Human Rights Watch: Famine in Sudan, 1998
XIII. The Spread of Famine in the Nuba Mountains
The Nuba Mountains are special: they are in the center of Sudan, not the south, and not contiguous to any other territory held by the rebel SPLA nor to a border. The Nuba are Africans, believed to be almost equally divided between Christians and Muslims, and speaking some fifty different dialects of ten distinct language groups. Their lingua franca is Arabic. The Nuba are not a tribe but comprise the fifty sub-tribes living in the Nuba Mountains. They include peasant farmers; some tribes own significant numbers of cattle.209
The mountains, actually hills, provided protection from many raiders over the decades as the Nuba sought to preserve their unique and tolerant culture. Their geography can be a weakness, however: the Nuba Mountains remain one of the most isolated places on earth because of a years-long government blockade on all commerce, trade, and relief operations into the rebel areas there, where an estimated 400,000 live.210 The war in the Nuba Mountains is between the government forces, including the Nuba militia (nafir al shaabi), and the SPLA. Nuba civilian leaders led by a school teacher and elected assemblyman Yousif Kuwa were long involved in a civic struggle against second-class citizenship. After the SPLM/A was formed, attracted by its Aunited secular Sudan@ platform, the first Nuba joined the SPLA and recruited young Nuba men for training in the SPLA camps in Ethiopia. They began military action against the government in the Nuba Mountains in 1989; they had not participated in the first civil war which was lead by southern separatist rebels.
The rebel areas of the Nuba Mountains are under siege by the government, whose
blockade seeks to strangle the economy and force starving civilians into government
garrison towns. As a result, ATen years of continuous insecurity causing out
migration and death reduced the rural [Nuba] population from an estimated one
million people to 350,000-400,000 people,@ according to a March 1998 needs assessment
of the Nuba Mountains.211
Despite periodic agreements the SPLA reaches with private small traders to sell such basics as used clothes, salt, and sugar in small Nuba markets, the government has successfully cut off commerce to the area, so even these basic items are rarely available. As a result, almost all Nuba wear threadbare clothes, even many SPLA soldiers. Many civilians have no clothes and have to share a garment with other family members. Teachers in the rebel areas report that some children come to school naked, and nakedness has not been the Nuba custom for decades. Others without clothes stay away from school, too ashamed of their nakedness to venture out.
The siege is coupled with periodic military incursions where villages are burned down, crops and animals looted, and all civilians found alive taken off as captives. The government focuses on displacing those they cannot capture from fertile valleys into the higher and less fertile hills. Therefore even those not captured may be driven to garrison towns by hunger.
In addition to being caught up in large-scale military incursions and aerial bombardments, those who stay in rebel areas are at risk of capture by small government military units operating with Nuba collaborators (nafir al shaabi) that infiltrate an area and pick off farmers working alone in their fields, capturing or killing them. Those captured are then forced to porter the crops and herd the animals the soldiers and collaborators have stolen to the garrison towns, where the captives are sent to government Apeace camps.@
These peace camps ring garrison towns and are in turn Aprotected@ by PDF and military guards to prevent the captives from escaping to their homes. In the camps, torture and ill-treatment are common, and women and girls are subjected to sexual abuse by PDF and soldiers, according to several accounts.212 Family members are severely punished if one manages to escape.213 Those who have escaped from peace camps say they are not paid for the work they are forced to do for the authorities (clearing land, cleaning, hauling water). If they want to eat, they must work for individual soldiers and PDF.214
The rural Nuba are usually self-sufficient in food, since their land is fertile. In 1991-92 and again in 1998, however, they have suffered terrible shortages of food as a result of the combined pressures of drought and scorched-earth government military tactics. A food assessment done by nongovernmental organizations in March 1998 estimated 20,000 were Aunable to meet their minimum survival needs while remaining in their homes.@215
The 1998 crisis was a result of military attacks that displaced many Nuba from
fertile valleys: in July 1996, after planting was complete, the government attacked
locations in Erre Payam (district), Heiban County, displacing 15,000 to 20,000
The next year, at the beginning of the cultivating season (April/May), government attacks displaced more than 20,000 from Nagorban County plains in two directions: some fled to SPLA-controlled mountains, others to the government garrison towns (and peace camps). These displaced Nuba lost their seeds, stored food, and an estimated 75 percent of their animals. Cultivation in the mountains was limited by lack of seeds, poor soil, low and erratic rainfall, and other factors. The fertile valleys, now abandoned, between Nagorban and Heiban Counties were the main suppliers of food to the two counties.216 The estimated population was 65,000 to 70,000 in Nagorban County and 100,000 in Heiban County, a figure established by a polio vaccination program in late February 1998.217 Of those 45,000 displaced, 25,000 to 30,000 who were displaced from the valley remained in SPLA areas. Of these, 20,000 were in need because their survival means had been exhausted.218 The displaced worked for others, ate wild foods, and traded off their remaining livestock. Because of the poor harvest and increased demands, food prices in the market in February 1998 were triple those in February 1997.219
International relief is provided in the Nuba Mountains only on the government side. Some food, usually an inadequate amount, goes to peace camps through Islamic and a few non-Islamic NGOs. According to U.N. statistics, approximately 172,789 displaced and returnees directly affected by the war lived in seventy-two Apeace villages@ in the government-controlled areas of the Nuba Mountains in 1997. The U.N. planned to provide relief food to 56,450 of these people during the hunger gap from April to July 1998.220
The government has prevented U.N. efforts to conduct even a needs assessment
in SPLA areas, despite the explicit promise on May 20, 1998 by Sudan=s foreign
minister, Mustafa Osman Ismail, to U.N. Secretary Kofi Annan that such a mission
could proceed. After a compromise was reached regarding the composition of the
assessment team and its point of departure (Malakal), the government withdrew
permission for the team to proceed.
The government used the pretext that an ambush in which three relief workers were killed had to be investigated first. On June 9, 1998, a Sudanese Red Crescent worker, Magboul Mamoun, and two employees of the WFP, El Haj Ali Hammad and Sumain Samson Ohiri, were killed and three others were injured in an ambush in the Nuba Mountains, fifty kilometers southeast of Kadugli. The three men were part of a relief convoy, traveling in a U.N.-marked truck.221 The government accused the SPLA of the attack, but the SPLA vehemently denied this, claiming in turn that the government may have "caused this incident so that it can use it as a reason to declare a total ban on relief work in the Nuba Mountains.@222
The Sudanese government demanded that two conditions be met before the needs assessment could proceed: the submission of the investigative report the U.N. undertook on the murder of three humanitarian workers in early June, and the inclusion of a government representative in the mission.223 The government was given a summary of the U.N. findings, in which the U.N. Security Coordination office concluded that the culprits were unknown and unidentifiable. The U.N. asked the government to follow up on this investigation, but nothing further was received by the U.N. from the government on this matter.224
In late July, the U.N. secretary-general personally telephoned President Bashir to appeal to him to honor the commitment given on access to the Nuba Mountains. This was followed by a personal letter from the secretary-general to the President.225
The result of the government siege and flight ban is that only a handful of agencies operate modest programs in the Nuba Mountains. The programs are irregular and exposed to much greater risk than OLS programs because they operate Aillegally@ and all flights into the rebel areas are under threat of government attack.
The international community has not brought to bear the kind of pressure on
the Sudan government concerning the Nuba Mountains that it has marshaled on
behalf of the south, with some exceptions. Some governments, such as the Irish,
Italian, and U.S., have spoken out, but they alone they cannot stem the developing
The newly appointed U.N. secretary-general=s special envoy for humanitarian affairs in Sudan, Ambassador Tom Eric Vraalsen, announced on January 15, 1999 that the government had agreed in principle that U.N. missions could open in the Nuba Mountains.226 He was said to have the government=s approval for the U.N. to send a needs assessment mission to the Nuba Mountains in February 1999, having agreed that U.N. staff from headquarters would participateCand specifically, that no OLS staff would accompany them. The Nuba SPLA governor, Yousif Kuwa, agreed to the mission as well. Whether this is a new beginning or yet another false start remains to be seen.
209 Kevin Ashley, Paul Murphy and Kate Biong, ANagorban and Heiban County, 27/2/98C16/3/98,@ Nairobi (A1998 Nuba Needs Assessment@), p.3.
210 For background, see African Rights, The Nuba of Sudan: Facing Genocide (African Rights: London, 1995).
211 1998 Nuba Needs Assessment, p. 1.
212 See African Rights, Facing Genocide.
213 Human Rights Watch interview, Nuba Mountains, May 17, 1998.
214 Human Rights Watch interview, Nuba Mountains, May 16, 1998
215 1998 Nuba Needs Assessment, p. 2.
216 1998 Nuba Needs Assessment, p. 1.
217 Ibid, p. 3.
218 Ibid., p. 4.
220 OCHA, U.N. Consolidated Appeal for Sudan for 1998.
221 International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Press Release, AKilled in the line of duty,@ Geneva, June 11, 1998; Alfred Taban, AThree aid workers shot dead during Sudan mission,@ Reuters, Khartoum, June 10, 1998.
222 "SPLA denies killing relief workers in Nuba Mountains,@ AFP, Nairobi, June 11, 1998.
223 OCHA, Minutes of the OCHA/InterAction Meeting, United Nations, June 26, 1998.
224 Human Rights Watch telephone interview, Tony Raby, OCHA Desk Officer for Sudan, United Nations, January 4, 1999.
226 OCHA, ASudan: Ceasefire extended for three months,@ IRIN Update No. 588 for Central and Eastern Africa, January 15, 1999, citing Ambassador Vraalsen.