Sudan Poised Between Peace and Civil War

Sudanese President Bashir, who faces charges of crimes against humanity, waves as he arrives in Nairobi. Simon Maina / AFP-Getty Images

Sudan, for so long the focus of the world's humanitarian attention, is back in the news. Violent deaths continue to mount, the country is splitting in two, and foreign workers are being kidnapped with alarming regularity. It remains to be seen whether the stricken East African nation can somehow reconcile chaos and brutal militias with untapped oil wealth and hope for the future.

In May, barely noticed by the world, 600 people died in the Darfur region of the country—the largest number since the U.N. arrived in 2008. And in the space of 24 hours, starting Sunday afternoon, two Russian pilots working for a Sudanese airline were abducted and a female American aid worker with the charity Samaritan's Purse, was released after 100 days in captivity. Her kidnappers let her go without ransom. "We have demands from the government like developing our areas," one of her captors, a man called Abu Mohamed al-Semeh, told Reuters. "We want hospitals, education—if these demands are met these kidnappings will no longer happen."

Reuters traces the spate of kidnappings to a less noble cause—an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir early last year. After war-crimes charges were brought against Bashir, his government launched a campaign targeting the ICC and foreign-aid workers. Thirteen of the biggest aid agencies were expelled for "giving information to the court," exacerbating an already horrible humanitarian crisis and leaving the remaining workers vulnerable to harm.

Meanwhile, following a peace accord signed in 2005, the country's mostly Christian south has been pushing to secede, wanting to separate from the mostly Muslim north. But, with a January referendum on the proposed split looming, no agreement has yet been reached on the contentiuous issues of a precise border, and the sharing of revenue from the oil-rich south.

South Sudanese Information Minister Dr. Barnaba Marial Benjamin warned the BBC, with almost comic understatement, that "a few adventurous fellows" might try and destabilize the country, whatever happens. The last time such fellows went seeking adventure, ethnic cleansing was the result.

The Obama administration, reports The Washington Post, had dropped the ball during negotiations. But Washington is now stepping up its efforts, pouring diplomats into Sudan as the deadline approaches. But the Americans are not the only outsiders entering the country. Reports suggest that the Lord's Resistance Army—the brutal Ugandan militia that abducts children to use as soldiers and cuts off the lips and ears of those who displease them—has taken up a position on the Sudanese side of the border. Its leader, Joseph Kony, is wanted by the ICC on 33 counts of crimes against humanity, including murder, enslavement, sexual enslavement, and rape. CNN reports that Kony's men hide around villages in the south, emerge to grab children, and then return to their hiding places.

And in the capital of Khartoum, mysterious pro-Al Qaeda graffiti has appeared in recent years, prompting suspicions that Sudan, once home to Osama bin Laden, may again become a breeding ground for extremist Islamic terrorism. Like the Sudanese people, terrorized by years of violence, all the world can do is wait and see.