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Bahr El Ghazal and the Famine of 1998

The Bahr El Ghazal famine of 1998 had one natural cause: a two-year drought caused by El Niño that provided the natural conditions from which human violence and repression would generate the famine. But the famine itself was a product of human action.

The famine became inevitable when several types of human rights abuses converged. These included the government-backed muraheleen militia=s raiding of Bahr El Ghazal Dinka since the mid-1980s, pauperizing the rural population through the theft of cattle, looting of grain, burning of crops and homes, and seizing women and children as booty. The military train that supplied Wau and Aweil, government garrison towns in Bahr El Ghazal, also brought muraheleen horsemen and troops of the Sudanese army, who rampaged through the Dinka communities along the rail line. The railway served both to bring in the raiders and their horses and to remove their booty Ccattle, grain, and women and children abducted into slavery.

The rural Dinka communities were also assailed by raiding and looting by the government-backed forces of former rebel commander Kerubino Kuanyin Bol, himself a Bahr El Ghazal Dinka, from 1994 until late 1997, further reducing the population=s capacity to survive. Finally, the government=s persistent obstruction of relief in the region for many years and the SPLA=s looting of relief goods and Ataxation@ of civilians greatly reduced the already slender amounts of outside assistance. The cumulative effect was that by late 1997 some 250,000 people in Bahr El Ghazal, many of them internally displaced, were predicted by the U.N. to be at risk of starvation in 1998.

Help for these 250,000 might have been manageable by the OLS had it been adequately funded. Then the unforeseen intervened: Kerubino defected to the SPLA and with the SPLA tried and failed to capture the three garrison towns on January 29, 1998. Violations of the laws of warC looting by Kerubino and SPLA forces during the assaultCcontributed to the rebels= defeat.

This defeat, in an ethnically polarized town, lead to an exodus of tens of thousands of Dinkas and Jur, fearing persecution and pogroms, out of the towns into rural mostly Dinka areas controlled by the SPLA and already predicted to be at risk of famine.

Government forces killed many civilians as they fled Wau during the fighting, and for ten days afterwards, the feared attacks that may have generated the exodus proceeded, as government troops, militia, and what were believed to be mujahedeen not from Wau scoured the marketplaces and went from door to door in Dinka and Jur neighborhoods, killing many Dinka and Jur men, women, and children. Witnesses saw hundreds of bodies on the streets; and one source said the Red Crescent carried three lorries full of the bodies of those civilians to common graves during this period. Mass graves were reported near the Nazareth quarter, in the Marial Bai/Marial Ajith areas, and elsewhere, while other bodies were seen dumped into the Jur River. Bodies in an advanced state of decomposition were burned on the spot. Civilians sought sanctuary in several locations, including the governor=s residence, the Wau hospital, and the Catholic mission, but government forces reportedly entered all but the Catholic mission, killing many people inside. Estimates of the numbers killed range from several hundred to several thousand.

As soon as the OLS announced it was making emergency deliveries of relief food to the approximately 100,000 civilians who escaped this slaughter, the government on February 4 banned all relief flights into the entire rural (rebel-held) Bahr El Ghazal; the ban lasted, in essence, until March 31, 1998. The ban could not be justified as of immediate military necessity and went far beyond the geographical area of the brief fighting, in violation of customary rules of war. It was imposed to punish Kerubino, the SPLA, and the civilians living in areas they controlled. Since most food relief was delivered to remote Bahr El Ghazal by airdrops, and land and river travelCeven where logistically feasibleCwas subjected to attack, the flight ban prevented the OLS from making sufficient food deliveries to head off or blunt the famine. The small exception to the banCon February 26, permission to deliver food to four locations in rebel-held areas and two government garrison townsCexacerbated the situation by creating Aaid magnets,@ causing migration.

The famine did not diminish when the flight ban was lifted on March 31, however, or when the government gave permission for additional planes with the enormous capacity needed to deliver massive amounts of food to the starving. The start-up lag time, slow funding, and logistical difficulties cost weeks in getting food to those in need. But continued violations of the rules of war played probably a larger part in deepening and prolonging the famine.

The famine was further extended by Kerubino. As allies with the SPLA his forces were no longer raiding the Dinka, but Kerubino took the conflict into Baggara territory in April 1998, killing civilians and looting Baggara cattle (while claiming to recover cattle looted from the Dinka).

Continued government attacks on civiliansCraids and bombingsCfurther drove the famine. Although some muraheleen raids in Bahr El Ghazal may have been conducted in part in retaliation for Kerubino raids, the large army/muraheleen/Popular Defense Force (PDF) campaigns in April-July 1998 involved considerable planning and government logistical support. These raids were carried out with renewed viciousness. The government forces abducted thousands of children and women, stole tens of thousands of cattle, burned many villages to the ground, and destroyed or pillaged food supplies. The planting season (usually April to May) was also disrupted, as thousands of famine victims fled hunger and the terror of muraheleen raids, migrating from their home areas to concentrate around a few relief sites. The government=s bombing of several relief sites, in turn, killed some civilians on the spot and destabilized relief efforts.

The provision of relief to famine victims was further disrupted by the SPLA and by local chiefs, who appropriated relief food from needy civilians for redistribution to constituents according to their own criteria. The displaced without local kin, widows (who are at the bottom of the social scale even in normal times), and families with one child already receiving food from a feeding center suffered most. This diversion was an additional reason why the famine gained momentum in the rural areas despite international efforts. Hunger and muraheleen raiding together ultimately caused many Dinka to flee for safety and food into the garrison towns under the government=s controlCwhere they faced the threat of renewed ethnic violence.

The actions of government and opposition forces combined to make the death rate on account of the famine shoot up, including in the largest town in Bahr El Ghazal, Wau, where 72,000 famine migrants were registered from May to August, again filling up a town where whole neighborhoods were deserted on January 29. Restrictions on movement of the displaced in Wau and other towns threatened to limit their ability to cultivate. The reported detention and torture of many adult male displaced and the harassment of others, as well as a lack of protection for the displaced from the theft of food by town residents, meant they remained at risk.

In Aweil, northern government military forces were reportedly responsible for the June 1998 massacre of thirteen southern men, mostly bodyguards of the governor. Although Riek Machar, leader of the former rebel groups who signed a peace agreement with the government, complained that justice had not been done, it appears that the abusive army forces were never punished.

After a July 15 cease-fire for humanitarian purposes took effect in Bahr El Ghazal, a joint task force of rebel, U.N. and nongovernmental organizations, the SPLA/SRRA-OLS Joint Targeting Vulnerabilities Task Force in SPLM Controlled Areas of Bahr El Ghazal (Joint Task Force), conducted an assessment of the reasons relief was not reaching the neediest people in Bahr El Ghazal. They, too, recognized the rights abuses that propelled the food crisis into a famine, while citing non-human rights factors as well. Their ranking of the complex set of factors contributing to the famine during its first three phases is attached as Appendix A to this report. The Joint Task Force recommended improvements in the system of food distribution to help protect the vulnerable.

The cease-fire was extended by the government and SPLA in Bahr El Ghazal at the behest of the international community in three-month increments, to last until April 15, 1999. This positive development was clouded by the announcement that Kerubino, after an apparent assassination attempt on SPLA leader John Garang in Nairobi in November 1998, had returned to the government town of Bentiu, Western Upper Nile, having again left the SPLA, and was negotiating with the government to return to his role as a government-sponsored warlord in Bahr El Ghazal.

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