Last Updated: Sun Jan 22, 2012 12:43 pm (KSA) 09:43 am (GMT)

Peace brings disillusion and poverty to Sudan’s east

Residents, including former rebels, say they struggle to survive and the region is tense despite an October 2006 deal which ended more than a decade of low-level insurgency against the Arab-dominated Islamic regime in Khartoum. (Reuters)
Residents, including former rebels, say they struggle to survive and the region is tense despite an October 2006 deal which ended more than a decade of low-level insurgency against the Arab-dominated Islamic regime in Khartoum. (Reuters)

Disillusion reigns in Eastern Sudan more than five years after a peace deal with the government promised the poverty-stricken region a share of power and wealth.

Residents, including former rebels, say they struggle to survive and the region is tense despite an October 2006 deal which ended more than a decade of low-level insurgency against the Arab-dominated Islamic regime in Khartoum.

The Muslim non-Arab Beja ethnic group, camel herders by tradition, fought alongside the Rashaida tribe against what they said was government marginalization.

Their complaints echoed a more high-profile conflict on the other side of the country in Darfur.

“I'm disappointed, disappointed, disappointed,” said former rebel Hassan Dieken, 33, who is jobless.

“I believe only 25 percent of the peace agreement has been implemented.”

Under the deal, Khartoum was to allocate $600 million to Eastern region development up to 2011.

Some rebels were to get seats in parliament, or other government posts. Others would be integrated into the Sudan Armed Forces or receive compensation.

“When the agreement was signed I believed it would bring some hope to my people, but now after six years of peace, I'm not satisfied,” said another former Beja fighter, Mahomed al-Zhari, 55.

He complained that some rebel leaders took government posts “and left us aimless.”

The three states of Red Sea, Kassala and Gedaref have potential gold, oil and gas resources, but poverty remains endemic among the region's five million inhabitants, whose livelihoods have been undermined by war, climate change and environmental degradation.

“Look at my farm. It has nothing,” said Mohammed al-Hassan, 60.

Only a few trees are growing on the flat dry earth of his sorghum farm 25 kilometers (16 miles) northeast of the state capital Kassala.

“I have nothing to cultivate because this season there is no rain,” the father of five said.

“We are suffering. No one cares about us.”

Eastern Sudan has the country's highest poverty rate, the highest level of child deaths under five years old, and the most youngsters between the ages of six and 13 out of school, says the United Nations Development Program.

Sudan's overall school enrolment was 71 percent in 2010, but in Red Sea state it was about half that, the UNDP said.

“Until now we don't have a school for girls. Even the boys' school isn't finished. Many of our youths are jobless, and they have nothing to do,” complained Mohammed Omish, a villager living west of Kassala.

Among the region's unemployed are about 500 former insurgents who did not join the Sudanese military or receive compensation under the peace deal, said Omar al-Sheikh, a former rebel leader.

“In general we are not satisfied with the situation in Eastern Sudan,” he said.

Salah Barquin, who heads a government committee reviewing the condition of the former fighters, says even those who received compensation got only a small amount -- 3,000 pounds ($1,000).

“If you combine the rate of poverty in Eastern Sudan with the problems faced by those former combatants, the youth who are jobless, and the problems in education and health services, this all suggests a crisis,” said Barquin.

“Anything can happen,” said Dieken, one of the former rebels.

Zahri, who spent seven years battling the regime, did not mention the possibility of more conflict but said: “We are still committed to our people's rights... We have contact with our fellows in different parts of Eastern Sudan and we cannot let our struggle stall.”

People in the East are used to battling against nature -- and that combative tendency can also turn against the authorities, said former state minister of education Ahmed Tirek, who heads a non-governmental group working with rural residents.

“People of Eastern Sudan are polite but they can suddenly change,” he said.

Their struggle must continue through political channels, not violence, said Barquin.

“Although the situation is so bad, it's not a reason to go back to war.”

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