As Sudan Revolts, Building a New Future for Darfur

"Lick Your Elbow" is one of the slogans of #SudanRevolts

Throughout the past two weeks, an emerging, dynamic protest movement has spread across Sudan, challenging the National Congress Party's (NCP) waning grip on political authority. In addition to #SudanRevolts’ domestic uprising, Khartoum confronts internal schisms and a three-front military conflict--violence in Darfur, Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, and with South Sudan threatens civilian security and livelihoods. As the NCP’s hold loosens, Sudan's future looks increasingly uncertain; the Sudanese regime's structure, character, and identity are in flux, and Khartoum’s relationship with marginalized communities in Darfur, the border states, and eastern Sudan remains unresolved.

Mass atrocities have continued in Darfur, despite the gradual de-escalation of the NCP's counterinsurgency campaign: Khartoum restricts essential humanitarian access to the region, while indiscriminate bombings and government-backed militia attacks against civilian population centers persist. Most internally displaced populations have not returned home, and have struggled to construct new communities in exile. And yet, in areas of relative stability, the foundations of reconstruction have begun to emerge. As Jeffrey Gettleman indicated in February, and groups on the ground have confirmed, refugees have trickled back to Darfur, slowly developing a basis for resilient, sustainable renewal.

El-Malam, outside the Darfuri city of Nyala, is the life-blood of Darfur’s reconstruction. Before the war, el-Malam functioned as a regional center for cultural, economic, and commercial prosperity. At the nexus of Nyala and el-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, el-Malam operated a vibrant market, an impressive network of primary schools, and a sustained base of health services. Unfortunately for el-Malam's residents, the town also emerged as a strategic hub; as the Darfur's civil war escalated, and Darfuri rebel forces consolidated their hold over the town, el-Malam quickly became a target of successive, destructive attacks by government-sponsored militias.

As Darfur's regional conflict ebbed, giving way to localized, intercommunal conflict, opportunities for reconciliation began to emerge. Last November, the Institute for Sustainable Peace (ISP), a U.S.-based conflict resolution program, organized a multi-week reconciliation workshop, seeking to build common ground between formerly-embattled Fur and Bin Masour leaders, as well as members of el-Malam's displaced community. The el-Malam project crafted an immediate forum for peacebuilding, as well as a long-term framework for sustained reconciliation; ISP's workshop participants developed a list of community priorities for reconstruction, including the restoration of el-Malam's vibrant market culture, youth education and empowerment, and irrigation infrastructure.

In the months since the ISP workshop, the el-Malam community has been hard at work, transforming the reconstruction plan into a tangible reality. In many ways, the el-Malam project represents a vision for a restored, inclusive Sudan: local and regional officials, displaced communities, and an emergent civil society each play an integral role in planning el-Malam’s development projects and ensuring continued security. Two months ago, I dropped by a BBQ with a couple of project participants in the Sudanese-American community. The group is a diverse assortment of diaspora members from Darfur, South Sudan, Khartoum, and across the Middle East--truly, a microcosm of John Garang's "new Sudan" in practice.

As a national popular protest movement re-emerges, there’s a new wave of fresh good-news stories developing in Sudan. In Darfur, the el-Malam project is building one more.

This blog originally appeared in The Huffington Post on July 2, 2012.

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