Improved relations between government and rebel forces in Nuba mountains

Kawdah, Southern Sudan
21 Jul 2004 (IRIN)

Relations between Sudanese government forces and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) have improved in the central Nuba Mountains region, the international Joint Military Commission (JMC) monitoring the situation in the region has said.

"The secret to the success of the improved relations rests on the fact that all parties are involved in the decision-making process," Brig-Gen Jan Erik Wilhelmsen, the head of the JMC, told IRIN on Monday. "Engendering a sense of trust and confidence with these groups was the idea from day one."

Speaking at Kawdah in the Nuba Mountains, where he announced the renewal of a ceasefire agreement between the government and the SPLM/A, Wilhelmsen said all peace-monitoring patrols and assistance projects in the area had incorporated representatives from the international community and members of both warring parties.

SPLM/A Force Cdr Isma'il Khamis Jalabi said: "We have good relations with the JMC and our government associates. Freedom of movement, as well as trade, is growing."

The government-controlled Nuba Mountains region was the scene of intense fighting between government and rebel forces until about two years ago when the JMC was deployed, as part of a renewable ceasefire agreement between the government and the SPLM/A. By 2003, however, the streets of towns like Kaduqli would still be deserted after 14:00 GMT as residents feared being shelled at night.

The JMC, government and rebels have since agreed on mutually acceptable corridors of movement with the various nomadic communities in the region, resulting in rapid decline in ceasefire violations. More than 150,000 internally displaced persons [IDPs] have returned to the area, according to Wilhelmsen.

Local officials told IRIN that the situation had further improved due to the clearance of landmines by NGOs, thereby easing the movement of IDPs returning, mainly from Khartoum.

Some 1,295 mines and other unexploded ordnance, including grenades and rockets, have been destroyed so far. Both the government and the SPLM/A provided engineers to help locate mines scattered across the area.

But Simon Cowton, the head of Landmine Action in Kaduqli, said rains had affected mine clearance operations. "The rain changes everything," Cowton said. "A small mudslide can push the mines far away from their original location." The exact number of mines remaining in the area is unknown.

The IDPs, however, complained that they had found nothing to return to. In Koya IDP village, where the majority of the returnees were elderly people and children, food and water were scarce. As a result, the IDPs, equipped with very basic agricultural tools, had to trek more than 15 km daily to work as farm labourers.

Abdallah Gadili, the village chief, told IRIN that only one water well existed for the 248 IDPs who had returned to Koya from Khartoum. All the IDPs, he added, had paid their own bus fares. Ashafaryalla Tutu, an elderly IDP, however, claimed that she had covered half the distance from Khartoum on foot.

The JMC tentatively plans to hand over control of the area by March, 2005, Wilhelmsen said.