The Marco neighbourhood lies in the south-east of al-Qadarif city, in eastern Sudan. With at least 500 houses, the neighbourhood has a church, a mosque, a coed school, a community club, a public court and a health centre. It was planned in 1999 and it has access to water and electricity. Up until 2011, the neighbourhood’s population, except for a small number of households, belonged to the southern Dinka, Shilluk, and Nuer tribes. The southerners had seasonal jobs, and some worked for the army or had temporary work.
It was founded by an army soldier named Marco Matit Kual, locally known as ‘Sultan Marco’. A catholic from the Dinka Awal tribe, Marco was a soldier with the southern Sudanese separatist rebel movement (Anya-Nya) led by Joseph Lagu. After the conclusion of the 1972 peace agreement, Marco became a fully fledged member of Sudan’s Infantry Battallion 106. He was later posted to the Transport Company, then to the Artillery Battalion 319 of the fourth Brigade at al-Qadarif.
Marco lived alone there in 1982, and his cottage was said to have been burnt more than once. He was later re-stationed to the south, but returned to Marco neighbourhood in 1986 along with his small family, which soon expanded because he married five other women. He persuaded southerners from the neighbourhoods of ‘Salama Bey’, ‘Tadamon’, ‘Sadaqa’ and ‘Badouba’ to relocate and join him in the neighbourhood. People from New Halfa and other districts also moved there, swelling the size of the settlement.
A committee representing the inhabitants, who hailed from Jonglei, Abyei and other communities, later called the neighbourhood ‘Marco’.
“A committee representing the inhabitants, who hailed from Jonglei, Abyei and other communities, later called the neighbourhood ‘Marco’,” said Agok Goun Ajing Akoi, the Dinka Ngok Chief. “To celebrate the new name in 1986, a white sheep was slaughtered as a sign of respect.”
Later on, when strong gusts of winds afflicted the area and snakes and scorpions posed a threat to the new settlers, a similar ritual was performed with the slaughter of a black and a white sheep. “To solve the problem of the stormy weather, the white sheep was first slaughtered and people prayed: ‘O’ God! We are poor and weak. We beseech thee to calm down these winds,’” said Akoi. “Then, they killed the black sheep, asking God to protect them from the danger of scorpions and snakes. The gusty wind soon calmed down and the impending threat of snakes and scorpions disappeared.”
Sultan Marco took on the role of dealing with his fellow citizens’ problems. He relieved many northerners of their grievances and his popular court became a sanctuary for the weak. The Sultan, who wore traditional dress for key events, was famed for sharing his people’s happy and sad occasions, and he soon became a member of al-Qadarif Municipality Council. He was typically at the head of the Christmas procession that circled the city.
When President Omar al-Bashir inaugurated a new health centre in Marco neighbourhood in the 1990s, Mutaz Mohamed Abdullah, a 30-year-old trader was there, as young child. “The Sultan performed a folkloric dance and al-Bashir addressed him: ‘We have built a health centre for you and we have not fallen short of our duties towards you, Marco.’ Meanwhile Marco was still in the middle of the crowd, brandishing his spear and chanting the slogans of peace,” Abdullah recalled.
Marco, however, was arrested several times. The ruling regime tried to persuade him to join al-Bashir’s government. He, however, preferred to distance himself from the ruling regime. He was accused of working with the SPLM, something he repeatedly denied.
In the first half of the 1990s, a scuffle broke out at a harvest celebration. A shot was fired and fortunately no one was hurt. After midnight, however, a military unit arrived at the Marco neighbourhood, sealed off the place, hurled tear gas canisters, and fired gunshots, killing two people and injuring many more. Sultan Marco filed a complaint against the officer who led the force.
Three hearings were held, but the accused officer did not turn up, sending a colleague to attend the proceedings. “In the final session, the judge dismissed the case on the pretext that the force had done its riot control duty,” said Abdullah Mohamed Adam, a 50-year-old sculptor. “When Sultan Marco objected, the judge rebuked him and sent him out of the courtroom.”
Adam added that Marco described the judge’s verdict as racial discrimination. The elections that followed the 1998 Constitution revealed Marco’s political affiliation as an active supporter of former President Gaafar Nimeiry, who had previously signed the peace agreement. “Sultan Marco was one of the most prominent figures who received Nimeiry in al-Qadarif in March 1999,” said Mohammed Osman Gallouj, a leading figure in the Popular Workforce Alliance. “Marco managed to mobilise huge numbers of southerners at that reception.”
That event likely increased the authorities’ dissatisfaction with him, and led to his arrest ahead of the election date. Marco did not live long thereafter, dying at the turn of the millennium amid rumours that he had been poisoned.
Soon after the separation of South Sudan, most of the families living in Marco neighbourhood hastily sold their houses for rock- bottom prices. Nearly 40 families remained and they have been joined by some families who returned to the area after the war in South Sudan. Neither group have Sudanese nationality nor a national number, which leaves them sidelined and stigmatised.
The problem is that al-Bashir has said South Sudanese citizens are our brothers, yet no decision or law has been issued to support that statement.
“The problem is that al-Bashir has said South Sudanese citizens are our brothers, yet no decision or law has been issued to support that statement,” said Ramzi Yahya, a lawyer and human rights activist. “The Sudanese Cabinet considers South Sudanese citizens as refugees. Thus, dealings with them remain unclear and are subject to the politics and the current relations between the two countries.”
South Sudanese now face the problem of producing birth certificates for their children aged under five, i.e., those born before the separation. “Sudanese courts have stopped issuing birth certificates for children aged 1-15 years,” said Yahya. Some southerners did not complete property ownership procedures for their land, and after secession they lost their citizenship, making it impossible for them to legalise their property.
With secession, South Sudanese have also lost their right to medical treatment and health insurance. They are often harassed while travelling or cashing bank transfers. The service card issued under an agreement between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the government has failed to resolve the major problems experienced by southerners in Sudan. At the same time, the Marco neighbourhood church faces expropriation attempts which will likely deprive the residents of their last place of worship.
Five years into secession, the demographics of the Marco neighbourhood have changed. Sudanese families have replaced southerners and the few South Sudanese who remain face many obstacles in their day-to-day lives.
Abdullah Abdulqayyum, an SPLM leader, said the 2005 Peace Agreement Celebrations Committee was composed of members from the National Congress Party (NCP) and the SPLM. The NCP suggested changing the Marco neighbourhood name to Al-Salam (meaning, ‘peace’), but that proposal was rejected by SPLM representatives on the grounds that other neighbourhoods like ‘Dim Noor’, ‘Dim Hamad’ and ‘Abkar Gibril’ have retained their names.
Eventually, however, the government did switch it to al-Salam neighbourhood, but many locals still use the old name. These days, Marco himself is just a memory, most southerners have moved away, but Mount Marco still stands testament to the unique history of this place.