ED DAMAZIN (Sudan), Dec 19 ― The stony road out of Ed Damazin holds both a promise of peace, and reminders of war.
In a cloud of dust, a pickup truck loaded with Sudanese soldiers in red berets leads a convoy of cars carrying United Nations aid workers, government officials and foreign diplomats on a rare visit to Blue Nile state where a renewed uprising began in 2011.
They are headed west to Agadi village, a jolting 45 minutes away in this southernmost part of Sudan, to tour a medical centre which is part of an effort to stabilise communities in a region where hundreds of thousands of people have been affected by fighting over the past two years.
“It started making an impact,” said Srinivas Kumar, manager for the UN Development Programme’s Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) effort.
“Over the last two years, what we have done is we have changed the approach, focusing more on the communities.”
A previous initiative directly targeted about 24,000 ex-fighters to help them return to normal life after the Sudanese civil war of 1983-2005, in which Blue Nile was a key battleground between supporters of north and south.
The scheme gave former fighters from both sides training and equipment to set up small businesses or other ventures individually.
But it may have made only a “small contribution” to reintegrating the war veterans, an independent assessment commissioned by the UNDP found last year.
When a new uprising erupted among former southern sympathisers in Blue Nile months after South Sudan broke away in 2011, ex-fighters were approached to take up arms again.
Now a new initiative ― which the UNDP wants to expand next year ― turns the focus away from individuals towards group projects or business ventures that can foster economic development and community cohesion.
The aim is to provide a supportive environment and incentive for former fighters and potential recruits to the new conflict not to take up arms.
“We’re targeting the vulnerable groups,” including the displaced, the unemployed and women, Kumar said.
‘Conflicts here are solved amicably’
The Agadi area, in Tadamon district, shelters people who fled their homes when the new rebellion erupted among the state’s non-Arab minorities against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum.
After discussing ways to support community security, residents decided that a clinic would help. They felt it could act as a reconciliation point because “everyone would need medical services”, a UNDP briefing paper said.
The clinic “has solved a lot of health problems” and the area’s ethnic groups are living in harmony, community leader Jabir Hashem told a crowd of hundreds, whose traditional dancing and singing welcomed the visitors led by UN Sudan chief Ali Al-Za’tari.
“We have received our brothers who have come back from the rebel areas,” Hashem said. “All the conflicts here are solved locally and amicably without going to the courts.”
Complementing the clinic, a residents’ committee helps to address local security concerns.
The two-wing medical centre comprises a laboratory, two wards, and rooms for vaccination and other services in the village, where conical huts cluster beneath a mountain of boulders.
Among a few soldiers guarding the outskirts of the community, one carries a rocket-propelled grenade launcher on his shoulder. Others keep watch from on top of the boulders.
The dirt road to Agadi passes spiked acacia trees and herds of cattle before the stalks of recently-harvested sorghum turn the land a sea of yellow.
In the distant haze to the south, the low mountains of Bau are visible.
Rebel attacks in Bau district earlier this month left one insurgent and several soldiers dead, the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North (SPLA-N), which is fighting the Khartoum government, said.
The government’s military spokesman could not be reached for comment.
The SPLA-N has also been fighting for two years in South Kordofan, another state with non-Arab minorities whose civil war sympathies lay largely with the south, and where the conflict has been more intense.
In November, the government said it had launched an operation to crush the rebels.
Authorities have severely limited access to the war zones, although restrictions for aid workers were eased in Blue Nile earlier this year.
Staying away from battle
The Agadi project is one of 28 which the UNDP has completed across Sudan, in partnership with local agencies, under the banner of “Community Security and Arms Control (CSAC)”.
An estimated 79,000 residents in seven Blue Nile communities, including Agadi, have benefited.
Through a flat landscape dotted with baobab trees, the convoy headed from Agadi to the edge of Ed Damazin where another CSAC project offers fishing as an alternative to fighting.
About 70 young ex-combatants from both sides of the conflict have acquired skills including boat building and net making, said Waafa Sir, director of a local NGO implementing the project.
Around 30 women associated with the combatants have learnt how to dry and smoke the fish before it is sold, Sir told AFP outside a metal trailer with big freezers to store what the men catch.
She said the income-generating initiative has brought former rebels and government supporters together.
“Before, this area was separate like two tribes,” she said.
The fishing project is a model which UNDP hopes to expand to about 90 communities next year, Kumar said.
He cites survey data which show that 82 per cent of ex-civil war fighters who received help to settle back into their communities have not returned to combat.
The rest are classified as “missing”.
The reasons to avoid a return to the battlefield are painfully clear at another aid project in Ed Damazin, where disabled veterans worked together to build a centre supporting landmine victims.
A man missing his right arm greets the UN delegation. Others move with crutches, having lost a leg.
Zaki Tom al-Tayeb, a welcoming former government soldier, pulls up his jeans to show an artificial left leg.
“I was hit by a landmine in Kurmuk,” he said. ― AFP