Austin Bay

On a trip to Kenya in 2002, I picked up a copy of a handbook titled "Inside Sudan: The Story of People to People Peacemaking in Southern Sudan." In the introduction, its authors wrote, "The story in this book aims at capturing and portraying the essence of peacemaking."

Published by the New Sudan Council of Churches (NSCC), a Christian organization, the handbook chronicled peacemaking efforts by southern Sudanese and the NSCC. At the moment, international attention centers on Iraq and Sudan's other civil war, out west in Darfur. The NSCC handbook focused on the civil war in southern Sudan, which simmers in 2007, but in 2002 raged across Sudan's southern tier.

The fight between Sudan's "Arab" Muslim north and the predominantly Christian or animist "African" south began centuries ago, but in 1983 the south Sudan civil war reignited when the Islamist government in Khartoum revoked a power-sharing agreement. Once the war started, fights erupted among neighboring tribes. Agents of the Islamist government often encouraged the chaos.

The NSCC and other organizations began a "mosaic" peacemaking strategy among warring southern tribes. When appropriate, the NSCC used tribal peacemaking and reconciliation rituals to coax leaders into negotiating or help amenable leaders draw antagonized members of their tribe into the peace process. The ceremonial killing of a bull before a reconciliation forum where tribesmen share bitter examples of suffering is a compelling anecdote described in the handbook.

Efforts like the NSCC's helped make Sudan's 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement a reality. A number of southern Sudanese leaders advocate a similar approach in Darfur.

The NSCC strategy is an example of using "cultural contexts" or "cultural anthropological approaches" to achieve a political goal: ending a thicket of small wars with the ultimate goal of ending a large one.

It also illustrates that a savvy understanding of local cultural traditions is not a new tool in the politics of war and peace.

Of course, the U.S. Department of Defense has turned common sense into stilted jargon. Terms like "human terrain" are cropping up in Pentagon briefings. "Human Terrain Teams" provide social science support for military operations.

It may have cause in this case. Calling team members anthropologists supporting State and Defense (which is what they are) would antagonize the hard-left denizens of university social science schools -- the only group whose professional jargon is more stilted and obscure than the Pentagon's.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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