Expelled from Sudan

CAIRO — In 2005, a historic peace agreement ended more than two decades of civil war between north and south Sudan. It was Africa's longest civil war, killing some two million people, sending four million others fleeing and literally burning southern Sudan to the ground.

The long-awaited peace came with a vision for a new Sudan. A democratic Sudan. One where the Sudanese people would live with rights and freedoms, enshrined in a new constitution.

The leader of the rebel movement in the south, John Garang, was the man behind that dream. He died in a helicopter crash just a few months after the deal was signed. And his vision seems to be slipping further and further by the day.

In early February — following months of harassment — Sudan's national security services kicked me out of their country. They said I shouldn't have been asking about the arms industry and that I didn't have a work permit (I was never given a work permit despite repeatedly applying for one).

The United States, Canada and Reporters without Borders condemned my expulsion, saying it was yet another infringement by the government of Sudan upon freedom of the press and expression. There are considerable press restrictions. National security officials check newspaper copy on a daily basis, removing any articles they consider to be sensitive before newspapers go to press. One article about my story, for example, never made it through. But for me, my expulsion is a sign of much more.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement calls not only for freedom of expression, but for a new mandate for the national security service, which — under current law — is legally allowed to arbitrarily arrest people.

"The National Security Service shall be professional and its mandate shall be advisory and focused on information gathering and analysis," it says.

Until now, this shift has not happened. On my way out of the troubled Darfur region last October, national security officials pulled me aside at the airport, body-searched me, went through my notebooks, camera, recorders and phones and spent two hours studying my laptop. Two months later, I went through the same experience in the capital Khartoum. I regularly received calls from a national security official, who was "just checking up on me."

Days before my expulsion, it became clear that national security officials were following me and knew where I lived. The day of my departure, one agent was charged with following me through every checkpoint at the airport, right up until the tarmac where he watched me board the plane.

I was never given a formal expulsion order, or even shown an official badge.

The peace deal mandates national elections by July 2009 — meant to be the first free and fair elections since the current president came to power in 1989. For months, the former southern rebels — now partners in a Government of National Unity — have been urging the ruling National Congress Party to adopt a series of new laws they consider prerequisites for proper elections, including a new press law and a new national security law. This has yet to happen.

Even more crucial than the elections is a referendum scheduled for 2011, in which the south will decide if it wants to secede. As the deadlines for these major milestones draw near, time for positive change is beginning to run out.

Yet in the lead up to a decision by the International Criminal Court on whether to indict Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide and war crimes over the Darfur conflict, things seem to be getting worse, not better.

In January, opposition leader Hassan Turabi was detained without charge for suggesting Bashir face the charges at The Hague. He has yet to be released. Also last month, a Sudanese man was sentenced to 17 years in jail for allegedly spying, by trying to send sensitive documents to the global court.

The tension and paranoia created by the ICC, combined with the lack of implementation of parts of the peace agreement, suggest troubling times ahead.

Southern politicians have openly threatened war if the government does not follow through with the elections and referendum. And as one analyst told me, "if war comes again, it will be the most intense fighting this country has ever seen."

(Heba Aly reported from Sudan on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.)