After years of war and death, residents of this predominantly Christian southern city danced in the streets Sunday after rebel and government leaders signed a treaty to end Sudan’s 21-year civil war.
But caution mixed with joy among many war-scarred residents who worry about the future after the conflict that killed more than 2 million, mainly through war-induced famine and disease, and displaced 4 million more from their homes.
“People keep asking me, ‘Father, is it true that peace has come, finally?”’ said Rev. Santo Loku Pio, a local priest who also is secretary-general of the Juba archdiocese.
But the doubts and the hot, humid weather, could not dampen the festive atmosphere that descended on Juba after the peace treaty signing in Kenya by Sudan People’s Liberation Army leader John Garang, who hails from this city of 160,000 people, and Vice President Ali Osman Mohammed Taha.
Gowns and roses
About 10,000 people, mainly ululating women wearing white gowns and red headscarves pinned with roses, marched through the city’s wide, tree-lined streets in a procession to the city’s main cathedral — for a ritual cleansing from the torture and pain that stained Juba’s roads during the war.
Before the march started, thousands observed two minutes of silence “to commemorate the death of our sons, daughters, fathers and mothers who with their deaths initiated this peace process,” Pio said.
Children waved Sudanese and SPLA flags as the marchers passed under a banner praising Garang, who fought government forces for decades but is to become a first vice president after the treaty signing.
“Garang and Taha are two sides of the same coin of peace, stability and progress,” read a banner that hung near Juba’s local government building.
‘Everything is open’
“If I die today then I will die in peace, because we used to be living in a huge prison but now with the peace treaty everything is open, especially our hearts,” said Helda Gokunta, a 42-year-old University of Juba janitor.
Gokunta, like many Juba’s mainly Christian and animist residents, suffered greatly during the conflict. Her mother, father and brother were killed and she has not seen or heard of her other brother in 5 years.
Some, however, believed the politicians should not get all the credit.
“Don’t be fooled that it was (Sudanese president) Omar el-Bashir or Garang that brought this peace,” said 21-year-old mechanic Stephen Wani. “It was God that put this idea in their hearts, as well as pressure from other people outside.”
Secretary of State Colin Powell was among foreign dignitaries who witnessed the peace treaty signing. Pressure from Washington and the United Nations was a major factor in the securing of the deal.
El-Bashir, who also attended the signing ceremony, is expected to hold a peace rally in Juba Monday to kick off a triumphant southern tour. No plans have been announced for a Garang visit.
Muted celebration in Khartoum
In Khartoum, where an estimated 3 million displaced southern Sudanese have lived since the 1990s, the streets were empty as people stayed indoors to watch the landmark ceremony on television. Sweets were distributed in the streets after the signing, and SPLA officials prepared for a large official celebration to be held Monday.
The treaty formally ended the African continent’s longest running war and sets out plans for sharing legislative power and natural resources, including oil, large deposits of which exist in the south. After six years, the treaty says, the south will hold a referendum on whether to remain part of Sudan.
The war had pitted the country’s Islamic-dominated government against rebels who had sought greater autonomy and more of the country’s wealth for the south.
The fighting first began in the 1950s and a fragile peace was reached in 1973. The civil war restarted 10 years later, when the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum tried to impose Islamic law on the south. Under the latest agreement, Islamic law can be used in the north without infringing on the rights of non-Muslims there or in the south.
The southern accord has raised hopes a power-sharing formula also can be reached to halt fighting in the western region of Darfur, where tens of thousands of people have died in a conflict that began almost two years ago between rebels and government forces, which are accused of backing Arab militias known as the Janjaweed.
“We are going to work together with our peace partners ... to ensure peace prevails in every part of the country,” el-Bashir said.