Nubah access holds promise of broader progress

15 November (IRIN)

A major airdrop of food relief to the Nubah Mountains in Southern Kordofan - highly significant in both humanitarian and political terms - was on Thursday said to be "going fine" by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).

The agency delivered 100 mt of food on Wednesday and plans to deliver 2,000 mt in the coming weeks to some 158,000 people.

Humanitarian and diplomatic sources have emphasised that this is not seen as a one-off operation, or as an isolated food operation, but is important in creating a window of opportunity to tackle non-food and rehabilitation issues among a people suffering through a long-term lack of humanitarian access, as well as conflict, drought and displacement.

After years of United Nations negotiations for humanitarian access to what has been the site of serious fighting between the Sudanese government and rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), strong political leverage from the United States in recent months and weeks secured an agreement from the two parties for a four-week period of tranquillity to allow the delivery of food aid, humanitarian sources told IRIN on Thursday.

Escalating attacks by government forces and drought-induced crop failure had put the lives of over 80,000 people in the Nubah Mountains at risk, the indigenous Nubah Relief Rehabilitation and Development Organisation (NRRDO) reported in June.

Flight restrictions, government bombing and widespread insecurity had made it impossible to address even the most life-threatening needs, according to the organisation. The delivery of humanitarian aid to SPLM/A-controlled areas in the Nubah Mountains was impossible, because flying in had become "so dangerous as to become untenable", it said.

Many families had no food in their stores and, as they entered the hunger gap, were finding less and less to help them, it said. Acute malnutrition, especially among children, was "inevitable" in the region, the agency added.

Current grain consumption is reported to be 50 percent below its normal level for this period of the year, resulting in widespread malnutrition, WFP stated on Wednesday.

Since May, the civil authorities in Nubah have reported 450 hunger-related deaths - 271 of which were of children, and that levels of kwashiorkor (severe malnutrition among infants and young children) were "historically high", the agency added.

The current food and non-food crisis in Nubah was down to the fact that vital rehabilitation and local capacity-building needs identified in an assessment in 1999, and reconfirmed by NRRDO in June, had not been carried out because of the denial of humanitarian access, as well conflict and population displacement in the area, a relief official told IRIN on Thursday.

Humanitarian agencies were notified last week of the breakthrough in negotiations, which had gone nowhere for many years.

"United Nations efforts to launch an integrated programme of relief and rehabilitation in the Nubah Mountains have stalled on the question of the corridors of air access... The government maintains this must be effected via El Obeid [Al-Ubayyid, Northern Kordofan], while SPLM/A insists on direct access from the UN/Operation Lifeline Sudan operational base at Lokichokio in northern Kenya," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan reported last month.

The food airdrop which started on Wednesday - to Kauda (Kawdah), Karkar, Julud and Saraf Jamus, in the Nubah Mountains - will involve C-130 Hercules planes operating out of El Obeid.

The flight from the Northern Kordofan airstrip to the Nubah Mountains takes about 20 minutes, compared to about two and a half hours from Lokichokio, which makes for an easier logistical operation and significant cost-reductions, in addition to facilitating government flight clearance, humanitarian sources told IRIN on Thursday.

However, the operation has not been without its difficulties and when the agency sent a ground team to Kauda (Kawdah) on Monday to prepare for the airdrops and to distribute the food on the ground, it was subjected to artillery fire from an unknown source.

Four artillery shells were fired at the landing strip immediately after the mission's arrival at Kauda (Kawdah; 11.06N 30.31E), but there were no injuries and no damage, nor was there any acceptance of responsibility, a WFP official, Laura Melo, told IRIN on Thursday.

"It has been calm since then and the incident hasn't compromised the operation in any way," she added.

The Sudanese government denied responsibility for the attack in Kauda, but regretted its occurrence, according to diplomatic sources.

The US special envoy to the Sudan John Danforth on Wednesday said that the Nubah Mountains was chosen to serve as "a test case" for expanding the potential for humanitarian cease-fires and rehabilitation efforts. "I hope the four-week period already offered by the government for delivery of relief will be extended indefinitely," AFP quoted him as saying.

If there was progress in the Nubah Mountains, it would be "a test case for something that could work nationally, and it would do a lot to - at least within our country [the US] - to indicate that this is progress, this is moving forward," the AP quoted him as saying at a press conference in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

Danforth set the Nubah operation firmly in the context of a four-point plan to improve the humanitarian situation in Sudan, serve as a confidence-building step to bring the warring parties closer together and which could also help improve relations between Khartoum and the US.

In addition to continuous access to the Nubah Mountains for relief purposes, he called for: specified periods of tranquillity in which immunisation and other humanitarian projects could take place; a cessation of bombing and other military attacks on the civilian population of southern Sudan; and increased efforts to tackle the issue of the abduction of women and children by [government-aligned] tribal militias, news organisations reported.

"The big issue is relating this breakthrough to wider issues of access... to try to achieve some momentum on the wider issue of unimpeded humanitarian access throughout Sudan," a relief official working closely on Sudan told IRIN.

There was great concern over the denial of humanitarian access to locations where people most needed assistance, despite the government and the SPLM/A having formally endorsed the principle of unimpeded access to beneficiaries, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan reported last month.

Last week, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Sudan, Gerhart Baum, also condemned "the constant disregard by both parties to the conflict of their own commitments, and lack of observance of human rights principles and humanitarian law", which had led to appalling conditions among the civilian population.

"This relief operation is a fantastic breakthrough after such long and difficult negotiations," said WFP's Country Director for Sudan, Masood Hyder, on Wednesday. "It is a great achievement for all parties to be finally able to help thousands of desperately needy people in the Nubah Mountains."