South Sudan became an independent state on 9 July 2011 following decades of political and social upheaval and two civil wars. St Bakhita Centre is a meeting place for the survivors of these wars, many of whom lost family, witnessed or were victims of atrocities and were displaced several times.
Prior to 2011, Sudan was the largest country in Africa and Southerners accounted for almost a third of the population. Sudan was incredibly diverse and the South Sudanese differed from the North in terms of ethnicity, language and religion.
People from the South were more likely to be African and from many different ethnic groups including Dinka, Nuer, Madi and Luo. For the most part, they followed traditional beliefs or Christianity.
In the North, a significant proportion of the population was of Arab descent and Muslim, while Arabic was the official language. Tribal languages, Arabic and English, which had been introduced during the period of Anglo-Egyptian rule, were spoken in the South.
Another major difference between the North and South was the enormous disparity in economic development between the two regions. The South had limited access to infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals and was mainly rural. There had been little investment in the region during the Anglo-Egyptian period and this did not change after Independence.
The First Civil War began shortly after Sudan obtained its independence from Anglo-Egyptian rule in January 1956. It concluded with the Addis Ababa Peace Accord in 1972 when the South was granted regional autonomy within a united Sudan. War broke out again in 1983 when the Sudanese Government abrogated the peace agreement. The Second Civil War which lasted until 2005 devastated the South and resulted in the deaths of an estimated two million and the displacement of more than four million South Sudanese.
The causes of the civil wars were numerous and complex but at its core were disputes over access to political power, economic resources and the South’s resistance to Northern policies which tried to impose Arabic as the official language and Islam as the main religion. Another factor influencing North-South relations was the long history of slavery which had decimated Southern communities during the nineteenth century and would terrorise them again during these wars.
Foreign rule: the 'Turkiya' (1821-1885) and Anglo-Egyptian Government (1899-1956)
Over the last two hundred years, Sudan has known two extended periods of foreign rule: the Turkish-Egyptian occupation referred to as the ‘Turkiya’ and the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium.
These periods were separated by the 'Mahdiya', the era named after the religious leader known as the 'Mahdi' ('Guided One') who captured Khartoum and killed General Charles Gordon in January 1885.
During the 'Turkiya', there was a dramatic increase in the slave trade and by the 1840s, thousands of slaves from Southern communities were being sent north every year. The young girl who would become St Josephine Bakhita was a victim of one of the many slave raids that ravaged the South during this time.
The Anglo-Egyptian Condominium was established following the defeat of the Mahdist forces at Omdurman in 1898. It was in reality a British administration and its policies promoted Christianity and English as the language of education and government in the South while maintaining the status quo in the North.
Missionaries & religious spheres of influence
The first Roman Catholic missionaries arrived during the Turkish-Egyptian occupation and a permanent mission was established in Khartoum in 1848. However, evangelism was limited by the ill-health and premature deaths of many of the religious due to the inhospitable climate.
Bishop Daniel Comboni is one of the best known missionaries from this time. He believed that Africa should be evangelised by Africans although his plan also reflected the ongoing loss of missionaries to illness. Bishop Comboni established several mission stations in Sudan in the 1870s before his death in 1881. When the Mahdi came to power in 1885, these mission stations were overrun and several missionaries captured. Others retreated to Egypt to await the fall of the regime and the installation of a more favourable government.
The Anglo-Egyptian Government which was installed in 1899 refused to let Christian missionaries proselytise in the North. However, they were encouraged to set up mission stations and schools in the South where English and the vernacular were the languages of instruction. In 1905, the government introduced a system of religious spheres which allocated areas of the South to different Christian denominations based on the principle of 'one area, one mission'.
The position of the missionaries in the South changed dramatically with the departure of the British. In 1957, the Sudanese Government banned Christian missionaries from starting new schools or preaching outside their churches. At the same time, Southern mission schools were nationalised and Arabic became the language of instruction nation-wide. Seven years later, all foreign missionaries were expelled from Sudan. This meant that Sudanese Christians became responsible for the practice and promulgation of their faith and many took on roles as church leaders and evangelists. For most of the next half century, they would face increasing government persecution.
Independence and the First Civil War
Even before 1956, there was growing concern about the implications for the South of an independent Sudan. The 1947 Juba Conference tried to address the issue of Southern participation in the proposed legislative assembly and the provision of safeguards against laws that would disadvantage the South. However, these problems were not resolved and the first Legislative Assembly of Sudan contained only thirteen Southern representatives of a total of seventy-five. The Sudanisation of British and Egyptian government positions in 1954 produced a similar result when only six of 800 posts went to Southerners. In August 1955, the mutiny of the Southern Corps at Torit was a further reflection of the mounting unease at Northern attitudes towards the South.
The situation did not improve after Independence as the Sudanese Government implemented policies that prioritised Arabic and Islam as unifying elements of the new Sudan. Disturbances continued in the South and in the early 1960s, a rebel group called Anyanya emerged which began to lead the resistance to the North. As the fighting intensified, the Sudanese Government began to organise local Arab militias from internal North/South border areas to attack towns and villages in the neighboring provinces of Bahr el Ghazal and Upper Nile. This strategy would be used to decimate these regions during the Second Civil War.
After years of conflict, the 1972 Addis Ababa Peace Agreement marked the end of the First Civil War. The agreement was based on several concessions by the North. English would be the main language of the South and Arabic, the official language of Sudan. The South would be defined as one region and have its own elected Regional Assembly in Juba. The new national constitution which passed in 1973 also enshrined the right to religious freedom.
The Second Civil War and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA)
The Second Civil War began in 1983 when the Sudanese Government dismantled the Southern regional government and divided the South into three provinces: Upper Nile, Bahr el Ghazal and Equatoria. Arabic was reinstated as the only official language and Sharia law was imposed throughout Sudan.
Around this time, a colonel in the Sudanese army, Dr John Garang defected and formed the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and its political branch, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). A Dinka from Upper Nile province, Garang commanded a force that would eventually control large areas of the South.
One of the most disturbing features of this civil war was the systematic targeting of civilians and property in the Bahr el Ghazal and Upper Nile provinces by Arab militias. These groups known as murahiliin killed, raped and enslaved villagers. They plundered and burned property, cattle and crops leading to starvation and major famines. The Sudanese Government also deployed the army and regularly bombed civilian centres across the South. Similar atrocities were committed in the Nuba Mountains, Darfur and oil-producing areas such as Abyei.
Millions of Southerners were forced to flee to refugee camps or to the capital, Khartoum. These journeys were fraught with danger as highlighted by the 1987 Ed Daëin massacre in southern Darfur where more than a thousand Dinka refugees were burnt alive in railway cars by an Arab militia.
For those who went to Khartoum, life became progressively worse following the military coup that brought Omar al-Bashir to power in 1989. A harsher form of Sharia law was imposed and security agents harassed the Southern community. Shanty towns were demolished and relocated without warning or compensation. Many Southerners escaped to Egypt in the early 1990s. However, the Southern Sudanese were not recognised as refugees by the Egyptian Government. They were subjected to frequent racial harassment and struggled to make ends meet.
The Second Civil War did not end until January 2005 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which provided for a referendum on Southern independence. Held in January 2011, 98% of Southerners voted for independence and the new nation of South Sudan came into being in July of that year. Sadly, conflict returned to the South in 2013 and remains a source of concern and distress for the St Bakhita community.