CARACAS, Venezuela — Sudanese delegates held a workshop Aug. 11 at the 16th World Festival of Youth and Students here. Titled “Civil war, democracy and the peace process in Sudan,” the workshop updated festival delegates on recent developments in the northeast African nation.

Muhammad Ali of the Communist Party of Sudan spoke about the long a complex history of Sudan as well as the tumultuous recent developments. He summed up the situation by saying, “We either exist as one country with various parties and forces living together peacefully, or we become another Somalia.”

Sudan has suffered under a string of dictatorships since its independence in 1956. The Communist Party and other democratic-minded forces began armed and mass political struggle against the dictatorship in the early 1980s. A brief attempt at democracy was then undermined by another coup in 1989.

Since then, an Islamic military dictatorship has ruled the country, suppressing the mostly animist and Christian southern population and promoting the northern Arabic-speaking Muslims. “The Arabic-speaking Muslims have a sense of superiority over other Sudanese,” said Ali.

The umbrella National Democratic Alliance (NDA), including the Communist Party of Sudan, other parties of center and left, trade unions and armed formations, represents the main opposition to the Islamist regime.

In the 21 years of war, 3 million people have been killed and 4 million people have been displaced. The war has had a particularly adverse impact on Sudanese women, many of whom have lost their partners because of the war and displacement, Ali said. At the same time, women took up arms against the regime and became a key force in the struggle for a just peace.

Students throughout the country also play a key role in the struggle for peace and democracy in Sudan. “The student movement is the backbone of our political activities,” Ali said. They show immense courage and many have been killed for standing up to the government. Young people support the struggle as well by resisting the forced military conscription by the government.

Just weeks ago, John Garang, leader of the Sudanese People Liberation Movement (SPLM), an armed front including various political forces and which is part of the NDA, was made vice president of Sudan as part of a power-sharing agreement to end the civil war in the South of the country.

“We brought the government to the negotiating table,” said Ali. “Yesterday they considered us ‘infidels, Zionists and traitors.’ Today we are in Khartoum discussing the future of Sudan.”

Despite the immense challenges and the maintenance of power by the Islamist military forces, and the ongoing violence by the government-sponsored forces in Darfour in the east of the country, the communists and other progressives believe the peace agreement signed in February 2005 is a huge advance that will allow for building a broader more powerful movement for lasting change.

A few weeks after his appointment to the government, Garang died in a mysterious helicopter crash on July 30. His death threatens to shatter the peace agreement. Riots by the southern population living in Khartoum rocked the capital. Government-affiliated forces responded with coordinated and well-financed retaliations against southerners.

Despite the challenges of the new situation and the suspicions about Garang’s death, Ali is hopeful. “The peace agreement in Sudan was not built by the U.S or the UK or even the UN,” said Ali. “It was built on the trust and careful negotiations of the Sudanese people. We are confident that we can win our chance at peace and democracy with international solidarity and support.”