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South Sudan gets back on track

Train arriving in Aweil

By Lucy Fleming
BBC News, Aweil

The rumbling of the railway from the north which for years ignited fear in rural villages of southern Sudan is now being heard as a signal of the peace.

"When the train used to come, there was nothing good it brought to us - only soldiers who came to raid our cattle and kill people," Paul Natale, administrative head of Aweil town, told the BBC.

Mohamed Kathar Abdal Hamid
Everything except the mahogany timber comes from Khartoum by truck
Trader Mohamed Kathar Abdal Hamid

"Now the train will be coming with goods that will be cheaper. It will improve the life of the people," he says.

His office is off the main dusty thoroughfare in the former garrison town - once a base for the northern army and Arab Murahaleen militia, who also used the train to carry southerners back north as slaves.

It is now teeming with traders and the many people who have returned home to rebuild their lives since 2005.

The trains from Khartoum were halted towards the end of the two-decade north-south conflict - the tracks, like much of the south, in a state of disrepair.

The $46m (£30m) rail refurbishment - reconnecting the northern capital with Wau, 150km (95 miles) south of Aweil - is part of efforts to rebuild one of the least developed areas of the world.

The Mandela Book Shop in Aweil
Aweil is awash with clever marketing

And ahead of Sunday's elections, there has been a big push to show that the dividends of peace can be delivered.

Mr Natale - who is also standing as local MP for the ex-rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement which now runs Southern Sudan - points out proudly that the town got electricity for the first time in March.

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And while the town may not have tarmac, the roads built since 2005 connecting Aweil to the north have allowed the economy to grow.

"My business is doing very well," says Mohamed Kathar Abdal Hamid, who has run a timber and hardware store in Aweil market since 2006.

"But everything except the mahogany timber comes from Khartoum by truck, so the goods are expensive," he says.

"So I am hopeful that with the train, prices will come down."

Good neighbours?

Tea seller Madilena Dut, who says Aweil's population has kept on growing since her arrival in 2005, agrees.

Ahmed Ishad Ibrahim
I came here because Aweil is growing bigger and bigger
Stationer Ahmed Ishad Ibrahim

"I make between 10 Sudanese pounds ($2.20) and 20 Sudanese pounds a day on a slow day. If sugar and other products were cheaper it would be better and busier for me," she says

It is not only returnees looking for business opportunities in Aweil, where clever marketing sees restaurants called BBC and BBC 2 doing a good trade.

Twenty-eight-year old Ahmed Ishad Ibrahim from Darfur set up his New Sudan stationers next to the Mandela Book Shop last year.

"I came here because Aweil is growing bigger and bigger," he says

"And the people are peaceful," he adds.

His joy about the arrival of the railway is only tempered by the thought of the south voting to secede from the north in the referendum due next January.

"I will be very sad and I think it will affect our trade," he says.

Aweil market
Aweil market is not yet connected to the town's electricity supply

As he talks Marko Mayol Maduok Mayol, a politician standing as an independent for a local seat, pops in to photocopy some more campaign leaflets.

He thinks a possible separation would not hit trade too much.

"When the people of Southern Sudan decide to separate, we are still neighbours," he says.

"The trade facilities will be ok because the north and south will be connected by the road and train."

Rich quick?

But another customer, civil servant Angelo Deng Akol, is more circumspect.

"If the country is split into two peacefully, the railway will be useful in connection, but if the country is split in violence then the railway will be very useless to us," he says.

Madilena Dut
Falling prices will be good news for tea sellers like Madilena Dut

For Dinka trader Angelo Malou Angara Dut the region's future is positive.

He maintains if the split does come Aweil could easily rely on Southern Sudan's new neighbours such as Kenya and Uganda instead of Khartoum.

"We have the East African road now, it won't be a problem," he says.

A former rebel soldier, he left the southern army last year to set up a shop selling soft drinks and mobile phones as he was being paid so little.

His stall now allows him to pay for his five children to go to school in neighbouring Kenya.

He also charges mobile phones for a small fee and has a laptop for people to check their emails - though his electricity comes from a market generator, not the new power lines.

"They are far from here, near the government buildings," he explains.

But he sees all these challenges as an opportunity.

"If you have a good mind here, you will become rich," he says. "And I am very happy about the train as I will make a lot of business."



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