When I first met the ragtag rebels of Southern Sudan, it was hard to suppress a skeptical chuckle. They had a broken-wheeled howitzer that they pulled laboriously by hand, and they had a bugle that they couldn't play. Most of them had no uniforms; many were barefoot.
In place of uniforms, the rebels wore an oddly flamboyant collection of scrap clothing. One fighter was wearing a tattered woman's dress, while another had donned a clown-like purple plaid suit. A third was sporting a beekeeper's helmet.
It was 1993, in the famine-ravaged town of Ayod in the remote scrub-lands of the Upper Nile, and the endless rebellion seemed as hopeless as ever. It was difficult to imagine how these ill-equipped insurgents could win a small local skirmish, let alone a protracted war against Khartoum's powerful army and air force.
Today, 18 years later, those barefoot rebels are on the verge of an astonishing victory. If confirmed, as widely expected, by a referendum on secession that begins Sunday, Southern Sudan will soon begin negotiating its independence - its dream since the 1950s. It will be the birth of an unlikely new nation.
But the cost has been horrific. Southern Sudan has been consumed by devastating wars for most of the past half-century. An estimated 2.5 million people have perished in those wars, with atrocities on all sides that were shocking in their cruelty.
After decades of indifference by most of the world, the irony is that Southern Sudan suddenly became a fashionable cause over the past decade. Its oil exports became lucrative, forcing the north and south to try to settle their conflict in order to protect their revenue flows. Simultaneously, there was a rapid escalation of U.S. diplomatic pressure on both sides, including the threat of sanctions - partly because evangelical Christian lobbyists had persuaded Congress that it needed to protect the south's Christians from Muslim persecution.
The U.S. diplomatic pressure was a key factor in forging the 2005 peace agreement, which in turn paved the way for this month's referendum on secession. Politicians from the United States are jetting into Khartoum to ensure that the vote proceeds on schedule. And now the evangelical Christians have been joined by a flutter of Hollywood celebrities. Film star George Clooney flew into Southern Sudan this week to monitor the referendum, with moral support from Hollywood pals such as Brad Pitt and Matt Damon. It was his second trip to Southern Sudan in the past three months.
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All of this frenzied activity is in stark contrast to the worldwide apathy that surrounded Sudan's civil war at its bloodiest moments. It was a conflict that killed civilians on a fantastic scale, yet few people outside Sudan seemed to care.
The government in Khartoum, fighting to impose an Islamic state on the non-Muslim tribes of the south, gave thousands of weapons to Arab militias to help them raid the southern villages. The militias burned huts, poisoned wells, stole cattle, and kidnapped women and children to trade as slaves. In one massacre in 1987, more than 1,000 people were burned alive in the railway carriages where they had taken shelter.
Both sides used famine as a weapon, destroying the food supplies of villages that they deemed disloyal. Khartoum ordered airplanes to bomb the south indiscriminately from the air. The survivors retreated into the bush. "Southern Sudan went back to the Iron Age," author Richard Dowden wrote.
When I met the rebels in a remote corner of Southern Sudan in 1993, they were filled with bravado, undeterred by their lack of uniforms and equipment. "We can even fight without clothes," the local commander, Elijah Hon, told me. "The gun and the bullet will cry, even if the soldier is naked."
He ordered his men to drill, and it looked briefly impressive. They jogged past the stick-and-grass huts of their town, chanting anti-Arab slogans as they carried their Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers, and they presented arms in a well-rehearsed ceremony.
But what I noticed were the vultures circling in the sky, above the half-buried skeletons of the children who had died of hunger and disease. I saw the bomb craters where the Sudanese Air Force had struck the town, and I saw the panic in the eyes of the villagers when they heard the distant sound of an airplane engine. I saw the emaciated infants, the adults with untreated bullet wounds, the refugees surviving on wild fruit and leaves, and the solitary desperate health worker who had no medicine to give the queues of sick people at his door.
Illiteracy and superstition were rife. Mr. Hon said the rebels had followed the guidance of a tribal prophet who promised they would be immune to bullets when they fought the government troops. The prophet, he admitted, had been wrong.
Despite the constant warfare, he claimed that the children of the rebels were happy. "They are born in war and they die in war," he told me. "Even our young ones play with little Kalashnikovs."
I'm still not sure why he was boasting of how the war had twisted the children, but it revealed all the tragedy of Southern Sudan. Entire generations were lost to war.
Juba, the capital of the south, was controlled by government forces for most of the war, but it was besieged by the rebels, year after year. It was crowded with refugees who lived in grass huts, dependent on relief supplies flown into the city, while the rebels fired shells from the outskirts. The city barely survived.
Today, after five years of ceasefire, Juba is springing back to life. Its streets are bustling with cars, trucks, traders, merchants, and the jeeps of hundreds of aid organizations and United Nations agencies.
Yet while some business people are making money (especially traders of East Indian descent from Uganda and Kenya, who have flocked to Juba), the people of Southern Sudan are still dogged by the same crippling problems that I saw in the 1990s. If the south gains its formal independence - which could happen as early as July - it will become one of the poorest and hungriest nations in the world.
Malnutrition and illiteracy are almost as widespread today as they were in the 1990s. About 85 per cent of the population is illiterate, the maternal death rate is one of the highest in the world, one-seventh of children die before they reach the age of five, and less than half of the population has access to clean water. Almost half of the population was dependent on food aid last year. A 15-year-old girl in Southern Sudan has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than finishing her primary school education.
The people of the south are willing to endure all of this, however, because of their memories of the civil war. In the referendum campaign this month, the slogan of the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement is a simple one: throw off the shackles of slavery. "It was the SPLM that said No to slavery," says one southern official.
The reference to slavery is a powerfully evocative one. It alludes to the Arab slave traders who raided the south to capture slaves in the nineteenth century. It evokes memories of the Arab militias that seized southerners as slaves in the 1980s. And it implicitly suggests that Khartoum would still prefer to treat the southerners as slaves to Islamic law.
"We are African, but we are suffering inside an Arab country," says Major Abraham Ajith, an officer in the Sudan People's Liberation Army.
"They are Muslims, and they don't want Christians. They don't want the black person to rule anything. They don't want to recognize our rights. They sell our oil and they don't tell us. We are going to rule ourselves. We will get our freedom and independence, and then we will get our oil."
In Juba, the unbearably heavy cost of the 50-year conflict still lingers in the memories of everyone here. On the streets of the city, a pro-secession poster proclaims: "The final walk to freedom; 2.5 million lives paid for our freedom."
Yet the grim reality is that the bloodshed is not over, and the deaths have not ended. Tribal clashes and clan battles killed about 2,500 people in 2009 and nearly 1,000 more in 2010. Cattle-rustling frequently sparks violence. It's partly a legacy of the civil war: Everyone has weapons, and nomads carry guns to protect their herds from the cattle-raiders.
Then there is the Lord's Resistance Army, the mysterious militia that has been covertly supported by Khartoum as it launches raids across the border from Congo into Southern Sudan. Just two weeks ago, the LRA attacked a village in Southern Sudan, killing two villagers and kidnapping 50 of them. More than 40,000 Southern Sudanese have fled from their homes in the past year to escape LRA attacks.
To defend themselves from the LRA, the southern villages have created primitive militias of young men called the "Arrow Boys." They are armed with spears, kitchen knives, bows and arrows, poison darts, and even nests of bees.
It's almost as if the ragtag rebels of 1993 have simply shifted to a new battlefront in the wars of this newborn nation.