Monday could mark a bright beginning for Sudan, Africa's largest country. Peace talk negotiators will be reassembling in neighboring Kenya to tackle one of the longest-running wars in the world. Progress has been made since talks first began last July - but difficult work still lies ahead.
Two million people are dead from this civil war, which began in 1983. Four million are displaced. The war - over the distribution of power and wealth, the fair treatment of all Sudanese, and the relationship between state and religion - has drained the government's resources. Almost nothing is left for investment in roads, schools, health clinics, or agriculture. Ninety percent of Sudanese struggle simply to survive.
Neither the war nor the suffering has to continue. A peace accord could end a grievous humanitarian catastrophe and be a major step toward stabilizing one of the world's most volatile regions.
Success at the talks could bring peaceful villages where mothers and children walk without the fear of bombs, a generation of young men engaged in farming instead of fighting, markets full of food grown in the rich earth of Sudan rather than collected off relief planes, neighbors at worship in mosques and churches giving thanks for a shared spirit of tolerance.
Sudanese are yearning for the opportunity to live out this vision. During a recent visit I made to Mabior, in the vast swampland on either side of the Nile in southern Sudan, community leaders anxiously asked for an update on the peace talks. I told them that my meetings over the prior week with senior officials in Khartoum had given me renewed hope. As my words were translated, everyone cheered - my brief report being a cause for celebration by people desperate for peace.
The United States, its European partners, the United Nations, and other international advocates can help the people of Sudan by remaining united in thought, word, and deed. Achieving a just peace must be the focus of all international engagement in Sudan. The international community must continue to press both parties to the conflict to make principled compromises while favoring neither side. Governments in a position to influence both parties must also prepare plans for verifying that what is agreed is carried out. Assisting the Sudanese with governance reforms will be an essential part of a peaceful transition.
Given the history of false starts toward peace, anxiety trails this time of hope. Deeply entrenched interests remain in continuing the war, and hard-liners on both sides are still very much at work. A viable future requires more than agreeing to stop fighting or including token members from the mainly Christian south in a national cabinet dominated by members from the mainly Muslim north. It must involve fundamental changes in the distribution of authority and wealth. The powerful few must cede control so that all Sudanese can equally and openly participate in rebuilding their society.
What stands to be lost if the talks fail? A humane Sudan, in which those made destitute from war return to their villages and rebuild their lives. An equitable Sudan, in which north and south seek fair solutions to the pressing issue of resource use, particularly oil. A democratic Sudan, in which broad representation is encouraged at every level of decision-making. A practical Sudan, in which specific enforcement mechanisms protect the transition from war to peace.
While support from the international community is critical, peace ultimately depends on the people who will be returning to the negotiating table on Jan. 6. The opportunity is theirs to found a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Sudan.
In Khartoum, Abel Alier, a historian of the conflict, put it simply, "What Sudan needs to finally achieve a peace settlement is a bit of courage from our people, a bit of encouragement from the international community, and a bit of wisdom from above."
Courage. Encouragement. Wisdom. May the peacemakers find all three.
• Peter D. Bell , president and CEO of CARE, was in Sudan in November.