Food aid brings relief to Sudan's hungry Nuba

By Fiona O'Brien

KAUDA, Sudan
Nov 25 (Reuters)

A small boy covered in dust stands at the edge of the noisy crowd, sweltering under Sudan's midday sun as men and women heave 25-kilo bags of food onto their heads and prepare for the long walk home.

Ali Ibrahim has walked for eight hours in his ragged woollen jumper and brown shorts to get food for his family, delivered by U.N. planes to this airstrip in Sudan's Nuba mountains, cut off from the rest of the vast country by 18 years of civil war.

The relief has been a long time coming. Nuba, an area of fertile plains and lofty plateaux, has been the site of violent conflict and repeated war-induced famine since the mid-1980s.

Before the war food was plentiful, but the conflict between the Islamist government in the north and rebels fighting for more autonomy in the mainly Christian or animist south has driven thousands of people away from the lowlands and into the barren hills.

Abu Hamad, a Muslim who had come to share in the first major relief operation to Nuba in decades, said he used to farm beans, maize, sugarcane and tomatoes before the conflict drove him from his home.

"We even had mangoes in our garden," he said, swatting flies away from his tired face. "But in the first attack on my village (in the early 90s) government soldiers killed my mother and my wife and injured my one-year-old son.

"After that, we moved to the mountains. It is difficult to grow crops, it is difficult to get water. We have been hungry for years."

Though above the designated front line between north and south, Nuba is allied with the southern rebels. During years of fighting and scorched-earth warfare, government forces managed to wrest control of the plains, leaving an estimated 158,000 people displaced or destitute.

"The enemy came here long ago and made it impossible for us to live," said Toma Badawi Kharifa, heavily pregnant with her eighth child. "They took women and children. They burned churches, even mosques, they burned everything."


Hemmed into the mountains by strategically placed government garrisons, the Nuba have been left to contend with poor harvests, bombardments and sporadic drought, but neither government nor rebels would, until now, allow food aid in.

Even in the valleys, the sorghum fields look dry and unwieldy and empty river beds carve up the land. Aid workers say food has become a weapon of war, used to drive hungry people over to the government side in search of sustenance.

There have been an estimated 450 hunger-related deaths since May this year, the majority children.

But in November, both rebels and government agreed to a temporary ceasefire, allowing 2,000 tonnes of food to be air dropped in Nuba by the U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP).

People walk for miles to collect the food, a small miracle dropped from the sky in large white bags. When the first planes arrived, instinct told them to run and hide, fearing the bombs that usually accompany the roar of engines in these isolated hills.

But disbelief was soon replaced by relief. WFP aims to deliver a month's ration to each destitute person, hoping to supplement a harvest that is roughly half what it should be.

Many will make several journeys to collect their share, crossing areas where ambushes are common and water scarce. By spring next year, stores may be empty once more and WFP says more intervention is needed.

But the food tumbling from the sky should avert a crisis in the short-term and allow some to remain in their homeland.

"There are some people who wanted to go to the north," said Ibn Saud, an old man with a furrowed forehead and white hairs through his beard. "But I belong here. And I will die here."