A 'local paper' for those who've never had one

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

At dusk in this bombed-out town, once a key battlefield in Africa's longest civil war, a keen young reporter for the local paper is grumbling over his bulky laptop.

A deadline looms, but his office - one room in a tin-roof shack filled with the lazy whine of mosquitoes - runs on solar power, and he has just lost his race against sunset.

Jacob Deng Mayom must wait for dawn to finish his story. Friday he will send it by satellite phone from deep in rural Sudan to his editor 1,100 miles to the south in neighboring Kenya.

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Mr. Mayom is one of six reporters (three in Sudan, three in Kenya) for a pioneering newspaper distributed twice a month throughout war-ravaged southern Sudan. Originally written in English, the Sudan Mirror celebrated its first anniversary in October by adding an Arabic edition - a small but significant step toward reconciliation in a land marked by acrimony between the Christian south, where English is generally spoken, and the Arab-speaking Muslim north.

"It is a very political statement to bring out the Arabic editions," says publisher Dan Eiffe, former Roman Catholic priest and well-known aid worker who's heavily involved in reconstruction inside Sudan. "It says we want to write an honest, independent newspaper for Sudan," whether readers speak Arabic or English, whether they side with the Islamic government or with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), a mostly Christian rebel army that has clashed with the government in Khartoum since 1983.

In distributing an Arabic newspaper in towns and villages once at the heart of the civil war, the Mirror could anger some of its hoped-for readers. Arabic, after all, is the hated language of the oppressor in the eyes of die-hard anti-Khartoum southerners.

But many southerners were educated in government schools and read only Arabic. The Sudan Mirror may be their only source of information about events in their country, and the newspaper's staff argue that they stand for a new, peaceful Sudan, where news and opinion flow freely, in both languages.

"We try to avoid overt politics," says Mr. Eiffe, "but we wanted to appeal to the idea of a peaceful Sudan where previously marginalized people have access to information they desperately want."

Peace talks between Khartoum and the SPLM have dragged on for two years, and international goodwill and patience are running thin. Chief negotiators in the peace process resumed talks on Monday in Naivasha, Kenya, reiterating promises they made to the UN last month they would have a comprehensive peace agreement ready to sign by New Year's Eve.

Analysts say pinning down peace in the south would provide a blueprint for solving the separate 22-month-old conflict to the west in Darfur. Hopes for peace are high, even among senior observers.

"I had a good impression about these discussions," says Louis Michel, visiting European Commissioner for development and humanitarian aid. "That doesn't mean I am naively optimistic - it is a very fragile framework, a very fragile situation - but I think all the parties are willing."

Millions of dollars of aid in trust for a peaceful Sudan might be revoked unless the deadlock is broken, warns John Danforth, US ambassador to the UN and current president of the Security Council.

Inside southern Sudan, the need for peace, and the help it will bring, is obvious. Few brick structures remain standing, roads are impassable because of flooding or land mines, and healthcare is minimal.

Education, too, is scarce. According to UNICEF, girls in southern Sudan are 10 times as likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth as they are to finish primary school. Only Afghanistan under the Taliban educated fewer of its daughters.

But the Sudan Mirror reporters are finding a thirst for information among their "readers," 3 out of 4 of whom are illiterate and rely on friends to read articles aloud.

Lines of hawkers on bicycles queue up at Rumbek's puddled airstrip when the aid plane lands, bringing the latest issue. (It arrives by aid planes since there are no commercial flights and the roads from Kenya are impassible.) Most copies of the 24-page English version and the new 12-page Arabic version are still handed out free by international aid agencies.

"It is taking a while for people to come to us with stories," says Camilo Gatmai Kel, the Mirror's bureau chief in Lokichoggio, Kenya, where 52,000 south Sudanese refugees live in the vast Kakuma Camp.

"If we go in there and start asking questions, they think we are spies," he says. "People in southern Sudan do not know about journalism, they have not known about newspapers, but they are keen to see what is happening, and the Mirror is sometimes the only way they find out."

A glance through the pages of a typical edition shows articles on the peace talks, the crisis in Darfur, famine, and cattle raids. A lively letters page hints at healthy dialogue between paper and readers.

Government sympathizers regularly charge that the Mirror is biased in favor of the SPLM, adding fuel to the fires of division.

Eiffe rebuts that angrily, saying his is a regional paper reflecting the concerns and interests of a regional readership, and as such it may be guilty of well-meaning parochialism, but not of bias. "Our editorials are the same in the English and Arabic editions, and they are equally challenging to the SPLM as they are to the government," he says.

The Mirror may be short of cash and advertisers, but it is devoured to the last word in the muddy marketplaces and tea shacks of southern Sudan. And if that long-awaited peace deal is signed in Kenya, the first many south Sudanese will know about it will be in the pages of their local paper, in Arabic or in English.

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