The Beja, a semi-nomadic group of people, who live in rebel-held areas of eastern Sudan need a huge amount of humanitarian assistance, a representative from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said on Tuesday.
Although Beja can be found throughout northeast Africa, tens of thousands are currently trapped in an area of eastern Sudan near the Eritrean border, held by Sudanese rebels since the late 1990s.
Only two NGOs, both based in Eritrea, are able to access the 15,000 sq km area at the moment, one of which is the IRC. The organisation estimates the Beja population in the area to be between 45,000 and 186,000 people.
"It is the most under-served, most remote area that I have ever worked in, with huge humanitarian needs - even in basic issues of nutrition and safe water, up to more complex health and education needs," said Fergus Thomas, IRC programme coordinator for northeast Sudan.
"The community have been left very much to themselves - for thousands of years, really," he said.
Until recently, illiteracy rates had been more than 95 percent, but Thomas said that the IRC had made good progress in this area. "In the last three years we have built from zero to 17 schools with the support of the communities, trained 40 teachers, developed learning materials in their language - the first ever literature they have ever had in Bedawit, their language," he said.
Maternal mortality is also unusually high, according to the IRC coordinator. Female genital mutilation is universal, and traditional childbirth practices kill many women. The Beja believe that a small baby is easier to deliver, so they starve their women during pregnancy, he said. Many women die during labour, because they simply do not have enough energy for the delivery.
However, the main causes of death for the Beja are still acute respiratory infections and diarrhoea, said Thomas.
Problems posed by nature and war
Although it did rain in the area in 2004, a shortage of water had also posed serious problems, Thomas added.
"Fresh drinking water is incredibly hard to come by. All the settlements have just focused around dry river beds, in which people dig hand-dug wells," he said.
However, he said, "Nobody is too worried about the drought in northeast Sudan at the moment. What they are worried about is locusts."
Locusts would eat the foliage that usually sustains the Beja’s goats and camels - upon which the Beja utterly depend for survival.
A few immature locust swarms have formed in northeast Sudan near the Red Sea and the border of Egypt, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation said in March. Moreover, Beja grazing areas have been severely restricted by a front line between rebel forces and Khartoum government soldiers, the second to be opened by southern rebels during Sudan’s 21-year-old civil war.
"The entire front line is mined - so there is a serious issue of landmines in the area and also unexploded ordnance from the time of the conflict," Thomas said. "The actual line of control is heavily manned by soldiers from the government of Sudan."
Having their grazing areas thus restricted has made it significantly harder for the Beja to seek better pasture for their animals in times of drought, he said.
Until a food-aid programme was started in 2004, rates of chronic malnutrition had been as high as 27 percent, the IRC coordinator said.
Beja men have also found it hard to move freely and look for work in the nearby towns of Kassala and Port Sudan, both outside the rebel-controlled area.
"The Beja people are not really great respecters of international boundaries, and would traditionally have moved to Kassala - both for employment and for buying foodstuffs - which is now within government-held territory in Sudan," Thomas said.
Eastern Sudan’s terrain, and the remote location of the Beja, had made it difficult to get aid to them, he added.
"To get from our office here in Asmara [Eritrea’s capital] to the field site is a ten-hour drive, three hours of which are on a carpet [asphalt] road. That is just getting to the field site," he said.
However, a greater obstacle had been gaining the trust of the Beja. "We were not trusted for a long time. They’re a very conservative community," said Thomas, while adding that time spent getting to know people and building a good relationship with the civil administration had paid dividends ever since.
Overall, Thomas said he had been pleasantly surprised by the warmth, hospitality, and intelligence of the Beja people in the region, despite the hardships they had suffered.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions