KHARTOUM (Reuters Life!) - As Sudan hurtles toward an acrimonious split, its youth offer a glimmer of hope to end the destructive cycle of civil war and tribalism which has ripped Africa's largest country apart for decades.
Sudan has seen only a few years of democracy since its independence from Britain in 1956, and civil society has borne the brunt of successive totalitarian governments.
A 2005 north-south peace deal opened limited democratic space and culminates with a 2011 referendum on independence for the south, which most expect to secede against the best efforts of the north to derail the vote, seeking to hang onto key oil resources in the south.
But as the governments of the north and south beat the drums of war with aggressive rhetoric, Sudan's youth have joined forces in a first cross-border movement to spread the message that they will not become the foot soldiers of any new conflict.
"The young are the first people to get called up during the war and will be the first to pay the price," said Edison Joseph, a southerner living in Khartoum. "Our message is simple: we will not fight."
More than 22 youth organizations from all over Sudan, the north, south, east and Darfur, met and agreed a joint platform in Khartoum to work for peace and coexistence no matter what the result of the January 9 vote. They also committed to return to their regions and spread the message.
The members have different views on what they want from the referendum. "Youth For Separation" are involved as are other groups promoting unity. But they set an example for their bickering older peers in the north and south ruling parties by ignoring their differences and working together with a single aim - to avoid war.
"We have people for secession and others for unity - but we all agree that we want the referendum to be free, fair and peaceful and we will respect whatever choice the people of south Sudan make," said Widad Derwish from a youth cultural center in northern Sudan.
The young activists also want to eradicate what they called one of Sudan's biggest problems -- racism.
Sudan lies on the axis of a frontier between Africa's Arab north and black sub-Saharan Africa. The north-south civil war has often been cast as a microcosm of that divide.
Tribalism is one of Sudan's biggest problems and has divided the nation for centuries, dating back to the slave trade. The word slave can still be heard in Khartoum society, often referring to African tribes of the south and Darfur -- an attitude which has encouraged many southerners to secede.
"Just the fact that we are sitting here around this table together is a start," said Derwish.
The rainbow nation of young men and women representing different groups from all over Sudan said they did not fully trust their leaders would not plunge the country back into war, so decided to take action themselves as part of a resurgence in civil society action dating back to a 2005 accord.
"The government, the political parties - they are all from the same generation -- the older generation," said Wafa Ahmed from the western Kordofan region. "The young have no role, they are marginalized and this forum has given us a voice."
The forum has received funds and help from the Sudanese Diaspora and other civil society groups.
"It's our generation who failed to keep the country united -- the young represent the majority of the population, they have the future," veteran civil activist Farouk Mohamed Ibrahim said.
But the youngsters are already facing problems. They have been denied permits to hold events and rallies by authorities who have long cracked down on a civil society they see as a threat to their rule.
At least four young Darfuri activists have been arrested, forcing members in the west to go underground.
Government caution may well be warranted given the strong history of Sudanese civil society. It was a popular uprising led by unions of lawyers, doctors and other civil society members which overthrew ex-president Jaafar Nimeiri's 16-year totalitarian rule in 1985.
And the young activists are determined to get their message out to the Sudanese of their generation.
"We expect that things will get even more difficult after the referendum -- this government will return to the same harsh policies of the past. But we must keep working," said Joseph.
Editing by Paul Casciato