They call him “Commander Dan." He arrived 24 years ago, and they say here now that he knows South Sudan better than any other “Kawaja” – white man – around.
And yet even he got it wrong.
“I’m supposed to be a Sudan expert!” says Dan Eiffe in an Irish lilt, sitting along the banks of the Nile. “And yet I didn't believe this day would come. I really was sure there would be another war before they let us free.”
After 22 years of civil war – Africa’s longest conflict – in which 2 million people were killed and a further 4 million were displaced, South Sudan is now on the brink of independence.
The South Sudan Referendum Commission's preliminary results show that the predominantly Christian and African south has chosen, overwhelmingly, to split away from the mainly Arab and Muslim north.
In several southern counties, a full 99.9 percent of voters cast their ballots for independence, according to Timon Wani, a commission official. “Stay calm,” he told the crowds gathered under the afternoon sun in Juba, the town poised to become the South Sudan capital.
“Don’t celebrate yet… do not beat the drums,” he continued, his eye on a group of herders who were so busy waving arms in the air to signal victory that they were losing control of their goats. “Our divorce must be as smooth as the voting process itself... We must be restrained a little longer.”
'It's hard to stop being suspicious'
Eiffe, who was born on a farm in Ireland, came to Juba as a Catholic priest. He preached the gospels and gave communion to the Dinka and Nuer tribes, just as the peace brokered after the first civil war, which ended in 1972, was falling apart and a bitter second war, which started in 1983 and lasted until 2005, was starting.
It was here that he fell in love with Nouna, a young Sudanese woman who, he boasts, was so beautiful she stopped traffic – or would have, had there been any cars or, for that matter, any real roads in the dusty garrison town.
Leaving the priesthood to marry, Eiffe turned to work with Norwegian People's Aid (NPA), one of the largest NGOs in Sudan and the first such organization to take a political stance and support John Garang and his Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).
Eiffe soon sent Nouna and their twin boys to Kenya while he joined the rebel fighters in the bush. He played an increasingly important role in the war – procuring weapons from Uganda, lobbying for money in Washington, organizing food airlifts, and building camps.
In 2005, the sides signed the peace deal which set the terms of the current referendum, and Eiffe returned to the battered town. “I will tell you the truth. It just is hard to stop being suspicious after all these years. It’s hard to known if we can come to a halt,” he says.
Many others here agree. Susan Subek Dada, a mother of six and a senior officer in the security services, joined the SPLA at 17, and has spent her whole life fighting. “I told my grandmother I was going, and I ran away. I wanted to wear a uniform and fight for my people. I did. But I got tired. And along the way we lost some hope,” admits Dada, whose four brothers were killed in the long war.
“What we have trouble knowing now, is ‘Is this real?’ ‘Will the Arabs really leave us? And ‘Can our families really return in peace?’ We want to believe but we almost cannot," she says.
Creating a lasting peace
Zach Vertin, Sudan analyst for the International Crisis Group based in Nairobi, believes that it is for real, and that the north will respect the outcome of the referendum. “Many in the north are saddened by the circumstances, but now resigned to the reality of partition,” he says. “While opposed to secession, the ruling party is increasingly focused on securing its own political and economic future in the north, as its future is uncertain.”
For Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, the breakup of his country is far from desirable. Some 80 percent of Sudan’s oil is in the south and all this will now be lost to Mr. Bashir if the sides don't reach some kind of oil-sharing deal. Such a thing is expected, but Bashir knows he could lose it all if he antagonizes the South and it ends up shutting down most of Khartoum’s access to those oil resources.
What is most important now, Vertin believes, is for the sides to lay the foundations for a constructive post-referendum relationship. “Negotiations must promptly resume to determine a host of key critical issues that must be resolved – like citizenship and nationality, demarcation of the shared border, management of natural resources, security, assets and liabilities, currency, and international treaties and obligations.”
The journey to laying those foundations needs to start with a simple step, said Salva Kiir, the man slated to become the first president of the free South Sudan. It is time, he said over the weekend, to forgive. “Like Jesus Christ on the cross,” he said, speaking in church, “… let us forgive those who have forcibly caused their (our comrades) death ... and move forward."
But doubts about the longevity of the relative calm are likely to remain.
“Now, everyone is talking forgiveness, which is very good indeed,” says Eiffe, “… but we all should also be cautious. “Bashir is two-faced. Always has been. And so we are happy now, but we are also prepared, in case of another war. Let's wait six months and see what happens next.”