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The Oil Road

Posted on: June 19, 2001 12:52 PM
Related Categories: South Sudan

The people in southern Sudan do not catch a glimpse of any oil money. At the same time as the regime in Khartoum is pumping billions of Swedish kroner with the help of the international oil companies, the displaced people in Bentiu are starving to death. This is where the Swedish oil company Lundin Oil, with Carl Bildt on its board, is prospecting for oil. Dagens Nyheter has, as the first impartial source, traveled along Lundin Oil's sharply criticized road to the oil fields in southern Sudan.

Nyarok Raes raises her arm: "Look here," she says. "I'm not sick, I'm this skinny because I don't have anything to eat." She shows a tin plate with a few, stonehard lumps on it. They are called "kei" and come from the water lilies that grow by the Nile. This is what the people in southern Sudan eat during times of crisis.

Seven miles south of Rubkona, from where Nyarok and her family fled, the Swedish oil company Lundin Oil has just started its third test drilling in the 5A concession. The company has no plans to pull out despite the criticism that a number of human rights organizations have recently raised. For the sake of the oil industry the regime's soldiers have forced tens of thousand people to flee from the area, according to the critics. Lundin Oil, and especially board member Carl Bildt, instead claim that the company's presence contributes to stability and development in the oil area.

Lundin is hoping to discover an oil find that is even larger than that which the Canadian company Talisman has already began pumping north of Rubkona and its sister town Bentiu. Millions of barrels of oil are exported daily from Bentiu via a pipeline to Port Sudan by the Read Sea in the north, and the Sudanese government in Khartoum reportedly makes 6 billion Swedish kroner from the oil every year.

"There are no advantages for us, but the companies make money," says a young man who has fled to Bentiu from a village that was burned down by the rebels. "I have read in geography that those countries where there is oil are rich countries, but that's not how it is here," he adds. Like many others he is distraught over how little the Sudanese government does for people in Unity State, despite the riches that it takes from here. Like the others he is also careful about openly criticizing the government and the oil companies that are its partners. The displaced people and local relief workers do not dare say anything openly out of fear for their lives. The international relief organizations do not make any official declarations out of fear of being forced to leave the area.

But the oil in Bentiu and Rubkona is much talked about. The oil plays a central role in the area's conflicts. The government defends the oil industry, while the rebels attack it. The regular people (civilians) end up inbetween.

"My friend Nyawal died together with her four children, and it was when I saw them dead in their hut that I started to run," tells Nyarok Raes, and shows with a sweeping gesture toward the hut behind her how the bombs landed around her.

She is far from alone in her story. In the provisional tent camps where the relief workers try to relieve the need, many have a similar history. In the stench and the humid heat inside the medical tent, the sorrowful are crowding in with the distressed and the forlorn. "All I have left is what I carry on my body," an older woman says, and points to her green shirtsleeve. Her daughter Chipak is sitting on a plastic mattress watching over her sick son Luk. Just recently a little boy on the mattress next to his died, minutes after his mother had sought help.

Is is not unusual for little children to die in Bentiu. Lack of food and water in combination with the crowded conditions make tuberculosis, measles and cerebrospinal meningitis spread quickly. There is only one small state-owned hospital in Bentiu.

"It is a dilemma for the relief organizations. The fact that we are here relieves the government from having to invest in medical care. At the same time the needs are so great that we cannot justify a decision to pull out, one relief worker says.

Nyarok Raes wants to go to the governor in Bentiu to ask what he is planning to do for her and her family. But the chance that she will get any help from the local administration is small, according to what many others say. The governor and his coworkers are put in place by the government in Khartoum, and have no budget of their own to distribute. They cannot build any schools or health care clinics. "The oil industry has been in operation for eight years now, but no development has taken place here," says a man who himself works for the government in Bentiu.

The vice governor, Makuac Deng Makuac, on the other hand considers that the oil has done much good for the people in Bentiu and Rubkona. He mentions the road that Lundin Oil has constructed as an advantage, along with the electricity and the four clinics that Talisman has built. That he and his colleagues can travel with the oil companies' airplanes to Khartoum and that the army can use the oil companies' airstrips is also positive, he says. "Before the oil came to Bentiu nobody here had a TV. Now we have TVs and other things that never existed earlier. So Bentiu is developing, faster than ever before," he says.

But only very few have electricity and TVs in Bentiu. The large majority has no income at all. For the more than 50,000 displaced persons a food card from the relief organizations is a life necessity. The oil has not provided any jobs. "When Lundin Oil and Talisman came they did not hire any Sudanese from southern Sudan, only Arabs from the north. That is a big problem," says a young man. "The oil companies do not care about the people here - they even bring their security guards from Khartoum," says a local relief worker. Lundin Oil claims it has no control over who are hired locally, since the majority of the hires are done by contract.

Nor are the locals impressed with the school that Talisman has built. The building is basically just a shell. There are no desks, no schoolbooks, no food for the students and no water. Talisman has also built a hospital in its concession area, but the local population rarely has access to it, they say. The clinic that Talisman has built in Rubkona is more frequented but is located in the middle of the army's housing and far from the displaced camps.

"I don't want to moralize about the oil companies, but it is an ugly way that they treat people. They take a picture of a school and display it over and over to show how good they are. It is only a PR coup, they haven't done anything," a local relief worker says. "I went to school in a little hut, but at least we had schoolbooks. What use is a house if there aren't even any pens or paper," he adds.

Lundin Oil's contributions to the people who live in Bentiu and Rubkona have so far been limited, but they are going to increase as the company's activities start to pick up, Lundin's head of PR Maria Hamilton says. The company is planning to drill more water wells along the road to the drilling location, and there are plans to renovate a hospital in Leer, further south. But Lundin Oil declines to give any figure for the development expenses, nor any time schedule.

Nyarok Raes needs immediate help. Her husband and five of her own children died when their home village was bombed by the government's planes. Now she is alone with the responsibility for children and grandchildren. There is no time for any thoughts of those she has lost. "All I think about is that I have to find food to eat," she says.

The road is bordered with misery and military

Already at the gate to Lundin Oil's base camp in Rubkona we are met by soldiers on guard. There is also an army car with four soldiers and a strong round of ammunition to "guarantee our security" as we travel along Lundin's road to the south together with the PR head Maria Hamilton and the company's head of security Richard Ramsey.

"As you can see the people here have both cows and goats, so they are doing pretty well," begins Maria Hamilton, who is making her first visit to Sudan.

It is along this reddish-brown gravel road that the government and the government-loyal militias have forced people to flee by bombing and burning down villages, according to the oil industry's critics. On orders from the government the area has been cleansed of people for the oil companies to be able to securely drill for oil, they say. Lundin Oil has, on its part, consistently said that the information is incorrect. No displacement of people has occurred, according to the company. No villages have been burned down to make room for the road.

But many villages along the road are empty. There are groups of gray grass huts where not a person can be seen. That is because the villages are not used during the dry season, when the people instead migrate out toward the Nile for water, Lundin's head of security says. But according to the local population no village is ever entirely abandoned. The elderly in the village always stay during the dry period. "If you see a completely empty village then something is wrong," explains a young man who is from the area west of Lundin's road.

In the displaced people's camps in Bentiu and Rubkona there are more witnesses who testify that they have been forced out of the area where Lundin's road has been built. At the same time it is hard to determine what the reason for the displacement is, and who are to blame for the violations. Some villagers say that they have been driven away by the rebels, and others by the government-loyal militias. Some villages are said to have been bombed by the government's Russian bomber planes.

One village chief reports that his village was burned down by the government militias before Lundin's road was built. Today the road goes straight through the area that used to be his village, he says. "The oil company built the road because they want to take the oil from here. That is not good, since they built the road while the people died," he says, adding that he knows of three additional villages that were burned along the road. One of these is Dorang.

The army's school in Dorang is the first that Lundin's PR head shows us along the road. It is not more than a pile of grass and branches on the ground right now, and the village itself is not much more than an army camp. But under a tree there is a group of young boys wearing bright white shirts with Lundin's logo, and Maria Hamilton has brought a handbag with used paperback books and secondhand clothes. "Our involvement with the school in Dorang is no greater than that we have given a few things, used books and clothes, from the staff in Geneva," she says.

It is the road itself that is Lundin Oil's contribution to the area's development, Maria Hamilton points out. Anyone can use it, both civilians and the relief organizations. A relief worker says that access to basic supplies in the town Leer, at the southernmost end, has increased thanks to the road.

At the same time, many displaced persons in Bentiu testify that Leer town has been burned down, and that they have fled to Bentiu along the old road that runs parallel to Lundin's road. They don't dare use the new road. There are seven military camps along it. "The road is full of soldiers. If one wants to walk on it one has to be careful," says a young man from Leer.

Without the army and the government-loyal militia SSIM, Lundin Oil would not be able to operate in the area, the security head explains. The army guarantees the company's security along the road, and SSIM is in charge of security in the whole concession area. But the company does not have any control over how its military partners conduct their job, according to Richard Ramsey. "We are not allowed to talk to SSIM, for some reason I do not know. As a result we can not know exactly when that are going to attack somewhere, and most often we don't find out the reason until afterwards," he says.

Not even during the past year, when the road was being built, did Lundin have any control over what the army or the militia did. For seven months the company pulled out of the area on "logistical and security grounds."

In the village Kwach, halfway down Lundin Oil's road, there were reportedly 8,000 residents earlier. These days the village is mainly just a camp for the SSIM militia. Hundreds of men are sitting in the shade of the trees with their automatic rifles close by. Many of them are just boys. Richard Ramsey and Maria Hamilton want to show us an airstrip in Kwach. There have been accusations in Swedish media that the roadbuilding has destroyed the airstrip. In Kwach we also stop at the water tanks that Lundin Oil has set up since the beginning of the year to supply the army and local population with water. Richard Ramsey even points out three water wells that the company has drilled in the last two weeks.

It is only by the water wells that we meet any civilians in Kwach. A few women who have walked for several hours to get water crowd in with the soldiers. "My village was burned down a month ago and now we live under a tree," reports Buronika, who comes here to fetch water three times a day. To the question of who it was that attacked her village, three SSIM soldiers around her quickly interject that it was the rebels. Kwach was reportedly also initially burned down by the rebels, and later occupied by the army and the SSIM milita.

Even a village called Koch, which on the map is located in the middle of the old road close to Lundin Oil's road, has reportedly been leveled to the ground. Some claim that the village was burned down by the government militia, and others say is was destroyed by the guerrilla. It is from that village that Lundin Oil's translator, Abraham, comes. Eight months ago the village was attacked, he says. It was at the same time as the road was being built. The cattle was stolen and the village burned down. The perpetrators even took Abraham's wife Mary and their seven-year-old daughter Elisabeth with them. "If I think too much about it I may go crazy," says Abraham.

Like around 50,000 others from the area, Abraham took refuge in Bentiu and Rubkona. According to Lundin Oil, the fact that the displaced persons gather in the government-controlled towns proves that they have not been displaced by the government troops, since they would in that case flee away from the army. But to the displaced it does not matter who chased them away. They seek protection wherever they can get help. "It doesn't have anything to do with politics. It is about surviving," one relief worker says.

Where the gravel road ends there is a small village and marketplace close to Lundin's second drilling hole, Jarayan. The oil company has just completed its drilling here and the government troop that has been guarding the hole is about to dismantle its machine guns and automatic rifles to move them to a third drilling hole. The village residents are not sad that the soldiers are leaving. "The women have been raped by the government soldiers there," says a man and points toward the army base.

Before the government soldiers leave they shoot a thorough round with an automatic rifle. The air is filled with the cracking noise and people look at each other uneasily. Women and children manage to run a few meters toward the edge of the village before they realize that the shooting is just for fun. The soldiers are celebrating their departure.

Lundin's oilrig has now been mounted over the company's third drilling hole, in Thar Jath. In a few weeks the result of this drilling will show approximately how much oil that is hiding underneath the ground.

A few kilometers from the drilling place lies the village Ryer, which becomes our last stop on the journey along Lundin's road. It is a gathering of yellow huts on an ash-gray ground. The mood in the village is desperate. The people have been driven here by hunger. The small children die of disease. According to a young man, the head of security Richard Ramsey was here two days earlier and had promised to return with medicines and a doctor the same day that he shows us around along the road. But he has not brought any medicines. "I don't know anything about that," the PR head Maria Hamilton says to the young man. "What you need to do is to go through precisely what it is that you need most, and we'll see what we can do," she says. Richard Ramsey promised to bring some mosquito nets the next time he comes for a visit.

Late in the afternoon we fly back to Rubkona by helicopter with Maria Hamilton. "So that you can see all the villages that the oil companies have not burned down," the pilot says jokingly. We don't see any villages at all, and not Lundin Oil's road either. This is because the helicopter flies three kilometer east of the road.

FACTS/Sudan, oil and Lundin Oil

  • Lundin Oil has been criticized by among others Christian Aid, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for taking part in the regime's abuses against the civilians population in the oil area in southern Sudan.
  • Former prime minister and the UN's special representative for peace to the Balkans Carl Bildt is on the board of directors of Lundin Oil, which is owned primarily by Adolf Lundin. The company has dismissed the criticism and claims that its presence contributes to "peace, stability and development" in Sudan.
  • The hostilities in the oil area around Bentiu is a part of the fight between the regime and the SPLA, but according to the local population did not pick up until 1997, when the oil explorations expanded.

FACTS/DN's trip to the oil area

  • DN invited itself to Lundin Oil's operation in southern Sudan. The company helped to speed up the visa application so that DN would be in place at the same time as the company's representatives.
  • With help from the UN, DN itself arranged those travel permits that are necessary for trips within Sudan and the actual trip to the oil area. DN of course paid for the whole trip.
  • The flowing relief organizations work in the area: Action Contre Faime, CARE International, German AgroAction, Doctors without Borders, UNICEF, UNOCHA, and WFP. DN has interviewed representatives from most, but not all, of these organizations. They have spoken as private persons and are not cited with names due to the risk that their operations might then be affected.