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Wau As Relief Magnet: Surprising Return of the Dinka to Wau

Some time in May 1998, a most surprising and dramatic event occurred. Many of the Dinka and Jur displaced, both from rural areas and former residents of Wau who fled during the January 1998 fighting, started to stream in to Wau. A U.N. assessment mission to Wau in February 1998 found that 65 percent of Wau=s population had left and there were no Dinka displaced and few Dinka residents left in Wau.174 In the space of months, some 72,000 Dinka (and Jur) flooded in, although only about one-third of them were estimated to be former residents of Wau or its displaced persons camps.

This much of a population turnaround was surprising because of the history of ethnic fighting in Wau, and because of widespread rumors of massacres in Wau in the ten days following Kerubino=s defection and the failed Kerubino-SPLA attempt to capture Wau, Aweil, and Gogrial. Those who fled in January said that they left because they feared retaliation against them on an ethnic basis. One Dinka government employee who stayed until April reported Anightly disappearances@ of educated Dinka weeks after the fighting ended. This man finally fled Wau because he Afelt the net closing in.@175

Between May and August 1998, displaced Dinka, who were in extremely bad physical condition, were fleeing back into Wau for at least three urgent reasons: continued raiding by muraheleen and government forces; SPLA and chiefs Ataxation@ or redistribution of their relief food (and looting by armed youth), described below; and not enough food being delivered into rural Bahr El Ghazal because of logistical difficulties in rapidly expanding the relief operation. An unknown number were searching for their children, after their recent abduction by the muraheleen, hoping to intercept them before they could be taken north.

There is precedent for garrison towns becoming magnets during a famine, notably with the flight from under served rural areas to the garrison towns in search of food in the 1988 famine. At that time, the death toll in the garrison towns was formidable as extensive diversion and delay on the government side took a heavy toll. In Aweil alone it was calculated by the UNDP that nearly 8,000 died in four months, June through September 1988; 30,000 survived. Of the surviving children, one quarter were severely malnourished, and another quarter moderately malnourished.176 An estimated 100,000 internally displaced sought food in the 1988 famine in WauCand were not allowed to leaveCas of the end of October 1988.177

In 1998, the international community was airlifting food to Wau starting in May. The Dinka may have calculated that if they were inside a garrison town they would at least be safe from muraheleen raids and other attacks. The movement of returnees and displaced to these areas was due to this continued fighting and the general food insecurity in northern Bahr El Ghazal, according to the WFP. AThe fighting is being conducted by small bands of armed men, who are loyal either to one or the other side of the ongoing civil war. . . . They are launching attacks and raiding villages, causing thousands to flee.@178

Wau and Aweil were among the six areas to which, weeks after imposing the flight ban, the government gave flight clearance. 179 The government permitted a joint mission from the northern sector to assess humanitarian needs in Wau on February 23 and 24, 1998. It found a town missing 65 percent of its total population, and entire Dinka neighborhoods and displaced camps deserted.180 The WFP food aid to Wau, most of which had gone to the vulnerable population in the two Dinka internally displaced camps, stopped with the fighting in January when that population fled.181 It did not resume until the influx of famine victims was underway, in May.

During the month of May WFP registered 10,595 beneficiaries in need of relief food in Wau, out of which 7,477 (70 percent) were returning displaced persons.182 Famine migrants continued to enter Wau at the rate of about 60 persons a day in mid-May, and by the end of May were entering at the rate of 150 a day. They were reported to be coming from Achumchum, Akirop, Manyang, Ajiep, Thulachok and Panwaya.

Eighty percent of the total at that time were women and children under five years of age, and 530 children were placed in the supplementary feeding program. Local food prices, especially for sorghum, started to increase as more people returned.183 In May 1998 the overall malnutrition rate of children under five in Wau was 29 percent, of which some 9 percent were severely malnourished.184 As an alternative to overland deliveries, an airlift to Wau began on May 31, with five tons of food moved to Wau from El Obeid by air.185

The president of Sudan in May 1998 announced a donation of 5,000 MT of sorghum to Niger to help it get over a difficult agricultural season,186 revealing a callous disregard of the much more serious famine hitting southern Sudanese citizens, even those in government garrison towns.

In June, as the Wau caseload climbed, the agencies observed, AThe returnees are in a poor nutritional state, and there has been a sharp rise in the numbers of malnourished under five children receiving assistance. The influx of returning residents and IDPs is continuing, at a rate of about 800 persons a day.@187

As word got back that there was food and some safety in Wau, the magnet phenomenon took off. The rate of influx soared to 1,000 a day in June and by the end of June, returnees were arriving in Wau at close to 2,000 persons per day, in a poor nutritional state. The total beneficiary caseload reached 46,100 people on July 9.188 The rate of people entering Wau rose to 2,500 per day in early July, the highest rate reached until then.189

Other government-held towns also received influxes of people, although on a smaller scale. In Aweil, at least 9,000 newly arrived people need humanitarian assistance.190 The total population of Aweil was about 14,000, of whom 5,000 were internally displaced; of those, 1,000 were less than one year old.191 In Abyei and Meiram, West Kordofan, more than 15,000 people were being fed by WFP.192

By the end of July, those who were arriving in Wau were in such poor conditionCtoo malnourished and weak to prepare food for themselvesCthat an NGO, CARE International, began a special feeding program for them, providing cooked meals daily. It planned to open ten centers feeding up to 500 a day.193 Preparing the food was necessary for another reason also: the grains distributed by the WFP in Sudan are unground and must be ground or milled. Many of the displaced had lost their grinding stones during attacks or flight; at one time, there were diesel-powered machines to grind grain in Bahr El Ghazal, but those were long gone.

The ICRC, never given to overstatement, found the situation in Wau Aextremely alarming.@ It began providing intensive food assistance (cooked meals on a daily basis) to more than 700 children, their parents, and elder siblings.194 Action Contre la Faim and the International Rescue Committee also had programs.195

State Minister for Social Planning Hassan Osman Dhahawi (in charge of relief operations), visiting Wau with UNICEF director Carol Bellamy in July, said that up to fifty people were dying of hunger daily in Wau.196 He said 60 percent of the arrivals were suffering from malnutrition.197

At the end of July, after the start of the cease-fire and better food deliveries to rural Bahr El Ghazal, the rate of influx to Wau began to drop to 700 daily, but the new arrivals were Ain horrific physical condition, many having walked for weeks to reach this town,@ added the WFP.198

Migration of famine victims to Wau simply transferred the locale of demise for hundreds or perhaps thousands. In July, Save the Children reported that more than half of the children in Wau town were extremely malnourished and that nearly a quarter of these die as a result of their condition.199 The deputy governor of Western Bahr El Ghazal, Anthony Achor Michael, said the health situation in Wau had deteriorated beyond the control of government and aid agencies in the area.200 As the death toll in Wau rose, more international NGOs volunteered to assist in health and special feeding programs, in addition to the Islamic relief organizations already working in Wau, the Catholic Church, and the Sudan Council of Churches. By the end of July WFP expanded its air operation in order to keep three therapeutic and five supplementary feeding centers for 2,547 children stocked and to give 64,314 persons full general food rations, sending in 500 MT of relief food weekly.201

By early September, the rate of influx into Wau dropped off even more rapidly than it began. On August 31, 1998, there were only thirteen new arrivals into Wau. The registered relief population seemed to have leveled out at around 72,000.202 The death rate in August was very high, however, indicating that the emergency had not been contained. The deaths in Wau alone from July 12 (when reporting started) through August 11 were 1,324.203

A>What we have noticed is that whenever rain comes, the second day deaths increase drastically,=@ said one Wau aid worker.204 Rains increased at the end of August, causing deaths from malaria, dysentery, pneumonia, and bronchitis. The deluge destroyed many thatched huts (tukuls) and temporary shelters, leaving more than 30,000 displaced homeless in WauCincluding 17,000 orphans whose shelter was washed away by the rains, according to a Wau official.205

In mid-October, Save the Children reported that one hundred internally displaced persons died over recent weeks in Wau, but the numbers pouring into Wau were reduced because there was greater food availability in rural southern Sudan and the heavy rains made movement hard.206

Displaced Children in Wau

In addition to suffering from an extremely high rate of malnutrition, children in Wau had other problems. About 16,000 southern Sudanese children were given up for adoption in Wau, on account of extreme poverty, hunger, and disease. The estimated 16,000 children ages six to eleven were taken into the care of the Sudan Council of Churches, CARE International, and Dawa Islamiya (an Islamic NGO). Pointing to the precarious social status and lack of protection for widows, many of these children were given up by widows, often mothers who had already lost some of their children to starvation. Some in the orphan class were unaccompanied children from the rural areas. One boy, age twelve, said his parents died on the way to Wau. He hoped to return to the village because he found life in Wau even harder than in the village.207

In November the ICRC began to register unaccompanied children with a view to facilitating the reestablishment of family contacts, collecting detailed data on more than 120 children by mid-November.208

Sadly, in the desperate rush to find food in Wau, thousands of children were left behind with relatives or totally abandoned in rural Bahr El Ghazal, according to the OLS. Their condition deteriorated rapidly.209 Preliminary interviews showed that almost 80 percent of these unaccompanied children had relatives and that most of them knew where they were: this confirmed that Ahunger is the major cause of separation in@ Bahr El Ghazal.210

Insecurity in Wau

Consistent with its past, Wau town was full of militia in 1998: PDF, muraheleen, and Fertit militia. At least one agency believed that their menacing presence made it so unsafe for the displaced that Wau should be demilitarized of militia, although this was a political hot potato within Wau. Governor Charles Julu (who spent months in Khartoum because he was not safe in Wau after the militia attack on his house during the January fighting) would not dare suggest that the militia leave.

The suspicion that all Dinka were on the side of the SPLA was reflected in the arrangements the authorities designed for the displaced entering Wau: they established check points at five entrances to Wau, manned by security officials, through which the displaced were filtered and registered. There security officials detained many adult males and removed them to places unknown, according to their relatives.211

Visiting journalists observed that the streets of Wau were Abristling with government soldiers in the midst of rebel-held hills@ and that the listless displaced persons waiting at the feeding centers were Aguarded by militia with Kalashnikov rifles.@212 Nevertheless, they were not there to protect the displaced, and A[displaced households in Wau and Aweil complained that the food they received was taken from them by town residents.@213

Indeed, the Joint Task Force received Aseveral credible reports of diversions of humanitarian aid (particularly food) in Government controlled towns.@ The Joint Task Force, which was looking into diversion in the rural areas, received these reports from people who had left the rural areas where there was no food and went to Aweil and Wau to search for food. They told the Joint Task Force that they were forced to leave those garrison towns because of the torture and harassment they encountered there.214

In August the governmentCeven before the U.S. bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum215C withheld travel permits for foreigners. The Anormal@ time for issuance of such a permit took two weeks, but the process stopped for unexplained reasons. UNICEF announced that failure to issue these permits to forty extra medical and logistics staff from UNICEF and other agencies prevented them from increasing the number of feeding centers in Wau: the agencies wanted to double the six feeding centers already opened.216

Then the relief operations in Wau were adversely affected by the U.S. bombing of a factory in Khartoum on August 20, killing one person and injuring ten. The U.S. simultaneously bombed Islamist military camps in Afghanistan. Two U.N. staff members were shot in Kabul, Afghanistan, shortly thereafter, and the U.N. and other agencies pulled their U.S. and some other western staff out of Khartoum, Wau, and other government-controlled areas for a brief time. The International Rescue Committee operations in Wau were terminated.217 The Sudan government briefly accused a relief plane that landed in Khartoum just before the missile attack of spying for the U.S.218

In Wau the various armed groups continued to threaten the general population. A shooting incident erupted in Wau between two opposing militia forces on September 12, forcing a suspension of food distribution that day.219

As a separate security measure, the Wau authorities decided to relocate displaced people from Wau to the East Bank of the Jur River. The ICRC helped build 1,000 tukuls (mud huts), occupied by 3,500 people by early December, and a dispensary.220

174 WFP, Emergency Report No. 10 of 1998, March 6, 1998: Sudan.

175 Interview by Jeff Drumtra of USCR with former Wau civil servant, World Vision food distribution site north of Tonj, Warab state, June 21, 1998

176 Larry Minear, Humanitarianism Under Siege: A Critical Review of Operation Lifeline Sudan (Trenton, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 1991), p. 10, quoting United Nations Development Programme, ASurvey Mission to Aweil, November 30-December 1, 1988" (Khartoum).

177 Keen, The Benefits of Famine, p. 87; Burr and Collins, Requiem for the Sudan, p. 132.

178 WFP, Emergency Report No. 28 of 1998, July 10, 1998: Sudan.

179 OLS (Southern Sector), Northern Bahr El Ghazal Emergency Sitrep No. 7, covering 8-10 March, 16 March 1998.

180 WFP, Emergency Report No. 10 of 1998, March 6, 1998: Sudan.

181 Human Rights Watch interview, Nairobi, May 1, 1998.

182 The displaced who had never lived in Wau (mostly rural Dinka) soon outnumbered Wau residents among the beneficiaries. In August 1998 the former Wau residents constituted only 30 percent of the total registered relief population in Wau.

183 WFP, Emergency Report No. 22 of 1998, May 29, 1998: Sudan.

184 FAO Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture, Special Alert No. 282, Country Sudan, Date: 15 May 1998: AGrave Food Supply Difficulties in Southern Sudan and a Bleak Production Outlook for 1998@; WHO/UNICEF Mission: Nutrition.

185 WFP, Emergency Report Update as of 1 June 1998 (Sudan).

186 ASudan donates grain to Niger as Barre ends Khartoum visit,@ DPA, Khartoum, May 6, 1998.

187 WFP, Emergency Report No. 25 of 1998, June 19, 1998: Sudan.

188 WFP, Emergency Report No. 28 of 1998, July 10, 1998: Sudan.

189 WFP, Sudan Daily Bulletin No. 1, July 6 -1998 (Rome, July 7).

190 WFP, Emergency Report No. 28 of 1998, July 10, 1998: Sudan.

191 SCF, Sudan Emergency Bulletin Seven, October 15, 1998.

192 WFP, Emergency Report No. 28 of 1998, July 10, 1998: Sudan. In the 1988 famine, thousands of starving Dinka went north to Abyei where they received no food allocation at all in 1987. African Rights, Food and Power in Sudan, p. 108. In the famine summer of 1988, in Meiram, another southern Kordofan town (on the railway) to which the Dinka fled, the death rates reached unprecedented levels of one percent per day (100 deaths/10,000 people/day), far higher than any levels recorded before for famines in Africa. Ibid., p. 95. George Mulala, ASudanese family perish outside jammed food center,@ Reuters, Ajiep, Sudan, July 30, 1998.

193 WFP, Emergency Report No. 31 of 1998, July 31, 1998: Sudan.

194 ICRC, Press Release, AEmergency assistance in Bahr El Ghazal Province,@ Geneva, July 17, 1998.

195 Action Contre la Faim (ACF) announced it was sending a team to Wau to open three clinic and three therapeutic nutritional centers. AHunger group to open food centers, clinics in Sudan,@ AFP, Paris, August 4, 1998. ACF was expelled from SPLA areas by the SPLA in September 1997, on the pretext that it was engaged in spying for the government in the Labone area of Eastern Equatoria. ACF denied these charges and counterclaimed that it was expelled because it wanted to conduct a household survey to find out why in Labone, where adequate relief food was provided, the malnutrition rate was high; possibly the SPLA was diverting relief food. The ACF expulsion affected Bahr El Ghazal because ACF ran many supplementary feeding centers there, and was one of the few agencies with long presence in Bahr El Ghazal. The dispute with the SPLA was never resolved.

196 Alfred Taban, ASouth Sudan Town Swells with Starving Villagers,@ Reuters, Khartoum, July 23, 1998.

197 AMortality, malnutrition soaring in Southern Sudan: official,@ AFP, Khartoum, July 22, 1998.

198 WFP, Emergency Report No. 31 of 1998, July 31, 1998: Sudan.

199 Save the Children, Press Release, AMore than Two Million at Immediate Risk,@ Westport, Connecticut, USA, July 2, 1998.

200 AUp to 30 die each day among starving displaced persons in Sudan,@ AP, Khartoum, July 18, 1998; WHO/UNICEF Mission: health status of the population.

201 WFP, Press Release, ASeverely Malnourished in Wau Begin Receiving Cooked Food from WFP,@ Nairobi, July 31, 1998.

202 WFP, Sudan Daily Bulletin No. 36, September 9, 1998.

203 USAID, ARelief Efforts in Sudan Continue To Fall Short of Target,@ August 28, 1998.

204 Mohammed Osman, ARefugees From Famine in Sudan Town,@ AP, Wau, Sudan, August 13, 1998.

205 Nhial Bol, AMore than 30,000 Peasants Made Homeless by Heavy Rains,@ IPS, Khartoum, September 1, 1998.

206 Save the Children, AMore than Two Million at Immediate Risk.@

207 "Hunger, Poverty, Force Widows to Give Up Children,@ IPS, Wau, Southern Sudan, November 19, 1998.

208 ICRC, AUpdate No. 98/05 on ICRC Activities in Sudan, Geneva, December 6, 1998.

209 OLS (Southern Sector), Emergency Sitrep No. 11, June 30, 1998.

210 OLS (Southern Sector), Emergency Sitrep No. 14, August 1-31, 1998.

211 Confidential communication, July, 1998.

212 Erwin Jourand, ASouth Sudan famine victims await any benefits from cease-fire,@ AFP, Wau, Sudan, July 21, 1998.

213 WHO/UNICEF Mission: Food aid.

214 Joint Task Force report, p. 5.

215 This bombing and the simultaneous U.S. bombing of mujahedeen camps in Afghanistan were said to be in retaliation for the August 7 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, killing almost 250 and injuring thousands.

216 Philip Wailer, AUNICEF: Inability to get visas hindering famine relief effort,@ AP, Geneva, August 18, 1998.

217 John C. Hammock and Sue Lautze, "Sudan, The other casualty: famine relief; Missile strikes disrupt humanitarian aid for 2 million,@ Boston Globe, August 30, 1998.

218 "Sudan Claims Relief Plane Spied,@ AP, Naibori, August 30, 1998.

219 WFP, Sudan Daily Bulletin No. 44, September 14, 1998.

220 ICRC, AUpdate No. 98/05 on ICRC activities in Sudan,@ Geneva, December 6, 1998.

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