Food merchants flee South Sudan before Jan. vote

Merchants from northern Sudan say they are starting to feel like foreigners here, even before the south's independence referendum could split Africa's largest nation. Many are leaving or planning to go because they fear violence.

Northern Arabs and southern Christians and animists have coexisted mostly in harmony in towns like Malakal on Sudan's north-south faultline. But uncertainty surrounding the Jan. 9 vote has caused some northern-based suppliers to delay shipping goods to traders here, 90 percent of whom are from the north, said Ahmed Jadullah Mohammed, the head of a trade union of merchants.

Food staples like sorghum, wheat and beans come from northern Sudan by barge, the cheapest and fastest way to get food into a place where few roads exist. In anticipation of food shortages, the World Food Program has pre-positioned 75,000 metric tons of food in 100 hubs throughout the south.

Lise Grande, who heads the United Nations' humanitarian operations in the south, said the flow of essential foodstuffs is already dropping and noted there is less food in area markets.

For now at least, the shelves at Abdullah and Ahmed Rahim's food shop are piled high with pasta, powdered milk and honey; dried chickpeas and beans sit in plastic buckets — all imported from the north.

The brothers were born in the north and have spent the past eight years in Malakal. They are now trying to sell off their stocks, shutter their shop and fly to Khartoum, Sudan's capital, in the next couple weeks.

"We have to go because there are no guarantees for us after the referendum," said Abdullah Rahim. "Many from our tribe are now leaving here. God knows, we don't know what will happen. War could break out."

A two-decade north-south civil war ended a peace deal in 2005. But clashes between the northern and southern armies in Malakal in November 2006 and February 2009 killed at least six people, a Human Rights Watch report found. There are fears violence will restart.

In hopes of allaying those concerns, the Upper Nile state government has told residents they will be safe, said Mohammed, the merchants' union chief. The governor of Upper Nile even visited Mohammed's sorghum warehouse last week.

It's not only food merchants who are leaving Malakal.

Moussa Ali, a northerner who sells building materials, says he plans to get rid of them and move back north.

"Food ... will really be a problem because all the food is from the north and there are no southern traders," he said.

When Adir El Zbir, a northerner, arrived in Malakal in 2000, he opened a private practice and has since founded a legal aid clinic for clients who can't afford representation.

El Zbir is now selling his office and furniture and will take the barge north, believing that if he stays in Malakal "I'd be here as a refugee, not a citizen."