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Government and rebel human rights abuses caused major famines in southern and central Sudan in 1998, where a fifteen-year civil war continued. Militia and army looting of food supplies (cattle and grain), killing or kidnapping of civilians, burning of homes, disrupting relief efforts, and displacing of hundreds of thousands were among the major causes of the famines. The Islamist government fought the southern and Nuba Mountains-based Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in the south and central Sudan, while facing new challenges nationwide from a broad coalition of armed opposition movements, united since 1995 in the Eritrea-based National Democratic Alliance (NDA). This brought together the SPLA, marginalized peoples of the east, banned northern-based political parties, and secular nationalist forces. What was once portrayed as a war between the Muslim north and the non-Muslim south became more complex, as northern Arab-speaking Muslims — and southerners of various religions — fought on both sides in new areas of conflict.

Government and some opposition forces violated the laws of war through attacks on civilians, summary executions, arbitrary and often unacknowledged detentions, and the looting and destruction of civilian property. Government forces continued to violate international norms by forcibly recruiting underage soldiers and militia. Reports of underage SPLA recruitment dropped off sharply as the SPLA embarked on an agency-assisted program to demobilize underage soldiers and prevent further such recruitment.

The government indiscriminately bombed rebel areas, often causing civilian casualties; it also deliberately bombed civilian structures in rebel territory, such as hospitals and relief sites, and its militias abducted women and children to use as slave labor, as a form of war booty. Outside of the war zones, the government continued a long policy of repression of the rights to peaceable assembly, to free association, and to free expression, while targeting the Catholic Church for its criticism of government policies infringing religious freedom and discriminating against Christians. It arbitrarily detained political opponents and tried them in courts lacking fundamental guarantees of fairness, often using confessions obtained through torture.

The induced famine hit hardest in rebel-controlled areas of Bahr El Ghazal in southwestern Sudan, the Nuba Mountains, and in the southern region of Western Upper Nile, where the rebels were absent but two government militias contended for control. The causes of the Bahr El Ghazal famine included the government’s counterinsurgency strategy of targeting civilians believed to support the SPLA, particularly the Dinka, the most numerous of the nineteen major ethnic groups of Sudan. Since 1986 the Dinka of Bahr El Ghazal have been raided, their cattle and other food supplies stolen, and women and children abducted as slave labor by the government-armed muraheleen , an Arab nomad militia. Kerubino Kuanyin Bol, a Dinka former SPLA commander, also pillaged Bahr El Ghazal after he defected to the government in 1994. This laid the ground for the Bahr El Ghazal famine of 1998.

In January 1998, Kerubino rejoined the SPLA, in an unsuccessful attack on Wau, the largest Bahr El Ghazal town. When this failed, most of the town’s fearful Dinka population fled with them; government forces reportedly summarily executed several hundred Dinka who remained behind. Their sudden flight into the area where the famine was developing heightened the crisis.

The government crippled the U.N.’s cross-border relief program, Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), preventing it from meeting the already assessed needs of an estimated 250,000 people in rural Bahr El Ghazal, plus the estimated 100,000 Dinka fleeing expected government massacres. It imposed a ban on OLS flights to Bahr El Ghazal, from February 4 to March 31, with minor exceptions that only exacerbated the food crisis. After the flight ban was lifted, the muraheleen and army continued to strike at the vulnerable rural and displaced population, further depleting their cattle and grain stores, and kidnaping hundreds more Dinka children, this time with the excuse that the SPLA and Kerubino were raiding the muraheleen territory and stealing their cattle. The government and SPLA agreed to a three month ceasefire for the Bahr El Ghazal famine area at the urgent behest of the international community, starting July 15; it was later agreed to extend it to January 15, 1999. The government sought to expand the ceasefire geographically. The famine was expected to last until late 1999; poor rains and insecurity prevented sufficient cultivation in 1998.

By August 1998, the World Food Program was making much larger food airlifts to southern Sudan than ever before, and larger than its previous airlifts anywhere in the world. The very high mortality rate appeared to peak in July and August but still remained high. A ground-breaking joint U.N./SPLA team investigated whether relief was reaching the intended beneficiaries, and found that those shortchanged were the displaced who were without kinship ties or local chiefly representation, and widows. The local chiefs played a larger role in diversion, and SPLA soldiers, previously thought wholly responsible for diversion, a smaller role than thought. The diversion in government areas, historically carried out by army-merchant-militia cartels, remained to be investigated. Because of poor rains and little planting due to insecurity, the need for high levels of food relief is projected to extend until late 1999.

Famine also threatened another area of the south, Western Upper Nile, where two government militias struggled for control of the location of Sudan’s principal oil fields. The southern pro-government groups belonged to Riek Machar and Paulino Matiep,both ethnic Nuer, a Nilotic people related to the Dinka. Riek Machar, leader of a breakaway SPLA faction, signed a political agreement with Khartoum in 1996. Paulino Matiep, the head of a militia based in the oil field area and never in the SPLA, was armed directly by the government to counterbalance Riek after Kerubino’s defection, an example of the government’s policy of playing one southern group off against the other. The government arranged four ceasefires; none held. The militias destroyed and looted property, including feeding centers. Hundreds were killed. Operation Lifeline Sudan was unable to reach the estimated 150,000 people at risk of starvation there for months due to this insecurity.

Food shortages threatened Eastern Equatoria in the south even as fighting between the government and SPLA for control of garrison towns there heated up. The United Nations estimated that 2.4 million persons in the south were at risk of famine, almost one tenth of Sudan’s estimated population of 27 million people.

Not even included in the southern famine total were the approximately 400,000 people of the SPLA-held areas of the Nuba Mountains, located in the center of Sudan. There the government continued its efforts to starve civilians out of rebel-held areas into government “peace villages.” Army troops and Nuba collaborators captured and relocated or killed civilians. They looted and burned villages, animals, and grain. A permanent government blockade, in place since the beginning of the war, barred all U.N. relief operations and even traders from the rebel areas of the Nuba Mountains. A private assessment in March estimated 20,000 civilians there were at risk of starvation.

In May the government promised the U.N. secretary-general to permit the first ever U.N. needs assessment in the rebel-held Nuba areas, but reneged on this in June following an ambush and the killing of three government-based aid workers by unknown persons. The U.N. continued to supply relief to the government’s “peace villages” but not to the communities on the rebel side.

On the eastern front, the Beja Congress, Sudan Alliance Forces (SAF), and Umma Party fighters, and the SPLA posed a threat to the main road between Khartoum and the Red Sea, and to the Rosaires Dam which provides electricity to Khartoum. Fighting, including shelling, drove tens of thousands of civilians from their homes; government forces detained and tortured others, according to testimonies.

These rebel advances in the east and south led the government to call for more volunteers to fight “foreign aggression,” as the government claimed Eritrean and Ugandan troops fought with the rebels in the east and south. Eritrea and Uganda in turn accused Sudan of harboring, training, and supplying Eritrean and Ugandan rebels. (Similar charges against Ethiopia apparently were dropped in an attempt to improve relations; Sudan still sponsored Islamist Ethiopian rebels.)

The most notorious abuser among the Sudan-sponsored rebel groups was the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan group based in southern Sudan whose main recruits were Ugandan children it kidnapped and tortured, forcing them to be soldiers or “wives” (as young as twelve years old) for the LRA officers. Testimony of escaped children made it clear that the LRA was based in several locations in government-controlled southern Sudan and fights inside Sudan against the SPLA as well as in northern Uganda, with arms provided by the Sudan government. In October the Ugandan government claimed that Sudan’s planes bombed its territory several times, once near Sudanese refugee camps inside Uganda. Sudan claimed that Ugandan troops were fighting inside Sudan (Eastern Equatoria) together with the SPLA. In late 1998, reports circulated that Sudanese troops were fighting on the side of the Congo government inside Congo; Khartoum denied these reports.

The Sudan government’s attempts to expand its armed forces and militia to a staggering 665,000 were set back by arbitrary conscription methods and brutality, and by rumors that draftees were poorly trained and disproportionately dying on the southern front. The Sudan government’s military conscription campaign ran into resistance by young student draftees; in April some tried to break out of a training camp at Al-Eilafoun south of Khartoum and government soldiers shot into the crowd. Frightened youth were shot or drowned in the Nile as they tried to escape. More than one hundred died; the government said fifty-five drowned in a “boating accident.” In October the government called for 50,000 more “volunteers” to defend the country.

The Sudanese war and famine were overtaken on August 20 by the bombing without warning by the United States of a privately-owned pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum on August 20. The attack was in response to the August 7 terrorist bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed hundreds and injured thousands. The U.S. alleged that Osama bin Laden masterminded these attacks and had an interest in the factory; bin Laden, a financier of “Afghan Arabs” and other Islamist militants, lived in Khartoum until 1996. He has been stripped of his Saudi citizenship earlier. The U.S. claimed the factory contained a precursor to deadly nerve gas and was linked to Iraq, but would not accept a U.N. chemical weapons inspection of the bombing site after the attack.

The Sudan government bombed its own civilian population in the south, east, and in the Nuba Mountains. Among numerous such bombings was the March 1998 bombing of a hospital in Yei, southern Sudan, killing seven and wounding others; the hospital was bombed again in September, killing one. In the first few months of 1998, fourteen relief sites in southern Sudan were bombed by the government.

The SPLA had not instituted a judicial system or any mechanism for civilians to complain about arbitrary actions by local commanders, which ranged from food diversion or looting to forced conscription, rape, and summary execution. Although some commanders showed greater respect for the civilian populations, this appeared to be the result of personality rather than SPLA policy. SPLM reformers complained that SPLM leader John Garang promulgated a constitution by executive order instead of submitting it for SPLM debate and promulgation. An SPLA military intelligence officer, Maj. Marial Nuor, was accused of many summary executions and the detention in 1996 of a priest and nuns. He was court martialed by the SPLA and sentenced to five years—for mutiny—but was not sanctioned for the killings or abductions. People reported detained by the SPLA years ago but never acknowledged remained unaccounted for. The SPLA released most of several thousand Sudan government forces it had captured in battle; released prisoners complained of inadequate food and very poor conditions of detention. The government, with few exceptions, did not report any captures of combatants.
Fighting between rebel groups in the south, often pitting predominately Dinka against Nuer groups, had persisted since 1991, when Riek Machar broke away from the SPLA and formed a separate rebel faction. The government took advantage of preexisting rivalries among southerners, accomplishing a divide and conquer goal in 1996 by signing a Political Charter with two southern faction leaders who had been fighting the SPLA for years: Riek Machar and Kerubino Kuanyin Bol. A Peace Agreement with them and others in 1997 formalized an understanding that their forces would fight with the government against the SPLA: by late 1998, however, many of the signatories were dead and a major player in the Peace Agreement, Kerubino, had defected back to the SPLA.

Trying to end intertribal violence, the New Sudan Council of Churches (comprising church leaders from rebel territory) held a consultation in June with Nuer and Dinka leaders. This grassroots initiative sought to heal splits along ethnic lines.

Arms flows to all sides continued to fuel the war. Both sides used antipersonnel landmines, despite the government’s signature of the Mine Ban Treaty on December 4, 1997.

In northern Sudan, the National Islamic Front (NIF) continued to hold the power it seized in a 1989 military coup that overthrew a (multiparty) elected government. The government continued to exert control by criminal trials of its political opponents, often on charges carrying the death penalty. Confessions coerced through torture and ill-treatment were admissible in trials, and the government intimidated and arrested defense attorneys. The opposition slate for the December 1997 bar association elections, composed of non-NIF lawyers, alleged that government agents and NIF advocates rigged the elections.

Thirteen men, mostly detained in Port Sudan in 1997, were accused in a specially constituted criminal court for violations of the state of emergency law, inciting war against the government, conspiracy to prepare bombings and assassinations of public figures, conspiracy to recruit active and retired officers for the opposition armed forces, and espionage for a foreign country. Two persons were tried in absentia with them. Nine were convicted in August 1998 after a trial based on coerced confessions and other violations of due process. Their sentences ranged between five and ten years imprisonment. In Wad Medani four young civilian men (ages sixteen to twenty), denied counsel of their choice, were being tried in a military tribunal.

Following some nine detonations of bombs in Khartoum in June, which the government claimed caused little damage and no casualties, the government detained more than thirty people for “sabotage,” including former political party activists, former trade unionists, former high-ranking government officials, military officers, businessmen, and Muslim leaders. Also detained was the secretary general of the Ansar movement, a large Sunni Muslim sect linked to the banned Umma Party, who had been sentenced to five months in jail in January for a homily critical of the Islamist ruling party. After months in detention, he and an Umma Party official were released.

Others detained during that crackdown were not so fortunate. On October 5 the government began a trial of twenty of these detainees (and six in absentia). They were accused of planning and executing a bombing campaign in June, waging war against the state, endangering Sudan’s independence, opposing the authorities by use of force, and holding illegal meetings. The ringleader of the plot was alleged to be a Catholic priest, Father Hillary Boma, chancellor of the archdiocese of Khartoum; also accused was his colleague, Father Lino Sebit. Father Boma was reportedly coerced to “confess” in order to stop the torture of Father Sebit. The defendants were not permitted to speak to counsel before the opening of the trial. Of the twenty accused and present in court, eighteen were said to be Christians; although tried by a military tribunal, all but one were civilians.

The government also repressed all political meetings and demonstrations not sponsored by it or the National Congress, the new name for the NIF. In December 1997, less than one hundred women peacefully protesting forced conscription were set upon by security agents and beaten, in full view of U.N. employees. Some thirty-eight of them were detained, tried by a Public Order Court the same night, flogged, and released.

Attempting to impose its interpretation of Islam on women, the government enacted laws providing for sex segregation in public transport, tailoring shops, and hairdressers, although women did regain the right to drive government vehicles. In a departure from Sudanese custom, the government forbade women from dancing with men or in their presence during folklore celebrations or wedding parties. Four women reportedly faced the death penalty on adultery and other charges in December 1997 until an international outcry was raised; only women were known to have received death sentences for adultery in recent years.

Hopes for a restoration of civil and political rights were dashed in the final stages of drafting a new constitution. In mid-1998 NIF leader Hassan al Turabi removed from the draft constitution an article explicitly permitting political parties and substituted a vague and rarely used archaic Arabic term, al-tawali, whose meaning is concatenation, rather than the standard Arabic word for political party, hizb , used in the draft. To test the limits of the wording, would-be political party activists announced they would reopen their party offices, banned since 1989; many party activists were detained on sabotage charges shortly thereafter. Two were released in October when government and National Congress officials announced a draft bill permitting “political organisations” to register; the bill should take effect in January 1999 and would bar political participation by individuals who had been convicted of treason, among other things.

The government continued to deny permits for the construction of any Christian churches, while readily issuing permits to build mosques. In late December 1997, it confiscated the building erected by and housing the Catholic Club of Khartoum, and refused to compensate the church. The archbishop of Khartoum, detained briefly in connection with a long-dormant civil suit by a merchant, was thereby prevented from attending SPLA-government peace talks in May in Nairobi. In July 1998, government bulldozers razed an accredited Catholic school built on archdiocese land at an official displaced persons camp. Other Christian schools and churches were razed on the pretext of slum clearance.

A Nuba teacher living in the north was reportedly charged with “apostasy” (converting from Islam to another religion) in July 1998; apostasy carries the death penalty. In contrast, in June 1998, about 1,600 men and women from southern Sudan and the Nuba mountains converted to Islam at a mass ceremony in Khartoum, where a government official exhorted them to be the “vanguard forIslam in the south,” a reflection of the government’s Islamization policy. An estimated 60 percent of Sudan is Muslim and the rest adherents of Christian or traditional African religions.




The Democratic Republic of Congo







Sierra Leone

South Africa





Stop the Use of Child Soldiers

Abduction and Enslavement of Ugandan Children

Human Rights Causes of the Famine in Sudan


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Human RIghts Watch