At least the stalemate has been broken
Interview with Neroun Philip, executive director of NRRDO

December 9, 2001
By N. op 't Ende

In the past four weeks the UN performed an emergency intervention in the area of the Nuba Mountains that is under control of the SPLA. UN planes dropped 2100 metric tons of grain near Kauda and Changaru. The Julud intervention was supervised on the ground by two WFP teams, both consisting of 9 people.

Neroun Philip, executive director of NRRDO, talks about the intervention and about other recent developments in the Nuba Mountains.

Mr. Philip: was the situation so desperate that it called for an emergency intervention?
Yes, it was. Last years' harvest was not good and in some areas people were near starvation. Surely many would have died if the UN had not intervened.

Under normal circumstances a poor harvest doesn't have to be disastrous: people can trade for grain from surplus areas. But in 2000 the government army gained much ground from the SPLA, mainly in the south-western part of the Mountains; this happens to be a very rich area where the people always produced more sorghum than they need for their own consumption.

The loss of Buram, Kurungu, Kululu and Shat Safia cut off the other Nuba from a chance to purchase grain in times of need. It also created a large group of internally displaced who are facing very difficult conditions.

I saw many displaced in July 2000, in Kadoro and in the Moro Hills. Is their situation still as awkward as it was then?
We try to help them with seeds, tools and other items, but with our limited resources we are barely able to meet the most urgent needs. Many families still live in improvised shelters, they farm on steep hill slopes with little fertile soil and they lack so many things, like cooking utensils or decent clothes.

Actually the UN intervention also foresees in a few loads of non-food items that will be delivered these days. Among the things we hope to drop off are school books for the displaced children.

Wasn't the UN supposed to initiate a large humanitarian programme in the Nuba Mountains? An assessment team had visited the area; a programme had been drawn up; the budget - was it 10 million dollar? - had already been approved
Yes, the UN had planned to launch a large humanitarian programme by the end of 2000, in both the Government area and the SPLA controlled part of the Nuba Mountains. Unfortunately, upto now, they haven't been able to carry it out because of disagreements over access to the SPLA area.

The Government of Sudan insisted that the whole humanitarian operation for the Nuba Mountains would be co-ordinated from the North and that relief supplies should be flown in from El Obeid. The SPLA couldn't possibly agree to that. It demanded access from the South - either from within the liberated areas in the South or from Lokichokio in Kenya, where the UN have their largest bases.

But what about the Nuba people? Should they continue to suffer just because the SPLA won't accept planes coming from El Obeid?
Should they suffer because the Government refuses to let planes come in from the South? But seriously: it's not what direction the plane flies that makes access from the North unacceptable.

The Government wants to control the whole operation, everything the UN would do. This goes directly against the agreement for humanitarian assistance in the rest of Sudan, which provides for a tripartite accord on any UN operation inside the Sudan, with supervision for the receiving party.

So basically the UN can't carry out any program in the South without Government consent, but when the three parties agree on the program, all operations are co-ordinated from within the South or from Lokichokio in Kenya, under SPLA supervision. It is hard to see how the SPLA could accept a UN program in its' Nuba Mountains territory when it is carried out under Government supervision.

So the planes that dropped the food came from the South?
No, they came from the North. The Nuba people had difficulty accepting it, but since it was an emergency intervention, and only food droppings, they agreed to it. The SPLA/M, by the way, specifically stated that this operation should not be considered to create a precedent for any future humanitarian interventions.

Nevertheless it is a remarkable breakthrough; do you have a clue what shifted the balance?
Well, it surely is a breakthrough, this is the first time that the Government of Sudan openly admits that yes, there is fighting in the Nuba Mountains, and yes, the civilian population suffers as a consequence of the war.

There are several reasons for the Government to allow the emergency intervention to take place. The first is the oil in Western Upper Nile. The pipeline that transports the crude oil to Port Sudan runs through the Nuba Mountains and is very vulnerable for attacks. So it would be in the interest of the Government to have more stability in the area. Other considerations like the image of Sudan in the international press and with western governments also play an important role.

The pressure put on the Government through the embargo, the sanctions and the media coverage of the war - it all helped. But there was another reason, very acute and practical: Darfur had been hit by severe drought and the Government needed grain for the population. The food droppings in the Nuba Mountains were part of a larger bargain in which the Americans played an important part.

The role of the United States is interesting: apparently the Americans look at this operation as part of a new attempt to bring peace to the region?
Yes, the Bush administration seems to be convinced that the United States should actively strive to put an end to the war in Sudan. They named a special envoy, John Danforth, who visited the Nuba Mountains in November. He has launched a proposal that consists of four major points: to extend the cease-fire for an indefinite period and to start vaccination programmes; to end airstrikes and other military attacks against civilian targets; to end the slavery and abduction of women and children - mainly in Northern Bahr alGazal - and to have international monitors in the region to follow the situation closely.

Later he has actually said the United States consider the negotiations and the conduct of both parties a test case for the prospects of peace. Years of negotiating through the mediation of IGAD have led to nothing, and although the Americans would prefer to see the negotiations revived, rather than to declare them officially dead, they only want to gear up for a new round of peace talks when they see some real progress in the field.

I would like to get back to that issue with a detour: let's first talk about other developments in the Nuba Mountains.
Well, you wouldn't believe it if you saw it now: so many things are happening. We made model schools with qualified teachers from outside, from Kenya and Uganda and from the South; the Americans built a new hospital and Bishop Makram brought a tractor. The Bishop also had equipment flown in to drill for water: he received about half a million dollar from donors in the US to install 30 water pumps. 15 now in Tira, and 15 later in other parts of Nagorban.

That's marvellous! But in 2000, the Mountains were a dangerous place. Ambushes, looting, killing - it happened every day - has that changed too?
As you know, after the death of Commander Yusuf Kowa, Abdel Aziz al Hilue became the new governor of Southern Kordofan. One of the first things he did - something that hadn't been done in years - was to start serious training for a large number of fresh recruits. He trained them very well and gave them uniforms and guns.

As soon as he had enough forces to engage the Government army he tried to pin it down at the garrisons by attacking as often as he could. He stopped most of the ambushes and nightly killings by sending out patrols through the plains. And you know: he moves in a convoy now: several Land Cruisers mounted with big guns - the only thing missing is a tank!

Are more and bigger guns the answer?
Eventually? No. If the SPLA and the Government do not reach an agreement one day, this war could drag on forever.

Do you think Danforth's proposal makes a chance?
It depends: most of the proposed points demand concessions from the Government. The Nuba in the SPLA area have no planes to drop bombs with and they will welcome international observers. But whether the negotiations will result in some sort of accord? I doubt it. And even if they sign - will they keep it?

Anyway: at least the stalemate has been broken. In a situation like the Nuba faced for over a decade, any movement is good. I am happy that the issue of humanitarian assistance is finally high on the agenda; this is what I have been working for for so many years.