Normally, this paragraph is where you'd find the number of dead, starving and displaced.
And here's where you'd read the first quote—dramatic words from a shell-shocked survivor of some heretofore unimagined horror.
In subsequent lines, you'd read details that, while vivid, only hint at the magnitude of loss, need and desperation. After defining the crisis and outlining our response, we would ask for your help. You would assess your means and respond accordingly.
It's the typical humanitarian emergency story. And in that story the dead remain dead; the homeless, hungry and vulnerable remain facts of the disaster. Nothing we can do about the past. Just rush in and help the survivors best we can.
Writing a Different Story
But this time the story begins differently. Here's our opening line: Catholic Relief Services urgently needs your help in responding to a horrifying humanitarian disaster in southern Sudan that…hasn't happened yet. In fact, with your help, maybe it won't.
The story in southern Sudan has all the elements of the worst humanitarian calamities. But in this case, the order of the story has changed. We are making an urgent and unprecedented appeal before the emergency. We are seizing a rare opportunity to prevent the worst of an oncoming catastrophe.
But, of course, we risk making a rather strange request. The headlines have not been written; the pictures and video await developments; the body count is as yet unknown. Nevertheless, we ask for your help.
Given that its prologue is half a century of civil war, southern Sudan could well write the most withering epic of catastrophe in our lifetime. Consider its related news: Darfur.
Indeed, events in southern Sudan foreshadow a familiar, if unusually urgent and intense, humanitarian crisis: large-scale death, millions displaced, scattered families, grinding hunger and thirst. One key difference separates it from past disasters.
It could be otherwise.
Why Give Now?
Had we foreseen what pressure was building in Rwanda in 1994, had we predicted the 2004 tsunami, had we known the day and hour of the Port-au-Prince earthquake, what might we have done? How many might still live? How much less the cost of recovery?
Well, in southern Sudan, we know to the day when the dam will burst and the earth will shake. We know to the day—January 9, 2011—when 5 years of relative peace could quickly dissolve into chaos. This time, in this story, we know to the day when disaster will threaten. In Sudan, everybody knows.
Sudanese have been anticipating the day for 5 years. In 2005, Sudan brought a 17-year stretch of war to a close with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, a document that—among other things—set January 9, 2011 as the date for a referendum in which southern Sudanese would be allowed to vote either for unity with the north, or independence and a new nation.
Whether the referendum comes off as planned, whether its results are disputed or accepted, whether the northern government challenges the southern government or not, power struggles within southern Sudan alone would expose millions to violence, send them fleeing for their lives, wipe out food and water sources, destroy villages and towns. To further complicate matters, almost every one of Sudan's bordering countries has an interest in the south. It is a place ripe for disaster.
Perhaps surprisingly, it's also a place rich with proof that the worst violence can be averted. That's one reason we're making this unprecedented appeal for emergency aid before the emergency. But there's another, more compelling reason.
CRS began as War Relief Services and is no stranger to operating in and around battlegrounds—though the agency may be more popularly known for responses to natural disasters. But CRS is not in southern Sudan because we're taking a side—any one of the many—in the conflict. CRS is in southern Sudan and bracing for a potential crisis because the Catholic Church is in Sudan. Catholic bishops and priests are on the front lines. They have weathered—right alongside their flocks—every trauma of the past and they are not about to run now. And we are not about to abandon them.
The aid that we plan and hope to bring to southern Sudan will be brought to dioceses and parishes, directed by bishops, priests, religious and laity who not only live and work in southern Sudan, but who are in most cases themselves Sudanese. No less than these souls are our central connection to southern Sudan.
Our urgency is motivated by great need, but even more so by example after example of peacebuilding and disaster prevention really working in southern Sudan.
The headlines will come. We know this. But they need not be as dire as they might be. In Sudan, your Church is engaged in an urgent but realistically hopeful campaign to help southern Sudan approach its future with calm and understanding. Your Church in Sudan needs your prayers, your voice, your treasure and your understanding. Help us give them that. Help them write a different story.
John Lindner is managing editor of the crs.org website and blog. He traveled to Sudan for CRS to report on peacebuilding.