Photo of woman and child during Sudan famine

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (WOMENSENEWS)–“When bombs come at night, it is like rain without clouds,” said Dolly Odwong, a single mother with four children in southern Sudan. Civilians scurry for cover or hit the ground as the Russian-made Antanov bombers sent by the Khartoum government do their dirty work, attacking civilians.

The first question Odwong asks at the makeshift centers in the war zones where she does trauma counseling: “How did you sleep last night?” Few sleep well, if at all.

Odwong is a member of the Sudanese delegation of Women Waging Peace, which includes women from the Arab and Muslim North and the Christian and animist South. They are part of a loose international association of women from 20 conflicts worldwide, seeking to alleviate suffering, influence government policy and practice and share their experiences with other activist women from civil society.

Some teach traditional birthing methods; some demobilize, educate and try to reintegrate child soldiers into what’s left of devastated society; some, like Odwong, are trauma counselors and work for relief organizations; some women in the north run legal aid and human rights organizations. All of them are seeking a place in still-illusory peace talks so that the short- and long-term concerns of children and women can be inscribed on the agendas for peace, reconciliation and reconstruction.

The African members of Women Waging Peace, including women from Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda and South Africa, have been meeting this week in Kigali, Rwanda, where as many as one million people were slain in a genocide in 1994.

Today, civilians–overwhelmingly women and children–constitute up to 90 percent of the casualties in conflicts worldwide. That compares with just 5 percent in World War I and 48 percent in World War II. By and large, today’s conflicts are internal, not external, involving groups, tribes and religions, and the combatants employ increasingly brutal tactics to tear at the fabric of civilian society.

This is very much the case in Sudan, Africa’s largest country.

Sudanese Have Struggled Through 34 Years of North-South Upheaval

The civil war between the North and South, the world’s longest uninterrupted civil war, has kept the country in upheaval for 34 of the past 45 years, since independence from Egypt and the United Kingdom in 1956. The current 18-year conflict has made life in southern Sudan a chaotic struggle to survive.

An estimated 2 million people have died as a result of war and repression by the Sudanese government, as well as violence by anti-government forces in the south. Millions more have been forced into exile or have been internally displaced. The looming threat of famine has put almost 3 million people at risk and in need of urgent food assistance.

The war is complex. Put in the simplest terms, the Khartoum-based National Islamic Front government army fights the rebel Sudanese People’s Liberation Army and other opposition forces, and all sides abuse the civilian population. Additionally, there is a parallel inter-tribal violence. Currently, the Nuer and the Dinka, the two largest tribes in southern Sudan, are on the verge of breaking a 1999 cease-fire in a struggle over equal shares of food aid from international organizations intended for civilian noncombatants.

The conflict is mostly about sovereignty and control of the country’s natural resources, especially oil in the south. The government appears determined to clear civilians, including Muslims in the Nuba Mountains in central Sudan, by force, or by starvation.

Last year, government planes bombed at least 167 civilian targets, including hospitals and schools. More than 20 bombings have occurred this year, the latest on May 3 when government planes dropped 12 bombs that destroyed a food relief distribution center near Juba in southern Sudan. It was the sixth time since December that the village was bombed.

In January, bombs destroyed a Nile bank health center that served 100,000 people. In late April, two men were killed in an attack near a Catholic missionary school in the Nuba Mountains in central Sudan.

Both Government and Rebels “Draft” Young Men to Fight

Each year the government and rebel armies “draft” young males indiscriminately.

“It’s seasonal,” said Carolyn Baer, who works with the American Refugee Committee in southern Sudan. “October-November, after harvest, is mobilization. They grab people for two months, train them for two months, fighting season is in March, April and May. Then it’s time to plant.”

Women are prime targets in this war against civilians, and women are the ones who cope, growing or foraging for food, giving birth and trying to raise children.

Dolly OdwongWomen from the North and South are crossing borders to work for peace to stop the seemingly interminable war. They cross regularly into Uganda or Kenya, where dozens of relief organizations are based. They also crossed religious and ethnic lines to create the Sudanese Women’s Peace Initiative, conceived in late 1997, launched in Khartoum and Nairobi in 1998 and sustained through workshops and meetings in The Hague, Cairo, Nairobi, South Africa and Maastricht in the Netherlands.

And they cooperate as members of Women Waging Peace, the program at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, directed by Swanee Hunt, the former U.S. ambassador to Austria. Its members, delegations of 10 women from each of 20 conflict areas around the world, share information and solutions at conferences and over the Internet.

The two Sudanese Women Waging Peace delegates from Khartoum in the North, both attorneys doing women’s rights work, and the eight delegates from the South, most of whom work for relief organizations, first met in December 1999 at a Women Waging Peace conference at Harvard’s Kennedy School in Cambridge, Mass.

Spontaneously, they called a meeting to brief the others in attendance–90 women from nine other conflict areas–about Sudan’s civil war.

“It was a most improbable scene,” Hunt recalled. “Within 24 hours of meeting, women for whom the conflict is so divisive that they cannot meet within their own country … hosted a meeting together. The leaders within their country would never have been able to do that.” In their own country, she said, they would have had to cross battle lines into enemy territory and would have faced death.

Arab Women From the North Meet Women From the South

Most of this Sudanese delegation was meeting this past week in Kigali. Participants included Samia Elhashmi, founder of Mutawinat, a Khartoum group that provides legal aid for women and children and deals with human rights issues, and Eshraga el-Rihima Mohamed, a Khartoum lawyer who trains women in conflict resolution and legal awareness. They were joined by Dolly Odwong, Mary Ret and Christine Leno, the three delegates who represented Sudan at the second Women Waging Peace conference last November at the Kennedy School.

They described life in the war zone of southern Sudan.

Odwong, who works for Sudanese Women’s Voice for Peace, a relief organization, was living in the southern city of Juba, which is now in government hands, from 1989 to 1991 when the city was shelled routinely.

“Everyone had to take cover every morning, the bombs could come at any time of the day,” she said. “When bombs fall, you run for your life. Trying to raise a family on the run, sleeping in the forest, is chaotic. Children are sometimes left behind. Women have to have two types of hearing–one ear is always cocked to the sound of airplanes. Is it a U.N. plane? Or an air raid? Will it be bombs?”

Last August, she was one of a group ambushed in southern Sudan, forced to hide in trenches. How does she counsel the women and children in the war zones? “You share your own traumas and listen to theirs,” she said. “You cannot heal the wounds during war, you can only bring hope.”

Christine Leno worked with the Sudan Council of Churches toward reconciliation efforts that led to the 1999 cease-fire between the Nuer and the Dinka tribes. Now, as gender coordinator of the Relief Association for the Southern Sudan, based in Nairobi, Kenya, Leno works in the upper Nile region on projects to demobilize the country’s child soldiers. Many of them have been orphaned or separated from their parents through bombing raids, then rounded up to serve forces of the government or various opposition forces.

Women Demobilize Child Soldiers, but Some Return to Fighting

“We take the kids out of the army, enroll them in school, set up camps for them,” she said. “Sometimes there are a thousand or more. But then the camps are bombed and the children flee into the forest. Some return to the army, which is the only life they know.”

Mary RetMary Ret, a photographer and women’s coordinator for the Sudanese People’s Democratic Front, teaches traditional birthing methods to women hiding in the forest or living in villages where clinics have been destroyed. In early 1993, while expecting her second child, she herself struggled for survival.

“I was in my last month of pregnancy when the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army and government forces started heavy fighting in my area. We ran away, with nothing to live on. We had to eat tree leaves for 13 days. I was one of several pregnant women to deliver our babies during this time.” Several of the other women and children died.

“This is not a way for a human being to live, no food, no clothes, no place to sleep at night,” Ret said. The bombs keep the women from planting crops; they destroy shelters and health clinics as soon as they are built. She and the other women described an endless and exhausting cycle of rebuilding.

“If reconciliation can take place in South Africa, it can work in the Sudan,” said Kemi Ogunsanya, a Nigerian human rights lawyer with the African Center for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes in Durban, South Africa. “Sudanese women are interested in being part of the peace process,” Ogunsanya said. “We want to equip them with skills so they will be ready.”

Through the African center for dispute resolution, Mary Ret visited South Africa to see how democracy can accommodate different political parties, religions, races and ethnic groups. She was particularly inspired by a visit to Robbins Island, where Nelson Mandela had been held captive.

“We are advocating the end of the Sudan war through negotiation, with women at the peace table,” Ret said. She and the other women want the bombing to stop so they can get back to their lives.

And what do they need most? “International attention,” she said without hesitation. In Kigali, she and the other Sudanese members of Women Waging Peace continued the painstaking work of learning how to get that attention.

Jane Ciabattari is a contributing editor of Parade Magazine and a member of the Women’s Enews advisory board.

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Women Waging Peace:

Women and Public Policy Program:

The 2001 Harvard Colloquium on International Affairs:

Other Women’s Enews articles by Jane Ciabattari:

Rwanda Gambles on Renewal, Not Revenge:

From Rwanda’s Ashes, Women Are Building Anew: