War forces out Sudan's villagers from fertile land

By Fiona O'Brien

Dec 2 (Reuters)

"When the enemy came, they burnt the houses. The cattle ran away and they were taken by the soldiers. They took all the food, they took women and children. Then we all left, we all went to the mountains."

Mata Titus is one of thousands in Sudan's central Nuba mountains dispossessed by years of civil war. After an attack by government forces which razed nine villages in March 2000, he was forced to leave his crops and move west, into the hills. Sudan's war, which has killed an estimated two million people, is a battle between the Arab Muslim north and the Christian or animist south, but Nuba does not fit the pattern either religiously or geographically.

Before Sudan's war began in 1983, Nuba was home to an estimated 1.5 million people. The population has now dwindled to about 400,000, the remainder scattered in the north, some by choice, others forced into government camps. Of those left, around 65,000 have been driven from the fertile plains to the barren slopes above.

A region of productive plains and rolling hills, Nuba is above the north-south divide but more African than Arab, and though allied with the southern rebels, around half the population is Muslim. After a three year scorched-earth policy that began in 1989, Sudan's government declared a holy war against the Nuba in 1992 and the offensives have come in fits and starts ever since.

The conflict intensified in 2000, a year after the installation of an oil pipeline through the mountains upped the stakes, pouring lucrative crude from the southern oil fields into government coffers in Port Sudan.


By seizing control of the plains, government troops have deprived people of their harvests, their homes, and lifeline trade with the north. For years, neither rebels nor government would allow foreign aid in, relenting last month month for a four-week ceasefire to allow the United Nations to airdrop food to the starving population. The relief is welcome, but its effects only temporary. Homes and food stores have been burned, livestock pillaged and harvests left behind by fleeing villagers. The plains that once provided sustenance have become hostile territory.

"Water is scarce in the hills," said Josef Yusif Yamus Tutu, a village elder forced to move on after the March offensive. "When the women go down to the plains to get water, they could get abducted or shot at by government soldiers." While some have been forcibly removed, hunger has coaxed many people voluntarily down to government controlled areas.

"It is the government's policy to either starve people to death or to give them the choice of going to the other side," said Ahmed Said, coordinator for the rebels' SRA relief association.


Aid agencies estimate that 400,000 people are believed to be in the government's so-called peace camps, most taken there after a major government offensive in 1991/1992. The government says the camps are used to house civilians displaced by war. Rebels say people are forced to convert to Islam and trained to join raids on their own people.

Luka John, 17, voluntarily went to a camp near Khartoum in 1998 to find his three brothers who were moved there after a raid in 1989. He escaped a year and nine months later. "We were educated, but could not finish our education," he said, sitting in the school compound in Karkar where he now studies.

"When you got to a certain level, they took you off for military training in Khartoum or Juba. Life there was difficult, we had to work, building or making bricks. "Many people wanted to come back but because of problems on the road -- you can be taken to prison or killed -- they never came."

For the depleted population, life is unrecognisably tough. The people now living in makeshift houses on the hills have lost plains which once produced up to three years' worth of food in one harvest, but many see no choice but to struggle on. "We will never go to the Arabs, because the Arabs have dominated us," Yamus Tutu said, his fellow villagers nodding in agreement. "We would go down to the plains if it became secure, but if not we will stay in the mountains."