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Last chance to avoid humanitarian tragedy in the Nuba Mountains

Posted on: June 27, 2001 1:27 PM
Related Categories: Sudan

June 2001

Prepared by the Nuba Relief Rehabilitation and Development Organization (NRRDO) on behalf of the people of the Nuba Mountains.

Endorsed by: Amani, Trocaire, Samaritan's Purse, Christian Aid, Dan Church Aid, Novib Independent Advisors

Key points

Escalating Government of Sudan (GoS) attacks on civilian targets and drought-induced crop failures across the region have placed over 84,500 civilians in a life-threatening situation in the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) controlled areas of the Nuba Mountains. Already an unregistered number of civilians have been killed and abducted. Villages have been razed to the ground. Displaced survivors of attacks have lost everything while the host populations are themselves facing severe food shortage as a result of war and drought. The severity of the unfolding crisis has been confirmed through extensive assessments in the area by humanitarian agencies over the last 6 months. Without immediate intervention there will be wide-spread loss of life.

The Nuba administration and humanitarian partners estimate a minimum of 2,500 MT of food aid plus additional medical and non-food items - if supplied immediately - would avert tragic consequences in the short-term. This response is based on an absolute minimum ration and would still rely on the extraordinary resilience of the Nuba people to be effective. It will not however be sufficient to reverse the chronically deteriorating situation caused by the war and additional support for even the most basic livelihood recovery would be needed in 2002.

The risks involved in gaining the limited access that concerned agencies have managed over the last few years, have now become too great to allow flights into SPLA/M areas to continue. GoS has on several occasions bombed and shelled relief planes and attacked the main airstrip from the ground. Despite dialogue between the United Nations (UN) and GoS, the on-going round of discussions is making no progress to establish a negotiated access. It appears the GoS plans to delay humanitarian access to the Nuba civilians choosing to live in SPLA/M areas. This will enable them to continue their use of hunger as a weapon of war.

Failure to secure safe access will not only result in immediate loss of life but will also strengthen GoS's undeniable aim to destroy the opportunity for Nuba people to exercise their rights to attain an equitable, just and democratic peace. Considering the experience accumulated to date and the urgency of the current situation, an appeal to the GoS is no longer a realistic option. We therefore call on the international community, their governments, and the United Nations in accordance with the 1999 GoS, SPLM, and UN agreement on the rights of war-affected civilians in Sudan to take immediate action to:

  • Secure unrestricted and safe air access to the SPLA/M controlled Nuba Mountains for at least the next five months (June-October, 2001)
  • Ensure safe civilian access to relief distributions.
  • Facilitate at the highest level a tripartite agreement between the Government of Sudan, the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement and the Humanitarian Agencies (United Nations and Non-Governmental Agencies) for continued humanitarian access to Nuba.
  • Halt all aggression against civilians including bombing, shelling, destruction and seizing of farmland and property
  • Allow human rights monitors to operate on the ground.

If the international community fails to pursue every possible option to attain these requirements, it must acknowledge its role in allowing the tragic consequences of the current crisis to unfold. On behalf of the people of the Nuba Mountains, we urge the international community to respond to this plea for urgent action and humanitarian assistance to save innocent lives.

Sources of Information

Despite the significant risks involved in reaching the Nuba Mountains and working there, a small group of international and indigenous humanitarian agencies have conducted a detailed assessment of the entire population living in SPLA/M controlled Nuba Mountains. Over six months of work are represented in this brief summary. The more detailed reports can be requested from NRRDO or other members of the Nuba Food Security Working Group.

Background

Since the 1980's, the Government of Sudan (GoS) has launched a war against the Nuba people in central Sudan. The weapons of war are two-fold:

  1. Direct attacks on civilians and their sources of livelihood (land, livestock, water and property)
  2. Enforced political conditionality on access to essential goods and services including international humanitarian aid.

Before the war, the Nuba Mountains held a rich and diverse mixture of cultures. The people were surplus food producers and exporters of grain and cattle; through the major towns and market centers they secured what they did not make - basic goods like clothing, salt, and soap. They have now been forced to live and cultivate on only the most marginal lands in and along the mountains, as they continue to be attacked by GoS forces. As a result their crop production is down 10 fold, most of their cattle are lost and they are barely able to cover their own food needs. Under these conditions, they are forced to defend not only their basic means of survival but also their way of life.

Since the onset of the war, the GoS has killed and abducted several thousands of civilians. They have razed villages to the ground, looted and destroyed properties. They have displaced the majority of people from their homes and seized their most productive farmland. The people captured in these attacks are put into so called "peace" villages and other GoS held areas. In some cases they are then able to access food and some other essential goods and services. However, they are also forced to accept the political, cultural and religious identity imposed by the GoS.

Approximately 400,000 people still remain in SPLA/M controlled territories. They have been cut-off from the rest of Sudan and the world at large. The GoS destruction of cross-border markets; the sanctions on trade to SPLA/M Nuba; the exploitative prices of any goods that cross from the north - all these factors prevent the majority of people from having even basic personal and household items. At the same time, little or no meaningful support can come from outside, as the GoS blocks the international community from providing any humanitarian assistance to people living in SPLA/M controlled areas.

These people could move to the GoS side and thus avoid the GoS assaults and attempt to access the food, medicine and Islamic education found there. However, they have chosen to remain in their homes and defend their way of life. They have expressed that a move to the GoS is not an option, as they see the overwhelming evidence that their fundamental rights of self-expression, justice and liberty will be denied. These people continue to struggle to survive in a war zone not because they believe in a long-term military solution, but because they see no alternative if they wish to preserve their cultural identity and their right to raise their children in an environment shaped by democracy and equitable peace.

Current Situation

Over the last year, the GoS has significantly increased its military targeting of civilians, their farms and villages. Beginning in March 2000, it launched an offensive against the people of Buram and Western Kadugli County. In May 2001 the GoS attacked southern Heiban County. In these attacks, it killed an unregistered number of people and abducted many, taking them to "peace" camps and other GoS held areas. Houses, farms, food stores, livestock, and other properties were systematically destroyed and looted and over 51,500 people were displaced, many for the second and third time.

The situation is further compounded by the extremely poor rains of 2000. Across the region, the harvest was low. Approximately 33,000 people harvested no crops to take them into this year. Their opportunities for finding surplus food locally are negligible as local reserves are exhausted. Accessible areas from which wild foods are traditionally gathered have become increasingly limited as GoS military activities continue to restrict civilian movement.

In total, over 84,500 people are at risk of dying because of the war and poor rains. They have no food in their stores. They are struggling to survive, and as they enter the hunger gap, they are finding less and less to help them. Acute malnutrition is inevitable, especially for the young, old and weak. The people who lost their homes face additional challenges. With the onset of the rainy season, they must make their shelter as best they can - with no blankets, plastic sheets or protection from malaria. They must also find cooking materials and water containers and they desperately require access to even the most basic of health facilities as their condition worsens.

Summary of Needs

On the basis of the assessment, a minimum of 2,500 Mt of grain would help keep the most food insecure people alive, in their homes and able to maintain some productive capacity. In addition to food, the people displaced require access to the most essential goods and services including blankets, mosquito nets, jerry cans and health care. Sufficient food and other essential items cannot be purchased locally and must be flown into the mountains. It is important to understand that this minimum, life-saving response would still rely on the extraordinary resilience of the Nuba people to be effective. Additional support for even the most basic livelihood recovery would be needed in 2002, while only a much larger programme could have any chance of reversing the broader deteriorating situation.

Inability to Address Needs

The Government of Sudan launched an appeal earlier this year requesting the United Nations and international NGOs to intervene and avert a humanitarian crisis in southern Kordofan. It requested emergency food aid and other materials to help the war and drought-affected people but only in areas under its control. There was no official recognition that the very cause of the current crisis was the increased military action of the GoS on civilian targets in the area.

The SPLA/M controlled Nuba Mountains remain excluded from the initial tripartite agreement which is the foundation of the United Nations' Operation Lifeline Sudan. The GoS have severely blocked the United Nations from working in SPLA/M areas, effectively preventing their efforts to provide emergency humanitarian aid. Despite the commitment of the GoS given to the Secretary General of the UN three years ago to establish a negotiated access, the UN has failed to generate a solution and the issue remains effectively buried in a series of discussions that show no sign of bearing fruit.

Despite this failure of the international community since the start of the war to secure negotiated access to the SPLA/M areas of the Nuba Mountains, some humanitarian aid has been delivered, albeit at considerable risk to those involved (Nuba and expatriate). Although the response has never been enough, it has made a difference. Because of the escalating aggression of the GoS, this year such efforts will be impossible to continue. In May, the GoS attacked the main airstrip near Kauda and it has made explicit threats to shoot down planes flying into SPLA/M controlled areas. On several occasions, the GoS bombed and shelled relief planes while on the ground. Under the current conditions, flying into Nuba has become so dangerous as to be untenable. Thus, it is now impossible to address even the most life threatening needs.

Call for Action

The GoS assault on Nuba is in direct violation of the agreement signed by the GoS, SPLM and UN in December 1999 to safe-guard civilian rights as accorded by International Humanitarian Law, including the Geneva Conventions. This agreement commits all parties to ensure that war-affected civilian populations have the right to receive humanitarian assistance, protection from the effects of armed conflict, and protection from forcible relocation from their recognised place of residence.

The situation has now become so serious that the time for continued discussion has run out. If the international community fails to take immediate action, the GoS will again succeed in using hunger as a weapon of war against the civilian population. The immediate result will inevitably include severe malnutrition leading to wide-spread mortality. It will also embolden the GoS to prolong its hidden military campaign while continuing to manipulate the UN through its effective delaying tactics of circular discussions. The inevitable conclusion of such a scenario will be the fulfillment of the GoS's objective to destroy Nuba society once and for all. The chance for these rich and diverse cultures not only to develop a democratic and equitable future but simply to survive will be lost.

Considering the experience accumulated to date and the urgency of the current situation, an appeal to the GoS is no longer a realistic option. We therefore call on the international community, their governments, and the United Nations in accordance with the 1999 agreement on the rights of war-affected civilians in Sudan to take immediate action to:

  • Secure unrestricted and safe air access to the SPLA/M controlled Nuba Mountains for at least the next five months (June-October, 2001)
  • Ensure safe civilian access to relief distributions
  • Facilitate at the highest level a tripartite agreement between the Government of Sudan; the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement and humanitarian agencies (UN and NGO) for continued humanitarian access to Nuba
  • Halt all aggression against civilians including bombing, shelling, destruction and seizing of farmland and property

If the international community fails to pursue every possible option to attain these requirements, it must acknowledge its role in allowing the tragic consequences of the current crisis to unfold. The people of the Nuba Mountains have suffered for too long as a result of their exclusion from an appropriate humanitarian response from the international community. The current crisis in which they find themselves is too severe for them to meet by themselves. They are now depending on an urgent international humanitarian response to save innocent lives. They have no options left.