By Guillaume Lavallee
EL-DAMAZIN ~ “The war is over; it’s time for peace,” says a white-bearded Othman, one of the first Sudanese ex-fighters to take part in the world’s largest disarmament and demobilization program.
“I will now become a farmer because there will be no more war,” said the former Sudanese army soldier who fought during Africa’s longest-running civil war between the Muslim-dominated north and the Christian and animist south.
The 22-year war, in which two million people died and four million were displaced, ended with a 2005 peace deal which offers the south the possibility of secession in 2011.
Now, 180,000 former fighters – from north and south – will pass through the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) program, abandon their battle fatigues and reenter civilian life.
The biggest program of its kind ever, it will take several years and hundreds of millions of dollars to complete, the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) says.
A first batch of 15 soldiers and former militia members is taking part in a ceremony to mark their return to civilian life in Al-Damazin, in Blue Nile state around 500 kilometers south of Khartoum.
“Some of my friends think I made the right choice, but others don’t. They think it (the DDR program) is not concrete. Their perception might change now,” said a former militia medic, who gave his name only as Suada.
“I feel good and I don’t want to remember the past,” says Ibaaid, 25, a former child soldier looking to rebuild his life.
The former fighters must hand over their weapons to either the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) or the northern Sudanese Armed Forces.
In return, they receive a civilian identity card, several months’ supply of food, and cash. The aim is to retrain the former fighters with a new skill that will set them up for their new life.
“It won’t be easy, but we’ll succeed,” says William Deng Deng, head of south Sudan’s DDR commission. “We must find economic opportunities for each and every one of them.”
Following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, both sides undertook to reduce their respective armed forces, which are largely financed by profits from Sudan’s 400,000-barrel-per-day oil exports.
But as the world financial crisis has driven down the price of oil, both north and south have been deprived of much of their revenue, accelerating the process of soldiers demobilizing or retiring.
“With the economic crisis, the southern army, the SPLA, has had to cut its budget by 50 percent. So they’ve been forced to show some soldiers the door, which puts pressure on the DDR program,” says UNMIS’s Adriaan Verheul.
At a meeting last week in Juba, donors pledged US$88.3 million to support reintegration, the third phase of the program. The EU contributed $22 million and Britain $29 million for the coming year.
In a joint statement, the UN, donors and Sudan’s National DDR Coordinating Council said more funds were needed.
“Additional voluntary contributions are urgently needed from the international community to cover the reintegration costs,” it said.
But the disarmament program does not address the myriad small auto-defense units that continue to reign over much of south Sudan, where gun culture prevails.
And it will face some of its toughest challenge in still-disputed central areas claimed by both north and south, such as the oil-rich Abyei region where fierce fighting erupted last year.