Famine ravaging Nuba Mountains

Charles Omondi
May 15, 1998 (SCIO)

There is severe famine in the Sudan and appeals are being sent far and wide by all the concerned parties to the international community to act expeditiously to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in the Bahr el-Ghazal region. How about the neighbouring Nuba Mountains in Southern Kordofan? Why isn't this central Sudanese region getting any mention yet the situation there is equally bad if not worse?

According to a recent Southern Kordofan Emergency Assessment report, conducted by members of USAID and Concern (an Irish NGO), at least 20,000 people face a 70-80 per cent food deficit over the next five months (between April and August). This, the report says, calls for urgent external intervention if the population is to be kept alive and productive in their present homes.

"The war-affected and displaced people of Um Dulu Payam of Nagorban County and Erre Payam of Heiban County are in serious need of food relief to enable them make it up to the 1998 harvest."
The report points out that, "though there is relief food available for the people in the Nuba Mountains, it is only in the government-organised and UN-supported relief camps".

"To access this food," explains Kevin Ashley, a member of the assessment team, "people must completely abandon their homes and livelihoods, which is tantamount to acceding to the Sudan government's intention to culturally re-orient them, and later use them to fight their own brothers."

Other members of the team that conducted the assessment between February 2 and March 16, 1998 were Paul Murphy and Luka Biong. Counterpart staff were Philip Neroun and Mohammed Kambal of Nuba Relief and Rehabilitation Development Services.

Ever since the Nuba took up arms on May 16, 1986 to fight against the Khartoum government alongside the southerners, the government has used the tactic of cultural re-orientation as a means to denying the Sudanese People's Liberation Army their (Nuba) contribution. To this end, thousands of the Nuba have been rounded up and re-located to peace camps (read concentration camps), where Arabic has become their lingua franca and Islam their religion. They are a pool of cheap/free labour, women and young girls are turned into sex slaves and young men forcibly conscripted into the government army.

Alternatively, near impossible conditions for their survival have been created in several parts of their homeland, claiming the lives of thousands and forcing many more to surrender themselves to the peace camps in desperation. These have included mining villages, raiding and setting ablaze houses, farms and food stores and driving away livestock.

In the face of all these, the Khartoum government authorises no flights to the Nuba Mountain areas under the control of the rebels. Reason...Nuba mountains is geographically not part of southern Sudan which is bearing the brunt of the internecine civil strife, now in its 15th year.

But the report asserts that since the combatants in the south are the same ones in the Nuba Mountains, the UN should seek to gain access to the war-affected people of the Nuba Mountains on both sides in order to meet urgent humanitarian needs.

"The rural people of Southern Kordofan (Nuba Mountains) have suffered greatly over the past 10 years as a result of the combined effects of war, drought, dwindling trade opportunities and lack of access to humanitarian assistance,'' says the assessment report.

"Ten years of continuous insecurity, causing migration and death, reduced the rural population from an estimated 1 million to between 350,00-400,00 people," it adds.

The Nuba are a collection of about 50 tribes with over 10 distinct language groups. Though centrally placed in Africa's most expansive state, the Nuba have chosen to be part of Southern Sudan in their struggle against the northern-based Arab/Islamic government.

They are both crop and livestock farmers. However, much of the livestock in Nuba Mountains is not kept as a food source but for trade option for grain, for marriage or as a status symbol. There is a great tradition of generosity among the Nuba, which takes many forms. It is common, for instance, for people to share up to 10 per cent of their harvest with needy relatives and friends.

In all parts of Nuba Mountains, dura (sorghum) is the backbone of the food economy. It is invaluable as an assortment of meals, madida, asida, kisira and marissa, and it is preferred to all other cereal crops.

The scantily document history of famine in the area in the last one decade, ranks 1997-98 year the worst as a result of delayed rains, widespread displacement and losses of 75% of the cattle in raids. The frequent government raids and bombings, the report says, have over the years forced huge chunks of Nuba population to move higher up the mountains, which, though not vulnerable to attacks, are incultivable. To supplement their dwindling food resources, says the assessment document, the Nuba have resorted to wild fruits found along stream beds both in the valleys and in the hills. "Access to fruit is dependent on whether a household has a claim to a tree(s). Most fruit trees in the Nuba Mountains are either owned by a household or a specific community, and are not accessible to the general public."

To guard against future food insecurity, the report calls for, among others, provision of seed and tools to about 4,000 households in the region. It also recommends that there be constant monitoring, by the UN, journalists and other parties, of the affected communities so as to continue keeping the international community informed about the situation on the ground.

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