KAUDA: A stronghold of south Sudan’s former rebels even though it lies north, Kauda in the Nuba mountains is a poor town whose indigenous peoples hope they too may one day be free from Arab rule.
Two stone churches on the road leading into town and a litter of pigs running across the path beside a thatched house are just two signs that mark the area as culturally distinct from the rest of Sudan’s mostly Arab, Muslim north.
Yunan al-Barot heads the local branch of the former rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement which led the south to a 2005 peace agreement with the government in Khartoum and a week-long independence referendum whose votes were being counted on Sunday.
"We in Sudan, we have different ethnic groups, with a wide variety of languages. So the Muslim Arabs in the north, they want to implement sharia (Islamic law). But when (the late SPLM leader) John Garang fought, he fought for a new vision, for a new secular Sudan," he said.
The Nuba branch of the SPLM joined the southern rebels in 1987, just four years into the devastating 22-year civil war with Khartoum, and established Kauda as its headquarters.
Sitting on a broken plastic chair outside his pre-fabricated office compound, Barot admitted that the region was badly in need of development.
"You saw there was no paved road from (the South Kordofan state capital) Kadugli to Kauda. If you see some concrete buildings here, most of them were built by NGOs. There is no electricity," he added.
But like others from the many non-Arab tribes of the region that rub shoulders in Kauda, Barot believes such problems have resulted from decades of neglect by Khartoum and that greater autonomy is the answer.
He was speaking just hours before a demonstration on Saturday that saw large crowds chanting anti-government slogans and waving SPLM flags in a festive atmosphere that could have been a referendum rally of the kind seen in the south earlier this month.
South Kordofan and Blue Nile, both in the north but with large non-Arab communities, were accorded special status under the 2005 peace deal that ended the north-south civil war.
Like the Nuba mountains, the southern half of Blue Nile has a large non-Arab population and remains under SPLM control. The state as a whole has an SPLM governor, the only one in the north to do so.
Governor Malik Agar said the state’s population had contributed heavily in the southern fight for freedom but stressed that that did not mean that they begrudged the region’s looming independence without them.
"What is happening in southern Sudan is not something that is coming out from the blue, they (the people of Blue Nile) have also contributed to it," he told AFP.
"They have been fighting hand in hand with the south in the same trenches, and up to now some of them are still in south Sudan. So there is no surprise that makes people bitter or sour."
Under the peace agreement, both areas are due to hold so-called popular consultations on their status. South Kordofan is also due to hold state elections, now scheduled for April.
"We believe the popular consultation is a good mechanism to resolve the rest of the issues of the Sudan, revisiting the establishment of the Sudanese state to suit the diversity of the Sudanese, whether that is religious diversity, whether that is economic diversity," Afar said.
"Of course (when it concerns) the aspiration of the people, the sky is the limit. But what is negotiable is negotiable … we will see what is reasonable and what is attainable."
In Kauda, mistrust of the National Congress Party of President Omar al-Bashir remains endemic.
During Saturday’s protest, one of at least three in South Kordofan, more than 1,000 people marched to the United Nations compound to hand over a memorandum accusing the government of delaying the state election, rigging the registration process and failing to meet its commitments under the peace deal.
Walid Ali, 33, runs a community radio station in Kauda funded by USAID and which broadcasts in English, Arabic and Atoro, one of the local languages.
"When we talk to people about belonging to the north, they say: ‘No, because we have belonged to the north for 55 years, but nothing has been done for us.’ There is no development here and people are suffering from so many things," Ali said.
"We really feel neglected. Khartoum is like a wonderful world. But here it’s like a village on a hill."
Ali said he was saddened by the looming prospect of the secession of the south, because it will divide Sudan, which he believes will disadvantage the Nuba peoples.
"But I am also happy, because when people need something and they get it, that is right. I will be happy for the people of southern Sudan because they have their freedom."
Despite the ambitions of the Nuba people to win freedom for themselves, and for all the foreign aid and UN support, it is hard to see Kauda transforming itself into a prosperous town any time soon.
The SPLM’s Yunan al-Barot says if the area is free, prosperity will follow. "When you are free, you can use your own resources to do whatever you want."