15.000 displaced in Turru

Nuba Mountains
July 7, 2000
by N. op 't Ende

In May this year I received an e-mail from a friend in Nairobi. "It is not cold here," it said, "we are dying of heat and the GOS guys have consolidated their defence positions in Tabanya and Toro. It is sad that your friends at Tabanya are no longer there. Anyway SPLA Forces are still shelling them heavily, we should expect them to go before the rainy season."

Tabanya is a large village at the south-western edge of the Nuba Mountains. It had been under SPLA control for almost ten years, when the government captured it on March 17 this year. In 1997 I had spent Christmas with the people of Tabanya, enjoying their hospitality for more than a week. "It is sad that your friends at Tabanya are no longer there." What was that supposed to mean? Were they all dead? I decided I should go and find out.

It took a few weeks to organise the journey, but on June 18 I was on my way, arriving in the Mountains a few days later. I learned that all the people of Tabanya had managed to escape during the attack, and somewhat relieved I made my way to Turru, the area where they had found refuge. But as soon as I reached there, I saw that their situation is quite desperate.

15.000 people have fled Tabanya. They left behind their homes, their harvest, their tools, everything. I found most of them sitting around improvised huts with roofs that would never keep out the heavy rains still to come. They were nearly naked, tired and hungry. Each photograph I took made me feel their misery more acutely, more directly.

The local civil authorities explained that after an initial response from several aid organisations - bringing blankets, water containers and mosquito nets - no further help had come. The displaced had hardly any food. Money to buy grain, promised to them two months ago, had not been distributed yet (apparently the amount needed was so large that it was impossible to exchange the available Dollars for Sudanese Dinars). And even if there had been money, very little grain was available in the markets. Tabanya has always been a village with large surpluses, exporting grain to other parts of the Mountains, but all that had been taken to the government garrisons.

Other aid supplies - food, seeds, agricultural implements - had arrived in the Mountains, but to a place so far away that it was very difficult to collect them. All airstrips in the SPLA area, except one, have been blocked by the government army, that will shell any plane trying to land. This one airstrip, near Kowda, is two days walking from Turru. Not only is the road too long for the weaker among the displaced, it is also very dangerous because the government army lays ambushes in the plains. On July 1, five people of a large group carrying aid supplies to Turru were killed this way. Some days later another party barely escaped. The people were very afraid to make the journey to Kowda.

Apart from Tabanya and Torro two other large villages, Fama and Shat Safia, have been taken by the government army. From those villages 10.000 people were displaced, they are now in Kululu. For them the walk to Kowda takes three days.

The issue of using food as a weapon of war can hardly be demonstrated more clearly than in the Nuba Mountains. Over the past thirteen years the government of Sudan has driven most of the population in the SPLA area away from the fertile plains. By attacking their villages, burning the houses and the crops, and by making it impossible to return, the government army forces the people into the relative safety of the mountains slopes. But these slopes can't produce enough grain to sustain a large number of people: slowly, gradually, the Nuba are losing their ability to feed themselves.

Until very recently the government has denied al access to the Nuba Mountains. Any plane bringing relief to the SPLA area ran the risk of being shelled by the Sudanese army. This way, the government has tried to starve the Nuba into submission. On my previous trips to the Mountains, I had the feeling that this policy was effective in reducing living standards to a bare minimum, but not in breaking down the people. And still, the Nuba of Tabanya, Torro, Fama and Shat Safia made a very strong point by refusing to surrender to the government and looking for refuge in the SPLA area. But if they don't receive help soon, these determined people will be left with very few options: either to leave - or to die.