(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Humanitarian crisis in Sudan's Nuba Mountains

Huts belonging to residents of Taludi, South Kordofan turned into ashes after fighting erupted between Sudan's military and rebels on Saturday
Salma Elwardany/IRIN

The ongoing conflict in Sudan's South Kordofan and Blue Nile states continues to present a major challenge to aid agencies in the region, which say access is urgently required to meet the humanitarian needs of hundreds of thousands of people.

IRIN has put together a briefing on the humanitarian situation and prospects for peace in the region.

Who is fighting?

The fighting, which began in June 2011 in the Nuba Mountains area of South Kordofan, pits the Sudanese army against the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N).

South Kordofan was a key battleground during Sudan's 1983-2005 civil war with what is now South Sudan. Many in the Nuba Mountains sided with the then-rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army, which has since become the official army of South Sudan.

While South Sudan was able to hold a referendum on its independence, the SPLM-N says it remains marginalized by the northern government. SPLM-N also expresses frustration with the "popular consultations" offered to South Kordofan and Blue Nile states to determine their future, feeling theses did not provide a mechanism to guarantee their community’s rights. They have refused to surrender their weapons to government forces, which they see as hostile.

Sudan has accused South Sudan of supporting the SPLM-N, charges both the South Sudanese government and the rebels deny.

What is the humanitarian situation?

More than 200,000 people from South Kordofan and Blue Nile states have fled into South Sudan and Ethiopia, according to the UN. Of particular concern are accusations of continued "indiscriminate" aerial bombardment by the Sudanese Air Force and shelling by the two sides in the two Sudanese states.

The fighting has displaced or severely affected some 275,000 people in government-controlled areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, and another 420,000 in rebel-held areas, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). According to a December 2012 Human Rights Watch report, "government forces have raided villages, burned and looted civilian property, arbitrarily detained people, and assaulted and raped women and girls".

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), an estimated 300 Sudanese refugees from South Kordofan are crossing the border daily into South Sudan, with many heading to Yida, the largest refugee camp in South Sudan’s Unity State, sheltering an estimated 61,000 Sudanese refugees. 

Refugee camps in Unity State are under immense pressure from the rising refugee numbers; UNHCR recently announced it would be opening a new camp in March to cope with as many as 60,000 refugees who could arrive during the first half of 2013. The agency warned that Yida camp was likely to face problems during this year's six-month-long rainy season; in 2012, the UN World Food Programme was forced to use costly air drops to deliver food when the rains cut off road access.

Speaking at the UN headquarters in New York in January, the director of the coordination and response division of OCHA, John Ging, said many people in South Kordofan and Blue Nile were subsisting on roots and leaves due to a lack of humanitarian aid. According to OCHA, the NGO Save the Children Sweden has, since January 2012, screened 81,062 children under age five for malnutrition, registering 3,490 cases of severe acute malnutrition and 10,287 cases of moderate acute malnutrition.

Who is hindering access?

Describing the situation as "appalling", Ging blamed the continued civilian suffering and lack of humanitarian access on inadequate political will from both the Sudanese government and the rebels; he warned that unless humanitarian operations were allowed to proceed, more deaths and displacement were inevitable.

Despite an August 2012 Memorandum of Understanding among the Khartoum government, the SPLM-N, and a tripartite mediation group of the African Union (AU), the League of Arab States and the UN, humanitarian actors in Sudan say the agreement's three-month deadline lapsed with the SPLM-N and the Sudanese government having failed to agree on the conditions to allow relief supplies to areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile controlled by the SPLM-N.

The government and its humanitarian partners have, largely through the Sudanese Red Crescent Society, been able to provide seeds, tools, water and sanitation services, and health services such as immunization to hundreds of thousands of people in government-held areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. However, there has been very limited assistance to populations in rebel-held areas, where recent media reports suggest the population is suffering from acute shortages of food, water and drugs.

In a November 2012 letter to the international community, leaders of the Nuba people wrote: "We do not have access to food, medicine, healthcare and other basic necessities. We look around at what is left of our homes, and see our family and friends weak from hunger and disease. Everywhere we look, we see children, the elderly and other vulnerable people lying on the ground helpless.

"It is very hard for us to explain to our children what is happening when they ask us, ‘Does anyone in the world know what we are going through? Why is it that no one cares about us?’"

A few NGOs have managed to carry out cross-border aid operations through South Sudan. While such operations provide much-needed relief, the UN warns that they are not ideal, as they put staff of the NGOs at risk and do not allow for transparent deliveries of aid based on needs assessments.

On 10 February, the UN's independent expert on the situation of human rights in Sudan, Mashood Adebayo Baderin, urged the Sudanese government "to grant me access to the entire country, in particular to Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile states" in order to assess the human rights situation there.

A senior Sudanese government official said in November 2012 that there were humanitarian needs in the two states, including water and health services, but denied that there was a crisis in the region.

What's the way forward?

In January, a coalition of more than 350 civil society organizations urged the leaders of Sudan and South Sudan to address the humanitarian situation in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, and to find a lasting solution to the conflict.

"The situation is now too critical to allow civilians to be held hostage to further political intransigence," the statement, presented to the AU Peace and Security Council, read. "Only unified, sustained, high-level political pressure will break the deadlock in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile."

The AU High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan, chaired by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, recently released a report urging the government of Sudan and the SPLM-N to "enter into direct negotiations to seek a political solution to the conflict". It also called on the UN Security Council to reiterate previous calls for immediate and unconditional humanitarian aid to affected communities in South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

The report warned that "if either of the two parties persist in failing to permit such assistance, it will not be possible for [Security] Council to discourage any other mechanisms for humanitarian assistance that are not necessarily in full conformity with the preferred principles of impartiality and transparency".

The panel also called on both parties to "enter into direct negotiations to seek a political solution to the conflict".

While no direct talks have so far taken place, recent media reports indicate that Khartoum and at least some factions of SPLM-N may be willing to start negotiations.


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