With the first light of the of January 1, 1956, the Sudanese were jubilant. The British were leaving and Sudan was to raise the flag and formally declare its independence.
Now it’s 2016, 60 years since that memorable day and five years since the separation of Sudan and South Sudan. Back on July 9, 2011, what was the biggest country in Africa, split into two.
Five years on, Sudanese and South Sudanese tell of their experiences, revealing that many feel that the two populations are still one – or are still asking themselves where they belong.
1. Chol Achueng
Chol Achueng is Sudanese. Or is he? Up until five years ago, Achueng was a citizen of Sudan. But on July 9, 2011, South Sudan became independent and Achueng had to decide where he belonged – his deliberations continue up to this day.
Abyei is on the border between Sudan and South Sudan. It is a disputed territory that both Sudan and South Sudan claim. It is home to the Dinka Ngok and the Miseriya. Achueng is a descendent of the Dinka.
His eldest brother not only has Sudanese citizenship, but is also a law enforcement official, working as a member of the Sudan Police Force. Achueng on the other hand is not and needs a visa to enter Sudan where he works.
“My wife and two children never actually left Sudan even after secession took place. I left for South Sudan between 2012 and 2014, but they remained behind,” says Achueng.
It feels strange to be on the fence between two countries which were just five years ago one.
In September 2012, Sudan and South Sudan signed nine agreements aiming to normalise relations and to resolve burning issues such as oil transit through Sudan, border trade and security. However, war broke out between South Sudanese rivals in December 2013, delaying resolving outstanding matters with Sudan.
In 2016 the borders were briefly opened between the two countries but were soon later closed again. Over 200,000 South Sudanese, and perhaps more like 500,000 people, entered Sudan in those years of violence which killed more than 10,000 people, estimates suggest.
Achueng has spent time moving in and out of the two countries. “Christmas is one of the things that had changed for me, because after the secession there weren’t that many people to celebrate with, except in church, but this last Christmas was different. There were many South Sudanese who had come back to Sudan with their families celebrating Christmas in Khartoum. It was like old times,” he says.
“It feels strange to be on the fence between two countries which were just five years ago one. But I chose to come to Sudan for work and not Kampala or Nairobi for example, it is just familiar here, I guess because I grew up here.”
2. Haneen Abd Allah Nor Aldayim
Haneen Abd Allah Nor Aldayim was born and raised in Aljareef West, a neighbourhood in the Sudanese capital Khartoum some 40 years ago. He has lived in the city ever since rather than his native South Sudan.
I do not need papers to tell me that I belong here.
He went back to his homeland after secession but stayed for less than a year. Now back in Khartoum, he still does not have Sudanese papers but does not think he needs any.
“I lived here [in Khartoum] all my life. I grew up with friends and reached adulthood here. I built a career working for a company in Khartoum. I do not need papers to tell me that I belong here.”
3. Bol Majok
Bol Majok has been living in Sudan for eight months now. He tried to make it in South Sudan following independence but changed his mind after President Salva Kiir ruled to divide South Sudan administratively into 28 states instead of the initial 10, a decision he did not agree with as it separated him from childhood friends.
Now back in Sudan where he went to college for five years, he went to work for a company as an electrical engineer. “Politically we may belong to two countries, but the people remain the same.”
But he adds that some things had changed: “Prices are considerably higher. It costs a hefty amount of money to rent a house now. This is one aspect where I feel the treatment of the South Sudanese had changed. When it comes to houses, we are looked at as foreigners with money.”
Officials who issue that visa do not really see me as a foreigner.
But he feels at home all the same. “Although I have to pay for a visa in order to come to Sudan even the officials who issue that visa do not really see me as a foreigner, nor do I see myself as one.”
Majok continues to worry for the majority of South Sudanese who live a perilous existence. “With the exchange rate of the US Dollar to the South Sudanese Pound at one to 50, inflation rising through the roof, it is hard,” he says. “A 50 kilogram sack of sugar costs 4,000 South Sudanese Pounds, meaning it became increasingly difficult for citizens to even eke out a living in an economy where the average salary is only a thousand Pounds."
He says the dire humanitarian conditions result from the economic slump. “Government policies must take into consideration the cost of living as its primary concern, the people’s main concern.
4. Deng Chol
Deng Chol is from Pariang in what used to be Unity State in northern South Sudan. He was born in 1991 in al-Eilaffon, a small town about 10 kilometres away from Khartoum where his father was a soldier in the engineering brigade of the Sudanese army.
In 2011, they sold their house and moved back to South Sudan. His father passed away and in 2013 his family moved back to Khartoum. “We came to Kosti in southern Sudan. We were well received by the people there, but we had to come to Khartoum where it‘s better to make a living.”
Now two of his brothers have enrolled in school and sat for the Sudanese secondary school examination. “We are living in safety but the cost of living is high so we might have to choose between sending one to college this year, and the other next year in order to help with the family’s expenses,” he says.
Things will unfold, hopefully for the better.
Chol works as a sound technician for a group of musicians he knew before he left for South Sudan. “I live with Tarig, one of the musicians, and I spend the weekend with my family who live in the easternmost end of Khartoum. It is a good arrangement.”
But Chol, a talented bass guitar player, plans to become a permanent player in the group. “For the time being, I am not sure what the future holds for me, so I am staying in Khartoum and plan to pursue a musical career. Things will unfold, hopefully for the better.”
His native city in South Sudan, Pariang, is now the government seat of a new state in a new administrative division in South Sudan. He might move back one day, he says, but for now he wants to be able to provide for his family and accomplish his bass guitar playing dream.
5. Mohammed Hamid
Mohammed Hamid lived in South Sudan for two decades. “I only came to Khartoum once a year to visit family and run errands. But I had a food supply wholesale outlet in Juba that was profitable. I also traded in furniture wood as well as other items. I made a good living.”
I met people who became brothers to me.
That aspect took a back seat to the social links he formed during his work: “I met people who became brothers to me.”
Mohammed says he shed tears only twice in his life, and the last time was on July 9, 2011, when South Sudan seceded. “The people of South Sudan have spoken. But on the other side of the border, they will always be my brothers. It was – and is – home to me.”