, effectively ending Dinka-Nuer conflict west of the Nile. The Wunlit conference served as a model for later people-to-people peace conferences in other areas of south Sudan, including the Liliir conference for six different ethnic groups in the region east of the Nile, the Waat Lou Nuer conference to resolve intra-Nuer fighting, and numerous mini-conferences.
In 2004 and 2005, in ethnically based, Muslim-on-Muslim violence in Sudan’s western province of Darfur, government-backed militias raped and killed tens of thousands, and more than a million refugees are threatened with starvation.—EP