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The Military Supply Train to Wau and the Diversion of Aid

The use of rail routes to transport large quantities of food is a tempting alternative to the costly air bridge. In 1962 the Sudan railroad was extended from Babanusa in Southern Kordofan to Aweil and Wau, and Wau is still its southernmost point.34 The railroad reaches no other part of the south.

Attempts to use this railway to transport relief food to the famine-displaced in Wau, Aweil, and other locations along the line were completely defeated by government negligence, diversion, and corruption and by SPLA attacks during the 1988 famine. Both sides blocked access and looted land convoys (including vehicles) at the height of the 1988 famine.35

Although the track went as far south as Wau, by 1987 the track from Aweil to Wau, ninety-one miles, was completely abandoned to weeds and disuse. During the 1988 famine the train only reached Aweil, although before the war, the train from Babanusa went to Aweil and Wau at least twice a week.36

In the mid-1980s, trains from Babanusa to Aweil, which carried merchants= goods as well as some relief supplies, Adid not move from Babanusa without the consent and active cooperation of the army.@37 Perhaps five or six merchants in Babanusa had sufficient funds to be able to afford to pay government officials for Apermission@ to take their goods by train to Aweil, where they could make a handsome profit.38 Despite little SPLA presence in 1986, only small amounts of relief food were sent by train in 1986. A train arrived in Aweil in August 1986 with no relief food whatsoever.39

Under pressure from the donors to make sure that relief reached northern Bahr El Ghazal, Minister of Transport Fadallah Burma Nasir in May 1987 promised donors that three trains with 108 wagons full of food would be delivered monthly to Aweil. In fact only nineteen wagons were sent in one delivery during the four months from May to September 1987, and none at all were sent from October 1987 to February 1988. Some 600 tons of food were "discovered" in railway wagons at the Babanusa junction in September 1988, where they had sat for months.40

In March 1988, three trains finally arrived in Aweil with a total of seventy-one cars. Of these, more than half were military: fifteen were filled with grain for the army and twenty-one with soldiers and military goods. Eighteen carried merchants= goods and only seventeen carried relief; that was a larger proportion of relief than carried on any other train in the period from March 1986 to April 1989.41

After these three trains with military escorts, there were no trains until January 1989. During the period of the worst famine, trains did not bring any relief at all to Bahr El Ghazal, although they could have.

One reason the trains were stopped was to prevent the movement northward of those displaced by the famine. Many Dinka fleeing war and drought took the train, the most convenient form of transport out of Bahr El Ghazal since the tributaries of the White Nile are not always navigable and roads are unusable up to eight months a year. Because the railway between Aweil and Wau to the south was unusable, the train went one direction from Aweil: north.42 On April 22, 1988, a train from Aweil arrived in Khartoum with 7,000 malnourished displaced people. Six children died on arrival at the Khartoum railway station, and the press reported it. The publicity was an embarrassment to the government. No further trains left Aweil until 1989, after the famine had subsided.43

The train became a factor in peace negotiations. In November 1988 one large political party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), reached an accord with the SPLA. The DUP recognized that the success or failure of the peace process was intimately linked with the success or failure of the relief trains; relief trains that functioned would be a sign of good faith to the SPLA and would demonstrate the feasibility of further negotiations with the SPLA. The DUP had strong ties with many military officers, so that military permission to use the trains for relief began to be forthcoming.44

The National Islamic Front was anxious to prevent a successful relief train operation; it consistently opposed any negotiations with the SPLA. The NIF-abetted opposition to relief-only trains in Southern Kordofan grew stronger as the trains grew more imminent. 45 When the NIF came to power through a military coup on June 30, 1989, the entire relief operation was put in jeopardy.

Efforts to use the railway to supply Wau and Aweil garrison towns with food for the thousands of displaced foundered under OLS. In April 1989, at the beginning of OLS= operations:

it was still a race against time to save an estimated 100,000 lives considered at risk in Southern Sudan, yet although the planes took off, the trains stood still. . . .

The UN flagged train finally left Muglad [Kordofan] in the dawn of 20 May [1989] loaded with nearly 1,500 tons of sorghum. It reached Meiram by noon, but beyond there the poorly maintained tracks and roadbed forced the convoy to a crawl. . . . The following day the train was stopped ten miles south of the [Bahr al Arab] river by about 200 murahileen, a >rag-tag band . . . young and nervous and interested in looting.= They were well armed, ill disciplined, and looking for khawajas [whites, foreigners]. [The UN=s Bryan] Wannop and the UN monitors were marched to the bush, robbed, and stripped and would likely have been killed if the train crew had not intervened. The crew argued passionately for their release, and after collecting SL 3,240 from their own pockets, ransomed them from the militia.46

For the rest of the 1990s the railway from Babanusa to Wau was used for military resupply and some commerce, but the SPLA targeted the train to prevent resupply of the garrison towns. The train therefore was escorted by a large contingent of muraheleen, Popular Defense Forces, and army, slowly checking for land mines and sabotage. This trip, which in theory should take only days, now takes weeks. Apparently the track between Aweil and Wau was repaired for military purposes. The train goes to Aweil and Wau, however, only two or three times a year.47

Not all the delay is due to repair work. The government forces, particularly the muraheleen, use this massive gathering of armed force to wreak havoc on the villages closer to the railroad, looting cattle and grain, and abducting women and children.48

A cable written by the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, later declassified at the request of a member of Congress, claimed that between late 1992 and February/March 1993, two military trains took an estimated 3,000 (mostly muraheleen PDF) troops from Babanusa to Wau. Along the way they burned houses, stole cattle, and captured people. They used their horses to extend the range of military attacks on civilian villages. These forces were reported to have captured 300 women and children, using them for forced labor. They raped scores of women.49

In 1995, military trains but no relief trains arrived in Wau. The lack of train transport coupled with a decrease in barge cargo to Wau in 1995 reduced relief reaching Wau to one-fifth the 1994 volume.50

The train instead was used to divert food aid intended for Wau to Ed Daien [Al Diein] in Southern Darfur, with some 1,442.6 MT Aredirected@ after the train reached Babanusa.51 A military train did make the journey from Babanusa to Wau, however, guarded by soldiers and militia who looted and captured women and children from villages along the way. The SPLA attacked the train and its Aprotectors,@ who fled with their captives to Aweil; the (southern) police chief at Aweil prevented the militia and soldiers from taking the estimated 500 women and children with them when they left Aweil. The militia and soldiers managed to hold on to the estimated 3,000 head of cattle they pillaged from the villages, however.52

In the 1998 famine, the government used the tragedy as a pretext to seek a lifting of the stiff U.S. economic sanctions imposed on Sudan in November 1997 so that it could acquire U.S. spare parts for the military Babanusa-Wau train. It claimed that the U.S. sanctions were "hindering relief operations" and preventing use of trains for moving relief supplies from north to south by barring imports of spare parts for U.S.-made locomotives.53 The U.N. gave some consideration to using the Babanusa-Wau train in a "humanitarian corridor,"54 although aware of the abusive role of the train in recent history. No doubt the government counts on donors discounting past train fiascos and disregarding current muraheleen train-facilitated slave-taking raids.

In November 1998, the SPLA, the Sudan government, and the U.N. reached an agreement for the repair of the railway and its use to transport clearly marked U.N. humanitarian relief convoys to Wau, under certain conditions.55 It remains to be seen whether this improves or worsens the human rights and famine conditions in the region.

For the long run, Iran in July 1998 agreed to provide the state-run Sudan railway with 500 goods boxcars.56

SPLA Restrictions on Access and Diversion in the 1988 Famine

Government garrison towns also suffered from SPLA sieges, in a strategy intended to starve them into surrender. Starting in 1986, the SPLA blocked relief efforts to Juba (refusing permission for sixty relief lorries in February 1986), and threatened to shoot down flights to Wau in September 1986. Indeed, the SPLA shot down a civilian plane in Malakal on August 16, 1986, killing sixty persons. This had the immediate effect of causing the ICRC to abandon its emergency airlift to Wau, which had just started two days earlier, on August 14, 1986.57 The SPLA has never quite lived down the negative image the Malakal downing created among northern Sudanese.58

In some cases, such as Torit in Eastern Equatoria, the SPLA siege strategy worked, although roundly denounced by the Catholic church and others for the civilian suffering it caused, and Torit fell in 1988.

The SPLA's siege strategy of the late 1980s and early 1990s made no concessions for civilians in government areas.59 In part this was because the SPLA saw that the bulk of relief went to the government side, which was used to shore up resistance in garrison towns.

Currently the SPLA maintains sieges of all government garrison towns where it controls the surrounding rural areas, but it no longer takes a hard line against relief to garrison towns. It rarely withholds its permission for OLS to serve government areas or towns or threatens to shoot down planes. Its sieges are enforced by attacks on vehicles and mining of roads.

34 Holt and Daly, A History of the Sudan, p. 177. The railroad does not pass through Gogrial.

35 African Rights, Food and Power in Sudan, p. 247.

36 Alier, Southern Sudan, p. 283.

37 Keen, The Benefits of Famine, p. 116.

38 Ibid., p. 117.

39 Ibid., p. 141.

40 Ibid., pp. 142-44. Fadallah Burma Nasir, now as then an Umma Party member, has been jailed frequently by the Bashir government for alleged conspiracies and other illegal opposition activities.

41 Ibid., pp. 142-43.

42 The Sudan government likes to point to the existence of almost two million internally displaced southerners in Khartoum as proof that it does not abuse their rights, the implication being that they would not go to Khartoum otherwise. This sounds plausible only to those who are not familiar with the extremely rudimentary transportation system in Sudan, and the difficult geography of Bahr El Ghazal. Many internally displaced in Khartoum are from Bahr El Ghazal because, logistically, the trip is easier on the railroad, which is one of the few avenues of transportation for that region. The train only goes north. Whatever economic opportunities there are in this underdeveloped country are generally found in the capital.

43 Keen, The Benefits of Famine, p. 127.

44 Ibid., p. 168.

45 Ibid., p. 171.

46 Burr and Collins, Requiem for the Sudan, pp. 198-99 (footnotes omitted).

47 Human Rights Watch interview, Martin Marial. Estimates vary. Another source said, "The train went to Wau four to six times in all from 1992 to 1997 (there was no train in January 1998). The supplies are airlifted from El Obeid to Wau in cargo planes.@ Human Rights Watch interview, Nairobi, May 8, 1998.

48 Ibid.

49 U.S. Embassy Cable, attached to letter from Robert A. Bradtke, Acting Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs, U.S. Department of State, May 1993, to The Honorable Frank R. Wolf, House of Representatives.

50 OLS Review, p. 247.

51 OLS Review, Appendix II, p. IV, Figure A.5.

52 Human Rights Watch/Africa, Children of Sudan, pp. 41-42.

53 Mohamed Ali Saeed, "Sudan's junta calls for more aid, broadening of ceasefire," AFP, Khartoum, July 21, 1998, quoting Minister for Social Planning Maj.-Gen. Hassan Osman Dhahawi.

54 WFP, Press Release, Khartoum, July 16, 1998.

55 Minimum Operational Standards for Rail Corridors and Cross-Line Road Corridors, signed in Rome, November 18, 1998.

56 "Iran to supply Sudan with railway carriages," DPA, Khartoum, July 15, 1998.

57 Africa Watch, Denying the Honor of Living, p. 108.

58 The current government of Sudan shot down a civilian plane belonging to MSF-France on December 21, 1989, as it took off from Aweil. The government denied responsibility and claimed the plane was struck by an SPLA missile but it was hit by a missile fired from a location not more than 200 meters from the houses of the MSF personnel, inside government-controlled Aweil. Burr and Collins, Requiem for the Sudan, pp. 260-61. The government=s flight bans impliedly carry the threat of shooting down any plane venturing into its sovereign airspace without permission. That is sufficient for insurance companies.

59 African Rights, Food and Power in the Sudan, p. 99.

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