Sudan: A better road for peace
IMOTONG, Sudan - Build a road and they will come. At least that's the hope of villagers living along the road between Ikotos and Imotong in South Sudan.
A bumpy, dusty track winding through desolate scrub forests, the road is now much more passable thanks to the efforts of local community members.
"It was really hard work, but we managed to do it," explains local resident Santina Ngeye. "We cleared the road, put some stones in rough spots and uprooted trees."
"Now aid agencies, the government or anyone who wants to help us can come here directly," adds Gabriel Lokari, another resident in the area. "The road also brings us together and allows for easy communication with friends living far away."
Pitching In for Peace
The Road to Peace project started in May 2007 - the inspiration of Anisia Achieng, a peacebuilding officer with Catholic Relief Services in Sudan.
"The poor condition of the road was slowing delivery of materials and delaying construction of new schools and clinics," Achieng notes. "Women were also being attacked because bandits could hide in the tall grasses and trees by the roadside. Something had to be done to keep communities from being so isolated and to allow people to move freely, especially to market."
CRS consulted with village elders and proposed a food-for-work project. Able-bodied residents would be assigned sections of road to clear, and in return they would receive some sorghum, lentils and oil.
The project would also bring community members together to work side by side. It is hoped that this cooperation will strengthen the sometimes strained relationships between residents who stayed during the 22-year war between north and south, and villagers who have recently returned after many years away.
From May through December, 420 people contributed their sweat and labor to improve the 28-mile stretch between Ikotos and Imotong. The needed tools, food rations and project coordination were provided through the "Recovery and Rehabilitation Project in Eastern Equatoria," which is funded by the European Commission, managed by the United Nations and led by CRS in the southern Sudanese state of Eastern Equatoria.
"I liked the work because the hunger was too painful," Santina adds. "The work let me get something to support my family."
The long and brutal war between North and South Sudan drove 4 million people from their homes in the south. Now, since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in January 2005, thousands are feeling safe enough to return to their original homesteads.
Many of the Road for Peace project participants are refugees returning from neighboring countries, including Uganda and Kenya. Many others are moving back to their former lands along the main road from temporary houses they built during the war in the surrounding mountains - shelters that provided people with protection from rebels, government forces and the Lord's Resistance Army, a Ugandan rebel group that at times crosses into Sudan and terrorizes residents.
CRS is now implementing the second phase of the Road for Peace project. CRS' livelihoods team will invite community members to help repair concrete bridges that have been destroyed by past rains, providing cash in return for the labor. But they'll need to work fast: Once the rains come in the spring, all roads in the area turn into muddy, waterlogged ruts.
"It will likely take a number of years for the government of southern Sudan to begin paving roads. Until then, community efforts during the dry season can help ease development challenges in the area," Achieng adds. "By mobilizing villages to work in a peaceful manner, we're also rebuilding community ties that have been broken by years of conflict."
In addition to the Road for Peace project, CRS and its partners are supporting a number of other Recovery and Rehabilitation project activities in Eastern Equatoria, including agricultural projects, water and sanitation initiatives, microfinance and livelihoods support, and construction of schools, clinics and markets. Through support from U.S. Agency for International Development food aid programs, CRS has also implemented two other food-for-work projects that have cleared 34 additional miles of roads. All of these projects are critical for the well-being of the thousands of Sudanese returning to rebuild their lives in the south.
"My life has changed because the road is bringing development," explains John Logeng, a CRS-sponsored peace agent in Imotong. "I feel I'm in a community again."
Debbie DeVoe is CRS' regional information officer in East Africa based in Nairobi. She recently visited CRS projects in the Ikotos area of southern Sudan.