Trading goods in South Kordofan state. Photo: Rita Willaert on (CC licence)

Dalanj used to be at the very heart of the Sudan. Now it is a buffer zone between the Sudanese and the South Sudanese border. In the daytime, government forces control the city and the surrounding highways. After dark, rebel groups roam the roads.

Dalanj is the capital city of the conflict-ridden Sudanese South Kordofan state. Once a safe area, security is now fragile in a district where fighting between government forces and the rebels Southern People’s Liberation Army North (SPLA-N), and tensions between different tribes have led to human suffering and internal displacement.

A state of mind
Ever since 2011, when the world’s newest country South Sudan was born, the people in Dalanj have lived under a curfew. The official curfew begins at 10 in the evening. The real curfew starts hours earlier, at 5 in the afternoon. If you violate this silent agreement, no one will protect you. Moving around is risky business, and no one will protect you if you get into trouble. Still, life goes on in the city. The curfew has become permanent and has developed into a state of mind.

-People have an amazing ability to adapt. Everyone knows that the highway is controlled by government forces from 8 in the morning till 5 in the afternoon, and that rebel groups or motorcycle gangs take over after that. Everyday life is built around this unwritten rule in Dalanj. Even business and trade adapt, says Ahmed Elhassab, professor at Dalanj University.

When the unofficial curfew starts at 5, rebel fighters come to Dalanj to visit their families and to do business. They exchange and trade goods, and buy the same produce that government soldiers buy during daytime. But the trade that goes on in those late hours is just as unofficial as the curfew. It even has its own name: Sumbuk trade (link to CMI Working paper to be inserted here). The potential for getting rich is big, and people from all factions and layers of society participate; militarymen, rebel fighters, small scale entrepreneurs. They all benefit from the Sumbuk trade.

-City life at night is also an important arena for information. Rebel fighters meet with government soldiers to exchange information under the table, says Elhassab.

In its very own way, the curfew has shaped a society that works. There is no real resistance, even though violations do occur. People sometimes travel along the highway without protection. That is a risk they are willing to take if necessary.

Safety in social ties
Intra-tribal conflicts and ethnic tensions have caused colossal suffering in Dalanj, and like anywhere else, civilians have had to bear the brunt in times of hardship and conflict. But there is protection in a curfew that has become everyday life. There is also protection in numbers, and not least in networks and social ties. Marriage between people belonging to different tribes is common, and you do not hurt family.

-The strong social fabric is what helps people adapt to a precarious situation. We may not have military security, but we do have social security. People from different tribes have co-existed in this region for a long time, and life goes on even when tensions are high, says Elhassab.

The social ties even offer protection for researchers like Ahmed Elhassab, who through Dalanj University’s participation in CMI’s biggest project in Sudan, Assisting Regional Universities in Sudan and South Sudan (ARUSS), publishes extensively on sensitive issues. For some of their papers and reports, they have interviewed people involved in illegal activities. That makes their work potentially dangerous.  

-We depend on our networks and social ties. Like everyone else, the researchers at Dalanj University are very much part of their local communities. Those communities are characterized by trust and give us the protection we need, says Elhassab.