More violence continues as Southern Sudan votes on a referendum to separate as a Christian nation. According to officials, an ambush of a bus took place on Monday near the north-south border, where 10 people were killed and 18 others wounded. The voting, which began Sunday, will continue until Saturday. The terms require that 60 percent must vote for the referendum to be valid. On Sunday, around 750,000 Southern Sudanese, about 20%, cast their vote for determining independence. Sudan’s president in Khartoum, Omar al-Bashir, has promised to accept and assist Southern Sudan should they vote to secede as expected.

Sudan Darfur map
Violence during Southern Sudan’s independence referendum adds to bloodshed from western Darfur.

The situation in Sudan has been one of religious and tribal violence for many years. Many Hollywood celebrities, including George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, have been calling for peace efforts in the Darfur region of western Sudan. In 2005, an agreement was reached to conduct a referendum, which would allow Southern Sudan, which is mostly Christian, to secede from Northern Sudan, which is mostly Muslim.

Observers from the United Nations, the European Union and China are among those monitoring the referendum. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is also on hand in Khartoum. However, violence continues to mount. Yesterday’s bus ambush raises the death toll after 40 people were killed during the weekend. The border town of Abyei has seen much of the violence as it lies along the border with both sides laying claim to it.

Sudan has long been a hot-spot for violence and intrigue. In 1820, Egypt, with the backing of England and France, invaded and conquered Sudan. But all did not go well as Egypt mismanaged their neighbor. In the 1870s, England became more involved, insisting that the slave trade in Sudan be ended. While noble, some of the restraints caused great economic upheavals in Sudan, which spawned another threat.

In 1885, Muhammad Ahmad ibn Abd Allah, a.k.a. ‘the Mahdi’ or ‘the Guided One’, led a revolt to throw out the British and Egyptians. England responded by sending the infamous General Charles ‘Chinese’ Gordon as governor, with the blessing of Egypt, to Khartoum. But Gordon (played by Charlton Heston in the must-see film epic ‘Khartoum’) lost everything, including his severed head, after a long siege of Khartoum by the Mahdi. While the Mahdi had started his rebellion by proclaiming a religious jihad, he did not impose Islamic law on Sudan once taking control. But his enlightened rule ended quickly when the Mahdi died of typhus some six months after the fall of Khartoum. The stage was set for fighting and power struggles.

The Mahdi’s successors then attempted to quell their internal problems by invading neighboring Ethiopia and later, Egypt. Threats to the Suez Canal forced the British to act. In 1896, Lord Kitchener began a campaign which ultimately defeated the Mahdists by 1898. Sudan became a British colony and remained so until independence was granted in 1956. Immediately, conflict between north and south Sudan began, with a civil war lasting until 1972.

But in 1983, civil war broke out again. Under the terms of the Addis Ababa Agreement of 1972, Southern Sudan was allowed to govern themselves. Sudan’s president at the time, Gaafar Nimeiry, tossed the agreement out. In 1977, Nimeiry had instituted Islamic laws to Northern Sudan and in 1983, decided that Southern Sudan should obey them as well. Fighting resumed between North and South until a cease-fire was negotiated in 1995 after some two million people had been killed by war and famine.

Sudan’s current president, Omar al-Bashir, led a military coup in 1989. He appointed himself chief of state, prime minister, minister of defense and head of the army. After allying himself, since he was the government, with the National Islamic Front, al-Bashir began a harsh campaign of forcing Sharia law on all the peoples of Sudan. He also carried out a series of purges, sending many politicians, journalists and others to their deaths and banned all opposition parties and newspapers. Backed by Russia, al-Bashir enforced military control of Southern Sudan. In 1996, he was elected President, although he was the only ‘legal’ candidate on the ballot, and established a totalitarian, one-party Islamic Congress. After Usama bin Laden was personally invited to live in Sudan by al-Bashir, the United States and other nations listed Sudan as a terrorist state.

Needless to say, this title on Sudan did not help them economically. A move by the Sudanese Congress to limit the power of their president in 2000 led to al-Bashir disbanding Congress and enact martial law. Rebellion ensued again, leading to more death and violence. The war-torn nation went to the brink and by late 2004, al-Bashir finally relented. A new peace accord in 2005 was negotiated and set up the referendum for Southern Sudan independence in 2011. But while this was a move forward for peace, a whole new conflict among tribes in western Darfur, which had been brewing since the 1970s, erupted in 2003.

Arab militia, known as the Janjawid, began a long campaign of terror and ethnic cleansing in Darfur, which covers the area of western Sudan. Whole villages were murdered, women raped, and lands pillaged. It’s estimated that nearly 3 million people have been displaced as refugees from Darfur. The death toll is anyone’s guess, but is easily in the hundreds of thousands. Darfur’s status following the referendum is part of Sudan’s on-going problems. The International Criminal Court has accused President al-Bashir of war crimes and filed ten criminal charges against him in 2008. While he has promised to abide by the results of the referendum, how serious al-Bashir is remains to be seen. Most of Sudan’s oil and valuable mineral resources lie in Southern Sudan. The voting results, which ends this Saturday, are expected some time next week.

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