HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH "Crises in Sudan and Northern Uganda"
Testimony of Jemera Rone, Human Rights Watch Before the House Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights and the Subcommittee on Africa July 29, 1998
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The Famine In Sudan, And The Human Rights Abuses That Caused It

The 1988 famine in Bahr El Ghazal cost an estimated 250,000 lives. It was caused primarily by looting, raiding, displacement, killing, and abduction of Dinka by muraheleen, a militia formed by the Arabized Baggara (cattle owners) tribes. The international community took little action to aid the starving in the 1988 famine but as a result Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) was formed by the U.N. to prevent another famine in Sudan. OLS operates across borders into Sudan, serving civilians on both sides of the lines with the consent of the parties to the conflict.

Ten years later, however, Bahr El Ghazal again faces famine. The 1998 famine in Bahr El Ghazal and other parts of the south, which affects 1.2 million people in rebel-controlled areas of southern Sudan, 1.2 million people in government-controlled areas of southern Sudan, and 200,000 people in northern Sudan, according to U.N. estimates, is the result of one natural disaster (drought caused by El Nino) and a long series of human rights abuses, one of which is the same muraheleen raiding.

The scorched earth tactics of raiding, looting and burning by all parties prior to 1998 caused forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians and led to a progressive erosion of the three-point means of their livelihood, whereby entitlement and/or access to crops, herds and wild food (mainly fish) have all been reduced. By the same token kinship networks and local ties of reciprocal obligation were weakened. This has been cumulative and unremitting: year by year every crisis is harder to cope with. The amount of food aid getting to Bahr El Ghazal over the last few years from the international community has not been enough to significantly improve nutritional status. What makes the drought intolerable are the constraints on survival strategies caused by the war and the illegal way the war is waged.

The raiding laying the groundwork for the 1998 famine is also the fault of a southern warlord, Kerubino Kuanyin Bol. Kerubino, a Dinka from Bahr El Ghazal, helped found the SPLA and switched to the government after the SPLA held him five years in incommunicado arbitrary detention for plotting a coup (he was there during the 1988 famine). While on the government's side he conducted a scorched earth campaign against his own people in Bahr El Ghazal for four years, but in January 1998 switched back to the SPLA after falling out with the government, or "Arabs," as southerners refer to all Sudanese governments.

The SPLA also has played a role in the famine. Its policy of putting garrison towns under siege has led to the successful interdiction of almost all overland and river transport, through land mines and ambushes. This means that most relief goods must be delivered by air, which makes this a very costly operation, although there are other reasons the air bridge has been resorted to, such as the absence of all-weather roads. The SPLA has been responsible for looting and diversion of relief food from civilians, as mentioned, although the government has been guilty of this as well. For instance, in the garrison town of Wau, Bahr El Ghazal, assorted government forces looted the property of the Dinka who had fled for their lives in January 1998, and of the U.N. and NGOs who evacuated the town before the SPLA attack on it.

The government has done its best to encourage south-south fighting, by arming any southern group that will fight against the SPLA as in the case of Kerubino. Southerners are not absolved from all blame, however. There are divisions among them because the SPLA has treated some ethnic groups roughly, forcibly conscripting their youth, raping women, and stealing food.

Northern Bahr El Ghazal is primarily inhabited by the Dinka, a black African people practicing their traditional religion or Christianity, and speaking Dinka. They live in other areas of the south and many have migrated (the sole railway in the south) into the north looking for work where there is no war. The Dinka are the most numerous tribe in Sudan though they comprised some 11.5 percent of the population in 1983, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica (all such numbers are estimates).

The muraheleen was armed beginning in 1985 by the government to attack their Dinka neighbors. This is a form of counterinsurgency on the cheap. The Dinka are regarded as the civilian base of the SPLA, and the Baggara (and soldiers) are rewarded with total impunity and war booty: cattle, grain and slaves. Now government soldiers conduct joint operations with themuraheleen, so the raids are larger and more devastating.

In October 1997 the U.N. forecast that because of drought and continual raiding, about 250,000 people would be at risk of hunger in Bahr El Ghazal in 1998. In January 1998 tens of thousands more people were precipitously added to this needy population; they were urban Dinka displaced after the failure of Kerubino's "Trojan Horse" operation in Wau (the second largest town in the south, with population estimated between 100-150,000,) and two nearby garrison towns, Aweil and Gogrial.

The SPLA, in league with Kerubino, had faked a mass "surrender" of several thousand of its forces a few weeks earlier in late 1997. The "surrendered" SPLA men moved into Wau with their guns. The two forces might have captured Wau because they outnumbered the government troops, but when they stopped their offensive to loot, the government regrouped and routed them with its artillery. We regard this looting as a human rights violation that led to the loss of Wau that led to the unexpected displacement of tens of thousands of civilians, with no food, clothes or shelter, into the famine area.

Almost the entire Dinka population of Wau, Aweil and Gogrial fled, fearing retaliation by the government; there has been a history of ethnic conflict inside Wau. In 1987 the local Fertit militia, with the army's cooperation, killed hundreds of Dinka inside Wau, until the Dinka police, who comprised 70-80 percent of the police force, intervened. In 1998, the Dinka police protected the civilians as they fled Wau, and then joined them in the famine zone.

Many Dinka (and Jur, a smaller group related to the Dinka) were shot and killed by government troops and militia as they fled Wau across the Jur River to the east. There were later reports that vengeful government troops and militia, in the ten days after the fighting, massacred hundreds of Dinka who stayed behind in Wau, including hospital patients and government employees. A few Dinka who stayed behind, including government employees, fled in the next few months because they observed that, even after the killing spree ended, many educated Dinka were being "disappeared."

The government contributed heavily to the famine because on February 4, 1998 it suspended all relief flights into Bahr El Ghazal immediately after the World Food Programme (WFP) announced that it was airdropping food to the Wau, Aweil and Gogrial displaced, whom it estimated as 150,000 destitute people. Because most relief goods were delivered by air, banning flights effectively stopped relief deliveries. We regard this as a human rights cause of the famine because the government acted with full knowledge of the U.N.'s projections and wide publicity about the growing famine. The flight ban was imposed on a very large area and was unrelated to any immediate or legitimate military need. The civilian population far outnumbered SPLA combatants in the famine zone. The relief flight ban was a classic example of using starvation of civilians as a method of combat, a violation of the rules of war.

The flight ban continued for almost two months, until high-level U.N. pressure, press coverage of the famine, and the immediacy of peace talks led the government to lift the flight ban on March 31. In addition, the government finally granted permission for the relief operation toadd extra large-capacity C-130 planes to airdrop 1,600 pounds of food per flight. But for many vulnerable persons (children, the elderly, the infirm), the pipeline was reopened too slowly, and too late, and the death toll rose.

The famine continued to deepen in northern Bahr El Ghazal, where the muraheleen stepped up their raiding and slave-taking in April through June. There are at least two causes for this: Kerubino, once he switched sides back to the SPLA, at least stopped raiding the Dinka. But he then turned his guns on the muraheleen, their civilians, and cattle, which he claimed to be taking back because it had been looted from the Dinka. Looting and killing civilians is a violation of human rights, no matter who the target.

The muraheleen, on horseback and as part of a large army operation with troops on vehicles, struck back at civilian rural Dinka in northern Bahr El Ghazal, the area of coveted grazing lands and water sources needed for Baggara cattle. It was a scorched earth operation, killing civilians and abducting thousands of women and children, and looting tens of thousands heads of cattle. Many Dinka allege that such operations, that killed so many and drove the survivors away, were intended to clear Dinkas from their land so "the Arabs" could settle it. These displaced people were already suffering from the famine, and the impact of new attacks on them was devastating.

The relief operation, which is now the largest WFP airlift in its history, could not keep up with the cascading number of newly displaced and foodless civilians. The famine spun out of control. Now, with little rain, it is obvious that the harvest expected for September and October 1998 will be poor, and that the famine will therefore last for more than one year-until the next harvest, in September or October 1999. Little rain also means that the other food supplies of the Dinka-fish and wild foods-will be scarce. The cattle the Dinka depend on for milk as an important component of their diet have been looted by the tens of thousands. Where Dinka still have cattle, they too suffer from the drought and from constantly being moved to avoid raids.

The famine is so bad-affecting probably 700,000 people in the rebel-held areas of Bahr El Ghazal-that the Dinka have begun to go into the lion's den in order to find food. Thousands who fled the garrison towns of Wau, Aweil and Gogrial have actually gone back, and some rural Dinka have joined them, despite the widespread belief that hundreds of Dinka in Wau were massacred there in the ten days following the failed January 1998 Kerubino/SPLA attack on Wau. These desperate people are looking for food, and in some cases, searching for their children who have been abducted and taken back to the garrison towns before they are transported further north as slaves. These recently displaced and malnourished Dinka are reported to number some 47,000 in Wau, and 9,000 in Aweil. These are estimates, like most other population numbers in Sudan, and they change almost daily.

In Wau, the army and security set up five checkpoints to screen Dinka coming in to town. It appears that they detain all the men, and allow the women and children to proceed. We fear that the men are being arbitrarily arrested, solely on the basis of their ethnic origin, and that they may be tortured in order to elicit military information the suspect may or may not have.

This also could be a setback in terms of recovery from the famine. If the men are detained and/or disabled or killed, they cannot plant or engage in other work to support their families. If all Dinka, once they enter a garrison town, are prevented from leaving (as was the case during the 1988 famine), then they cannot plant.

Bahr El Ghazal Dinka typically migrated north to look for work, even in non-famine times, because the single railway in the south runs north from Wau. Now some are driven by the famine north into the Western Kordofan towns of Meiram and Abyei, two towns in which they died in shocking numbers during the 1988 famine because they were not allowed access to international relief intended for them. There are estimated to be 9,000 newly famine-displaced Dinka in the two towns. There are also reports that they have been attacked on ethnic grounds and are not receiving the physical protection they need from the authorities.

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July 1998

Human Rights Watch