27 July 2012

Sudan: Mired in the Nuba Mountains and Beyond

Yida — A civil war continues to rage in Sudan's Nuba Mountains. Life there is fraught with violence and, making daily survival even harder, a rainy season that keeps aid from reaching the area. Just a few kilometres across the border in South Sudan, refugee camps have sprung up. Yet their appalling circumstances are causing aid organizations to sound alarm bells, signalling that those who flee are not necessarily finding refuge.

Ali Mrjan, his wife and three children plough silently through the deep, sticky mud. They don't bother stopping to watch how one car struggles to pull another four-wheel drive out of the black sludge.

"We want to get to Yida. There is food in that camp. We have been walking for six days and tomorrow we should arrive," says Mrjan. The children are lethargic. The family has not had a decent meal since leaving their small hamlet close to Kauda, a strategic town in Sudan's Nuba Mountains that has been in the hands of the rebel movement SPLA-North (SPLA-N) since the 1990s.

The Nuba Mountains are more or less encircled by the armed forces of Sudan (SAF). There is no trade with the rest of Sudan.

Every day some 500 people arrive at Yida camp alone, just across the border in South Sudan. Yet arrival there is no guarantee for relief. There is a lack of sanitation and clean water. Children are malnourished. Malaria is rampant because of the rainy season. In the stores along the Yida airstrip, food is piled up, but their stock hardly grows because this only means of reaching the camp is often closed - it is too muddy for planes to land.

Rain as a weapon

Access to South Sudan is very limited. For a quarter of the year, roads are simply impassable due to heavy rains. In fact, some believe the rainy season is being used by the SPLA-N to start an offensive against the SAF.

The rainy season is always a lean time in the Nuba Mountains. Produce can only be harvested in September and October. That means the population must rely on their food stores. The war, however, hindered last year's planting season and the stores here are already empty.

"I planted on my land, but the rains were late," explains Mrjan. "By the time it started to rain, the seeds were destroyed. I have no money to buy others. Besides, it's very hard to find seeds in the Nuba Mountains." Mrjan says he could not find any other form of income.

Aid late to come

Khartoum only recently gave aid organizations permission to offer help in rebel-held territory. But the Sudanese government threw many obstacles in the way. The mud notwithstanding, it remains difficult for official help to reach the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile state. Meanwhile, fighting and food insecurity drive more and more people into the camps.

"The aid organizations are too late," says Mrjan, while he and his family take a rest, drinking water from a nearby stream. "They knew the roads would become impassable. They knew there would be a lack of food. Why did they not make seeds more available sooner?"

In the last months, Father Francis and other priests from the towns of Kauda and Gidel have made up to three trips a week from Yida to the Nuba Mountains, delivering food and other provisions. Lately, though, Francis has been sitting around in a tent in Yida. He is waiting for a mechanic to fix the starter motor of an ancient truck that he plans to use to bring more seeds and medicine.

"It's still not enough. I need to get in there again and soon," the parish priest of Gidel sighs. "But look at the sky. There is so much more rain coming. And I need at least three dry days before I can start the trip."

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