These days, when one hears about a bloodbath in Sudan thoughts immediately drift to Darfur, Sudan’s beleaguered western region where an estimated 200,000-400,000 people have died since the outbreak of civil war four years ago. However, as horrific as that number is, it pales in comparison to the carnage visited upon South Sudan for most of the last twenty years.Sudan is an enormous territory with a relatively week central government. In 1983, the government in Khartoum tried to impose a harsh version of Islamic law over all of Sudan. The mostly Christian and animist provinces to the south rebelled. Four years later a new government began peace talks with the south. But then, in July 1989, a Sudanese Army General named Omar al Bashir, backed by the hard-line National Islamic Front (NIF), took power in a coup. Top among Bashir and the NIF’s grievances was the previous government’s progress toward a peace agreement with the south.

With Bashir in power, the civil war entered a new and deadlier phase. Using tactics that would foreshadow the enlistment of the janjaweed proxy militias in Darfur, Bashir and the NIF exploited existing ethnic tensions in southern Sudan–to brutal effect. In 1994 a Human Rights Watch report cited indiscriminate bombings, summary executions, and starvation as having claimed the lives of 1.3 million people in southern Sudan. The death toll continued to rise in Southern Sudan through out the 1990s, making it one of the worst man-made humanitarian disasters in the world; an estimated two million people died in nearly twenty years of fighting.

In 2001, the new American Presidential administration breathed fresh life into peace talks between Khartoum and the South. President Bush assigned former Senator John Danforth as his personal envoy to Sudan and made ending the long civil war a foreign policy priority. The United Nations and donor countries like Norway also played a significant role in these efforts, which resulted in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed on January 9, 2005. The following day, the Security Council approved a peacekeeping deployment to southern Sudan to support the young agreement.

Today, there are little over 10,000 uniformed personnel in the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), including 8,766 troops, 599 military observers, and 662 police. The deployment monitors ceasefire agreements and is mandated to protect civilians should a new outbreak of fighting occur. UN troops and police also protect international civilian personnel who administer humanitarian aid and help to oversee compliance with key aspects of the CPA, which includes a referendum on southern independence set for 2011.

South Sudan is clearly on the road to recovery. It is a resource rich territory, and with the security situation much improved foreign investment is starting to flow to the region. Still, there is persistent worry that the government in Khartoum may break the agreement, particularly as the referendum date nears. There are also some outstanding border and wealth sharing disputes, which at times threaten to escalate into broader conflict. But what is really hanging over the head of UNMIS is the conflict in Darfur. Successive UN resolutions have carved out a role for UNMIS in Darfur, but so far the central government refuses to permit significant numbers of blue-helmets from entering Darfur. There is significant concern that pressing Khartoum on this issue may negatively effect the government’s compliance with the CPA.

Despite these challenges, the CPA is still holding. But the fragility of the agreement means that peacekeepers will likely remain in south Sudan for the foreseeable future.

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