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Western Upper Nile: Ex-rebel Government Militias Fight Each Other

The famine afflicting the Western Upper Nile region to the immediate east of Bahr El Ghazal has related origins in that the abusive military tactics used are similar: scorched earth attacks on civilians by government-funded militias. There are an estimated 150,000 people at risk of starvation in Western Upper Nile, mostly Nuer, cousins of the Dinka.

This area of southern Sudan is nominally controlled by the government, through Riek Machar, whose former rebel forces are an important part of the government-created South Sudan Defense Forces (SSDF) he heads. The famine has spread there because Paulino Matiep, a Nuer warlord based in an oil field area of Western Upper Nile, has fought Riek=s forces for more than a year.

Paulino also is armed and supported by the government of Sudan. That is what makes this different from the Bahr El Ghazal situation: the famine-producing tactics are not the product of a counterinsurgency fight against the SPLA. They are used by these two Nuer government militias against civilians for a very different objective: political and military control of strategic oil fields in Nuer lands. Regardless of who wins that fight, however, the real control at the end of 1998 remained with the government, which granted contracts to many foreign companies to extract the oil and build a pipeline to the north and a refinery there, on an accelerated basis. Revenue from the development of oil will enable the government to finance an expanded war.

The two Nuer militias raided back and forth in late 1997 and in 1998, with civilians taking the brunt of the fighting and the meager civilian infrastructure being demolished: huts, clinics, and other facilities were burned to the ground. The fighting made it difficult for the population to stay in one place, to find food, to protect their animals from capture, or to cultivate. Although there was no government ban imposed on OLS flights into this area, unlike Bahr El Ghazal, the fighters= rapid and widespread raiding created insecurity that forced the OLS to suspend service. From July to December, with one exception, no relief was distributed in Western Upper Nile because of insecurity. Several cease-fires were broken and in a dramatic move in October, Paulino=s top commander and some 1,000 militia members defected to the SPLA. Riek=s forces claimed in December that the war in Western Upper Nile was over, maintaining that the remainder of Paulino=s forces, disgusted at the destruction of their Nuer homeland, deserted to Riek=s SSDF.

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