Nuba Mountains: Under Siege by the Government

8 February 1999
Human Rights Watch

The Nuba Mountains, in the center of Sudan, are not contiguous to any rebel area but since 1989 the SPLA has controlled territory there. The Nubas are Africans, half Christian and half Muslim, who speak many different Nuba dialects and use Arabic as a lingua franca. The government of Sudan has never permitted access by the U.N. or any relief agency to the SPLA areas of the Nuba Mountains. While even preventing ordinary traders from doing civilian business with these rebel areas, the government has facilitated U.N. assistance to garrison towns, particularly to the 'peace camps' where captured Nubas from rebel areas are interned and are subjected to abuse. The government's strategy is to starve the estimated 400,000 civilians in SPLA areas, presumed to be the SPLA 'support base', out of their traditional lands and into these 'peace camps'.

Because the valleys of the Nuba Mountains are fertile, there has usually not been a need for outside food assistance. After the government captured a key valley in 1997 and the whole area suffered from drought, a nongovernmental organization, conducting a clandestine survey in defiance of the Sudan government's ban on travel there, found that more than 20,000 people were at risk of famine in early 1998. With additional scorched earth campaigns and drought, that number has increased in late 1998.

Sudan's Foreign Minister promised U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on May 20, 1998, that the U.N. could conduct an assessment mission in the rebel areas of the Nuba Mountains. That promise has never been kept. The government's continued refusal of all access mocks the U.N. In the meantime, in September, twelve of Sudan's twenty-six states, in northern Sudan and far from the war, experienced the worst flooding of the Nile River in decades, leaving about 100,000 Sudanese homeless and exposed to malaria, cholera, and acute respiratory infections. The U.N. appealed for U.S. $ 9 million to help the most vulnerable flood victims. Yet the needs of the rebel-held Nuba Mountains have never been addressed.

Ambassador Tom Eric Vraalsen has made some headway since his appointment in mid-1998 as the U. N. secretary-general's special envoy for humanitarian affairs in Sudan: he concluded an agreement on rail and road use and security for relief operations, worked out an extension until April 15, 1999 of the Bahr El Ghazal cease-fire, and secured the government's agreement in principle to a needs assessment for the rebel areas of the Nuba Mountains. Only time will tell if this marks a real turning point.