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Southern Sudanese Want Post-War Education, Security, Development


Families sit outside their basic shelters in Rumbek, southern Sudan
The Sudanese government and southern Sudan's main rebel group signed a peace agreement at the beginning of this year to end more than two decades of war. In the southern Sudanese town of Rumbek, expectations are high that peace will bring a wide range of life transforming changes.

Every year, many southern Sudanese celebrate the founding of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the southern rebel group that had been at war with the northern government for more than two decades.

But this year's May 16 anniversary celebrations took on an extra glow. This was the first time in 22 years that the rebel group is not fighting the government, and thanks to the north-south peace agreement signed in January it will soon become part of the government.

At Freedom Square in Rumbek, pre-school children stood near soldiers of the former rebel group, while undulating traditional dancers expressed their joy alongside a military band belting out various tunes.

Their joy was felt beyond Freedom Square, as people living in Rumbek contrast life in wartime to how it is with peace.

Daniel Adut Makur is studying to become a Catholic priest in neighboring Kenya. He grew up in Rumbek, and has terrifying memories of hearing Russian-built Antonov airplanes fly overhead and seeing bombs drop from those airplanes.

"Some years back in 1991, we were in school, but we were forced by our headmasters to dig some holes whereby we can hide underground because it is not easy for us to hide outside and you can see also the exploding of the bombs," he explained. "It was real hard for us to sit under a tree like this without setting our ears for an Antonov. And now it is free for us to sit and play without thinking that the Antonov will come back."

Halfway across town, businessman Julius Yombek recalls how difficult it was to run a business during wartime. Mr. Yombek explains how commanders and other so-called big men would come to his shop and intimidate him, causing him to lose a lot of money in sales.

"You tell him the price but he said he wanted to buy with his own price. And some, they would just come and say, 'You give me [items for sale], tomorrow I will come [back]', and then you give him - forever you do not see him," he said.

Mr. Yombek says in peacetime, no one takes his goods by force. He is able to get fair prices for his wares, and his customers can now move freely in the market without fear of being attacked.

Two decades of war has left Rumbek desperately poor. There are food shortages, many families cannot afford school fees, prices are very high compared to Uganda and Kenya, and the town does not have electricity and running water, except for those places that have installed generators and water systems.

Mary Alat, 20, works as a waitress in one of Rumbek's hotels. Her mother was a rebel commander who died during the war. Ms. Alat only made it to the end of primary school before she quit to support her siblings.

Ms. Alat describes her expectations of a peaceful Sudan, and says her dearest desire is to go back to school.

"So we are very happy with peace. We are going to see peace, how is it, how it is going to be," she said. "We need our country to grow up: buildings, schools, hospital, education, and so forth, food, and anything which we need. If I get enough money I will go back to my school, but if I do not, I will just stay working and feed those kids at home."

Ms. Alat is one of many Rumbek residents who put access to high quality, affordable primary and secondary school education as one of their top expectations in a post-war Sudan.

Ofeni Ngota Amitai is deputy head teacher at Rumbek Secondary School, which has around 700 students.

During the early 1990s, his school was used as a Sudanese government army garrison. When it reopened after the rebels captured the town in 1998, it was staffed by volunteer, poorly educated, and inadequately trained teachers, a problem that remains.

"Oh, peace has really made a great change in the school. We have already seen that," he said. "Maybe salary will be given to teachers and these facilities will be renovated. More schools will be opened. Colleges will be in, because here we finish only secondary school. Our candidates go seeking education in the neighboring countries like Uganda, Kenya."

Mr. Amitai says government authorities are developing a curriculum for southern Sudan, and need to set up institutions such as a government board regulating examinations.

Residents tell VOA they are also looking to the government to provide security in Rumbek, they say there are a lot of long-standing ethnic conflicts that cause insecurity.

The Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement rose up against the Sudanese government in 1983 to fight what they said were decades of political, economic, and religious repression by the northern government against the south.

The north is primarily Muslim and controlled the revenues of Sudan's rich oil fields located in the south, while southerners are largely impoverished followers of Christianity or traditional African religions.

The government and rebel group signed a peace agreement January 9 that spelled out arrangements on how to share wealth and power, manage their armies jointly and separately, the balance between state and religion, and others. They are now in the process of enshrining these arrangements in an interim constitution. The south is also to have its own administration with certain powers and responsibilities.

John Garang is chairman of the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement and, once the constitution is passed, will be Sudan's first vice president.

"Our priorities are first and foremost to achieve reconciliation, peace and stability, because that is the basis for any form of development," he said. "Secondly, to put in place the necessary governance infrastructure so that there is rule of law, so that there are functioning courts, so that there is a civil administration. Then, physical infrastructure, building of roads connecting us internally and connecting us with the north and with the neighboring countries so that there is a viable market."

The post-war government will be getting lots of help from donors.

At an April conference in Oslo, representatives from more than 60 countries and international organizations pledged more than $4 billion for post-war reconstruction in Sudan. The United States promised to give about $1.7 billion to rebuild Sudan.

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