Sudan's civil war closes in on ancient Nubian culture

From Correspondent Catherine Bond
May 20, 1998 (CNN)

For 14 years, the civil war in Sudan has driven people from the fertile Nuba mountains towards either garrison towns or the refuge of rebel-held areas nearby.
A famine now looms for the Nubians, one of Africa's oldest cultures, whose people have lived isolated in a northern region of the country for decades.

"We need some relief to come because we don't have enough to eat and we don't want to go back to the Arabs," said Nubian Musa Elbende. "We want to stay in the mountains. We don't want to join with the government in Khartoum."

Though a resilient and self-reliant people, they face depleted grain surpluses and many have been displaced by government attacks. For almost 15 years, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and other rebel factions have been fighting the government in Khartoum. The rebels want autonomy for the mainly Christian south from the Muslim north.

Cut off from even basic necessities, many villagers have been forced to leave. The government had said it might end what has become in effect a blockade to aid for the region. It recently bowed to a direct appeal from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to let relief agencies air drop food to the area. Yet those efforts to deliver the emergency food aid have been dealt a blow.

Plans to deliver aid to rebel-held areas in the Nuba mountains for the first time in 10 years took a step backwards Tuesday when the United Nations announced that an assessment mission due to begin this week had been postponed until June. The United Nations would not comment on why the assessment had been delayed.

Further south, Khartoum government forces launched a major offensive in the drought-stricken Bahr El Ghazal region, including attacks on at least six relief centers.
The government attacks, which began last week, are now hampering the relief operation in northern parts of the province that might have helped the Nubians.

"Food has been looted and thousands of heads of cattle have been stolen," said John Luk, the SPLA spokesman in Nairobi. "They have burned the villages and many women and children are still missing. "This is where the relief centers are," he added. "They are making the situation worse."

Many fear opening up the isolated Nuba mountains to humanitarian assistance from the United Nations could alter the balance of power by stopping the flow of people who are hungry to government-held areas and greatly strengthening the rebels' hand. For almost a decade, Sudan's Islamic government has lured people out of the mainly Muslim mountains by only permitting U.N. aid and other assistance into government towns and camps.

"For me, it is unfortunate to see my people going to the other side, not because they want to go there, but because there is not food or a shortage of food," said Yousif Kuwa, a SPLA leader in the Nuba mountains. Kuwa said food is short because many people have been displaced by government attacks.

Suleiman el Hadid said he was driven from his village 15 months ago by troops and helicopter gunships.
"Last year I didn't cultivate at all for a number of reasons," he says. "When I first arrived, I looked for building material for homes for my family. Then the rain came and I didn't have any seeds."

Reuters contributed to this report.