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KHARTOUM — Cereal trader Said Abubaker has a simple explanation for the fast-rising price of the local staple sorghum in the town market at Warawar in southern Sudan: “Peace has been a stranger in our land for so long that now that it has come, nature does not know how to welcome it.”

Unlike nature, the world now has the opportunity to wholeheartedly welcome peace in Sudan as Norway hosts an international donors’ conference in Oslo on Monday and Tuesday. The conference will call for pledges of reconstruction assistance three months after a peace agreement for the south was signed.

To date, donors have been hardly more welcoming than nature. Yet peace is the good news story unfolding in the heart of Africa’s largest country.

Thousands of returnees are already making the most valuable investment in peace — themselves. But it is an investment that carries risks. If we do not support them at this critical time, they may well end up paying with their lives.

The south will need significant assistance to recover from a war that killed 2 million people and displaced 4 million. The international community gave more than $2 billion in aid during the war and saved millions of lives. To hold back now will only raise the risks that peace will fail before the region can stand on its own feet.

Abubaker says the Jan. 9 peace pact has so far proved good for his trading business. He should know. He comes from the neighboring state of South Darfur, which has been ravaged by a bloody 2-year-old conflict that echoes the 21 years of civil war in the south.

The combination of peace in one part of Sudan and conflict in another puts difficult demands on donors. At the same time that they are asked to support lifesaving assistance for millions in Darfur, they are urged to provide peace dividends to the south so that it does not slip back into hunger and war.

On top of this, analysts in the United Nations World Food Program are warning that a bad crop season is adding to Sudan’s woes. We anticipate that many more people across Sudan — including Darfur and the south — may need food aid because of insufficient rains, a poor harvest last year and increasing food prices this year.

The Oslo conference will consider the results of a “Joint Assessment Mission” (JAM) on reconstruction and development needs for an interim period up to 2011, with an emphasis on 2005-2007. In addition, the U.N. will present its updated “Work Plan for Sudan,” which focuses on immediate needs. Both need support.

The longer-term future of Sudan is development, which is the course charted by the government of Sudan, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement and the donor community through the JAM process. WFP and other U.N. agencies are actively involved in this and will continue to be partners in the journey to rebuild the south.

But in addition, as Abubaker’s tale of rising sorghum prices shows, there are also urgent humanitarian needs. In Warawar, these prices are already beyond the reach of many families. The needs of these vulnerable people in the south and in other parts of the country are urgent, and must be addressed now. In a country where a whole generation has known nothing but war, it is vital to demonstrate that peace does bring tangible benefits.

The return of large numbers of people adds further pressure. Thousands of southerners who fled years ago are voting with their feet for peace as they walk, drive and travel on the Nile back to the south and the transitional areas. Some are returning from other parts of Sudan; others have been waiting in neighboring countries; still others are traveling from as far away as the United States and Australia.

It isn’t a particularly happy homecoming for many who have spent their meager savings to get back. There are so many uncertainties and virtually no infrastructure to rely on. What will they eat? Where will they live? Returnees don’t know whether they will find someone else settled on their land. Where are the schools? The clinics? Jobs?

In the long term, economic development is the only realistic way to answer these questions. But such development takes time. To deal with the here and now, we must provide humanitarian assistance that meets people’s basic needs while their future is being built.

Even as we engage in longer-term reconstruction, the scars from decades of conflict will remain. These scars require constant attention through development initiatives as well as humanitarian assistance. If all goes well with the south’s revival, the scars and the need for assistance will gradually fade away.

Thus far the south is not getting the same level of aid it got when wracked by violence. WFP, for instance, appealed last November for $302 million to feed 3.2 million people in 2005 in the south and east. So far, though, it has received just 20 percent of what it needs for the entire year, leaving an alarming shortfall of $243 million.

Standing in Warawar, one returnee put it very simply. “I want to be able to till my land and know that the sweat of my brow will feed my children,” said Atak Kuot Tong on her first day back in the south in 13 years. She spent all her savings to get them all there.

“I was told if you came back you would get food, tools and seed to make sure we can work our fields,” she says. Emergency and development aid work best hand in hand.

This combination of longer-term and immediate demands in one country is difficult for donors. And yet it can and must be tackled. All over Sudan, people are planning new lives founded on the promises that peace offers. If the international community is serious about sustainable peace in Sudan, it must strike a vital balance, and help peace keep its promises.

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