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Perilous crossroads for Sudan

"On a knife edge." That's an image used to the point of cliché by headline writers in British newspapers whenever a situation hangs precariously in the balance. Cliché or not, it perfectly describes the situation in Sudan.

While millions around the world have focused on displacement and death in Sudan's Darfur region, southern Sudan has been moving along the path toward peace. This is remarkable because before violence was visited on Darfur, four decades of war left an even greater humanitarian tragedy in the south, with millions dead and displaced in a conflict that seemed endless and intractable.

But in 2005, a treaty — the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) — brought that war to an end. To many, that agreement was like Nelson Mandela walking out of his South African prison: something they never thought they would live to see. But Mr. Mandela's freedom only began the hard work of creating a new South Africa. So it was with the signing of the CPA.

Now is the time for the hardest of that hard work. The treaty calls for Sudan's first multi-party national elections in more than 20 years, a historic event set to begin Sunday that is now endangered by opposition boycotts. That vote will set the stage for next year's referendum on independence for southern Sudan.

It is easy to assume the worst about southern Sudan's future. The fighting that preceded the signing of the CPA rose to a level of brutality that was rarely seen in modern times, even in Darfur. Hundreds of thousands of refugees scattered to neighboring countries, occupying huge camps. A few, the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan, made it to the United States.

The conflict in southern Sudan has the elements that have all too often led to tragedy in Africa: ethnic and religious differences heightened by the presence of too many weapons and the potential wealth of oil fields. If Sudan teeters toward the wrong side of that knife edge, the descent into violence could be precipitous and even worse than before, drawing much of East Africa into that descent.

But what gets lost in such doomsday talk is the tremendous opportunity that this moment presents. If the next few months go well, then Sudan could enter a time of peace unlike any in its 54-year history as an independent nation. Oil revenues, properly spent, could pave the way to prosperity. Can this happen? Of course. But we all have to help.

I visited Sudan recently, going to the capital Khartoum and Darfur. In various meetings with a wide variety of Sudanese from every level of society, it was clear that there is a strong desire for peace.

My organization, Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services — which has been working in Sudan since 1972 — plans to spend $4 million there during this crucial period on peace-building efforts, defusing long-standing tensions as the referendum nears. This is in addition to the continuing infusion of massive amounts of humanitarian assistance to Sudan. But much more is needed.

The United States helped broker the CPA and more recently has worked to resolve the issues surrounding the election and referendum. Now is the time for our government to engage at the highest levels to provide the leadership, guarantees and confidence both parties need to take the final, difficult steps toward peace.

Help is also needed from international humanitarian organizations as well as the United Nations and African Union and from governments around the world — European countries, Sudan's African neighbors and China, which now has a large economic stake in Sudan. All must support the robust desire for what is a fragile peace among the Sudanese.

Only a few years before Nelson Mandela took the oath of office, few thought that apartheid would end in South Africa without horrific bloodshed. But buoyed by this country's remarkable transformation, the whole world did more than watch; we all helped South Africa find the path of peace.

Of course, there is a well-trodden path that leads to the wrong side of the knife edge — the horrors of Rwanda's genocide, the chaos of Somalia. That's how bad this could be if it goes wrong, making it all the more important that we work to see that it goes right.

As Sudan goes into the future, what is important is that its people — in Khartoum, in Darfur, in the south — feel that they have the power to determine their own destiny. If we can all help them achieve that, then the Sudanese can finally enjoy the peace and prosperity that are rightfully theirs.

Sean Callahan is executive vice president for overseas operations for Catholic Relief Services, the official humanitarian organization of the U.S. Catholic community. He may be contacted at

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