Get AfricaFocus Bulletin by e-mail!
Print this page
This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published
by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action
from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived
document may not work.
Sudan: Famine and Human Rights
Sudan: Famine and Human Rights
Date distributed (ymd): 980723
Document reposted by APIC
Region: East Africa
Issue Areas: +political/rights+ +security/peace+
Summary Contents: This posting contains a press release and a background
paper from Human Rights Watch / Africa, documenting the role of human rights
abuses in causing the massive famine now afflicting that country.
HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH BACKGROUND PAPER
ON THE 1998 FAMINE IN BAHR EL GHAZAL, SUDAN
(Washington, DC, July 23, 1998)--
Human Rights Watch cautions that a three-month ceasefire in southern
Sudan may fall apart if the government and the rebels do not take the measures
necessary to protect human rights.
Gross human rights abuses in the fifteen-year war have caused and aggravated
the famine in Bahr El Ghazal, the hardest-hit region in southern Sudan.
The ceasefire should end abusive military strategies--such as targeting
civilians and their cattle--that have stripped assets from the civilians,
debilitated their survival coping mechanisms, and repeatedly displaced
Two parties to the fighting in Bahr El Ghazal especially need to be
brought under control: the government-sponsored Arab tribal militia (muraheleen),
and the forces of Cmdr. Kerubino Kuanyin Bol, a Dinka warlord who ravaged
the area while aligned with the government and recently rejoined the Sudan
People's Liberation Army (SPLA). Human Rights Watch calls on both of these
parties, the government, and the SPLA, to:
- cease all targeted and indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian
- end looting and punish the looters, as well as those who buy and sell
- respect freedom of movement so that anyone may move to and from rural
areas to cultivate;
- end arbitrary detentions of persons fleeing the famine; protect the
safety of the displaced;
- permit international monitoring of relief efforts, with access for
nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) not aligned with any party;
- cease manipulation and diversion of relief goods and other food belonging
to civilian populations;
- the government should pledge not to use the Babanusa-Wau train for
military resupply during the famine, but to reserve all wagons or boxcars
for relief; the SPLA should not attack any train dedicated to relief; international
monitors should ride on the train to guarantee its proper use and to deter
SPLA attacks; and
- those who caused the famine should be expected to defray its cost:
the government can contribute grain from a good harvest in western Sudan,
and the SPLA might contribute the labor of its soldiers for humanitarian
purposes during the ceasefire.
A background paper on how human rights abuses have caused the famine
in Sudan is attached. A fuller report follows this summer.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
July 23, 1998
For further information, contact:
Jemera Rone 202-371-6592 x 136 (Washington, DC) 202-332-8455
Peter Takirambudde 212-216-1223 (New York)
Jean-Paul Marthoz 32-2-736-7838 (Brussels)
Urmi Shah 44-171-713-1995 (London)
For general background on Human Rights Watch: http://www.hrw.org
HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH BACKGROUND PAPER ON THE 1998 FAMINE IN BAHR
EL GHAZAL, SUDAN
How Human Rights Abuses Caused the Disaster
A ceasefire has been in effect since mid-July in Bahr El Ghazal for
the explicit purpose of delivery of humanitarian relief to the 701,000
people there at risk of starvation. Bahr El Ghazal is the most affected
region of Sudan, but it is not the only one. Western Upper Nile also in
the south is affected by fighting among government-supported militias.
In southern Sudan 2.4 million are at risk of starvation, and in all Sudan,
2.6 million Sudanese--approximately ten percent of Sudan's 27 million population--are
at risk, according to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). This
number does not even include the estimated 100,000 at risk in the SPLA-held
areas of the Nuba Mountains, where the government has steadfastly refused
international access. History is repeating itself. Massive human rights
abuses by muraheleen raiders in exactly the same locations were primary
causes of the 1988 famine, in which an estimated 250,000 (mostly Dinka)
perished. Efforts to stem the 1988 famine were not effective because the
human rights abuses that caused that famine were not stopped. [See David
Keen, The Benefits of Famine (Princeton University Press, 1994), an in-depth
study of the 1988 Bahr El Ghazal famine.] The extent of the deaths led
the international community to create Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), a
United Nations cross-border emergency relief program.
As in 1988, the primary victims of the Bahr El Ghazal famine are the
Dinka--black Africans that speak Dinka, and are Christians or believers
in the traditional Dinka religion. The leader and many members of the rebel
SPLA are Dinka, and the government tends to identify all Dinka as SPLA
"fifth columnists." For the Dinka, cattle are the most important
social asset (bride wealth), their milk is an essential nutritional source
during the dry season, and cattle are sold or slaughtered only as a last
resort during food shortages; such sales are now underway.
Human Rights Causes of the 1998 Bahr El Ghazal Famine
In October 1997, the OLS forecast that Bahr El Ghazal would have an
at-risk population of 250,000 in early 1998, a large number but probably
manageable by the OLS. There was one natural cause drought produced by
El Nino and three long-term human rights causes for this food shortage.
They all contributed to the overall weakening of the safety net through
which the rural Dinka usually coped. Then events spun out of control and
a series of human rights abuses propelled a serious food shortage affecting
250,000 into a famine affecting 701,000.
Human Rights Cause One: raiding, burning homes and markets, looting,
killing, and slave-taking of rural Bahr El Ghazal civilians by the government-backed
muraheleen militia of Arabized cattle nomads since the mid-1980s. The Baggara
people who form these militias are Muslims of the Ansar sect, historically
powerful in Sudan although their areas of western Sudan (Darfur and Kordofan)
are undergoing dessertification and famine, last in 1984-85. They are traditional
rivals of their Dinka neighbors to the south for the dry season cattle
watering holes in Dinka territory, on which they are encroaching by attrition
of raids and displacement of the Dinka. The government has blocked local
attempts between the Baggara and the Dinka to reach peace agreements. The
government pretends that the muraheleen's twelve years of depredations
in Bahr El Ghazal are "traditional" tribal disagreements not
under its control. In fact the muraheleen are a central part of its counterinsurgency
strategy, are armed and officered by the army, and are officially part
of its Popular Defense Forces.
Human Rights Cause Two: This famine has Kerubino's footprints all over
it. Kerubino, more of a warlord than a disciplined military leader, has
a history of extensive raiding and looting of Bahr El Ghazal civilians
from 1994 until late 1997, the four years he was in effect supported by
the government--although he and his victims were all Dinka. He switched
sides again in January 1998, and now he is the SPLA's responsibility.
Human Rights Cause Three: SPLA looting of civilians and relief agencies,
manipulation and diversion of relief food, and continued siege policy of
using land mines and ambushes to prevent all overland traffic in southern
Sudan. This interdiction of land and river transport--along with other
factors such as on-going military operations, seasonal floods, and difficult
terrain--has increased the cost of OLS operations in southern Sudan by
requiring airdrops of relief food, the most expensive delivery system.
Human Rights Cause Four: Kerubino's and the SPLA's looting that led
to the failure of their attack on Wau, Aweil and Gogrial in January 1998.
In late 1997, Kerubino, based in the garrison town of Wau, decided to redefect
to the SPLA and attempt to capture Wau and the other two towns by a Trojan
Horse maneuver. In late December several thousand SPLA troops, pretending
to "surrender" to the government, came into Wau with their weapons
The fighting lasted only hours on January 29, 1998. The rebel forces
stopped to loot before they had total control of Wau, and the government
regrouped and turned its heavy guns on the rebels. The rebels withdrew
from Wau, and held on only a little in the other two towns.
This was a disaster for the tens of thousands of Dinkas living in the
three towns. Fearing government retribution against them as Dinkas, they
fled en masse with only the clothes on their backs right into the only
ethnically safe place for them, the rebel-controlled areas already predicted
to be at risk for famine. Even as they fled, however, some were looted
by SPLA soldiers. The WFP started to air drop food to these estimated 150,000
Human Rights Cause Five: On February 4, the government promptly banned
all relief flights into Bahr El Ghazal, a ban that lasted essentially for
two months (February 4-April 2, 1998), despite the fact that the U.N. and
NGOs immediately and widely publicized the threat it posed to civilian
The ban was imposed not for immediate military necessity but to punish
Kerubino, the SPLA, and the unfortunate civilians living in their jurisdiction,
a clear case of using starvation of the civilian population as a method
of combat, in violation of the rules of war. As the government well knew,
relief was delivered to Bahr El Ghazal by air drops. The flight ban stopped
the OLS from making food deliveries that should have stemmed the famine.
International pressure and press coverage caused the government of Sudan
to relent. By the time full access and necessary aircraft were permitted,
however, substantial damage had been done and the malnutrition rate among
children five and under in Bahr El Ghazal climbed to 50 percent, according
to a June OLS survey. A geometrical increase food deliveries over a short
period (from 808 metric tons (MT) in April to 4,018 MT in June to Bahr
El Ghazal) did not keep up with the expanding need for relief.
By mid-July, the WFP planned delivery of 15,000 MT of food per month,
enough to feed 2.4 million people (701,000 in Bahr El Ghazal) on larger,
although not full, rations. This is now the largest emergency relief program
in the world. Because poor harvests are predicted for September, substantial
relief operations will be needed into 1999, the WFP says.
Human Rights Cause Six: Although Kerubino was no longer raiding the
Dinka, his forces (now part of the SPLA) took the conflict into Baggara
territory and cattle camps starting in April 1998; looting Baggara cattle
with the excuse that it was stolen from the Dinka, and killing civilians,
all violations of the rules of war. This was the first time in years that
there has been a large SPLA force in Bahr El Ghazal to fight the muraheleen
and government forces. During the 1988 famine, the SPLA aggressively pursued
the muraheleen, who backed off.
Human Rights Cause Seven: Continued muraheleen raids, some conducted
in retaliation for recent Kerubino raids, were accomplished with renewed
viciousness. Unlike 1988, the muraheleen are better armed and protected
by the government, which also used its planes to bomb relief sites. With
the waves of muraheleen raids disrupting cultivation and displacing the
already displaced, the famine began to reach into the adult population,
universally regarded as a very bad sign.
Human Rights Cause Eight: Many Dinka are fleeing into the government
garrison towns of Wau, Aweil and Gogrial in search of food and to avoid
continued muraheleen raiding; in late June, Wau was receiving about 2,000
a day. Returning Wau residents found themselves destitute, as all their
property had been looted by government forces after Kerubino and the SPLA
withdrew and the civilians fled. United Nations and NGO compounds were
That these people would flee or return to garrison towns is a striking
illustration of how bad the famine is, because those who fled Wau after
fighting in January 1998 believed that there were reprisal massacres of
Dinka who stayed behind; the estimates range from 200 to 2,000 victims.
In 1987, militia and government attacks on Dinka inside Wau cost several
Most of the men entering these garrison towns now are intercepted at
government checkpoints (five in the case of Wau) and separated out from
the women and children. Obviously the government is treating all men as
security risks. This could directly hinder recovery from the famine, for
the men in detention cannot cultivate or engage in any economic activity.
In 1988, when the Dinka fled to these towns to avoid raiding and hunger,
they died in the thousands in part because they were prevented from cultivating
outside the towns for security reasons, and were prevented from receiving
relief food intended for them by gross governmental diversion.
Human Rights Cause Number Nine: Some famine-driven civilians are going
north to muraheleen territory, to the towns of Abyei and Meiram, West (formerly
South) Kordofan, where in 1988 thousands of Dinka fleeing muraheleen raids
were denied relief food. In the famine summer of 1988, in those two towns,
the death rates of the displaced Dinka reached unprecedented levels of
one percent per day, far higher than any levels recorded before, or since,
for famines in Africa. Tensions in 1998 are high in these towns, with physical
attacks on Dinka civilians reported, which does not bode well for needs-based
distribution of relief.
Future Human Rights Cause Number Ten?: The WFP said that the railway
from Babanusa to Wau is the "most feasible for immediate use"
for relief supplies. The government has expressed great interest in having
the U.S. economic sanctions lifted so it can acquire spare parts for this
The train, however, has been used for exclusively military purposes
for years and has been known as a "slave train," the vehicle
by which the muraheleen and soldiers take the captured women and children
north, to serve as slaves (unpaid forced labor) in their homes and fields.
Human Rights Protections Required During the Famine
The history of the 1988 famine provides important human rights lessons
that should be incorporated into the means being used to tackle the 1998
famine. Respect for freedom of movement is required so that anyone may
leave the garrison towns to cultivate (as they will try to do if the ceasefire
holds). An end to the arbitrary detentions of men will free up persons
who are needed to cultivate.
Given a long history of relief manipulation by all concerned, thorough
international monitoring of relief efforts, with full access for nongovernmental
organizations (NGOs) not aligned with the parties, is required to assure
that the intended beneficiaries, not the parties to the conflict or profiteers,
receive what the international community is providing. In Wau a military/merchant
cartel has kept prices artificially high.
The Babanusa-Wau train has been used exclusively for military purposes
for a number of years. It is escorted by a large contingent of muraheleen
and army, slowly clearing the track of land mines; the SPLA considers the
train a military target. The government forces, particularly the muraheleen,
wreck havoc on the villages within horseback range of the railroad, burning
homes and markets, looting cattle and grain, abducting and killing civilians.
This trip, which used to take one day, now can take three months.
Despite many promises by the government to use the train for relief
during the 1988 famine, trains from Babanusa to Aweil (north of Wau) carried
primarily military supplies and only small amounts of relief. In March
1988, three trains arrived in Aweil, half carrying grain for the army,
soldiers, and military goods. Only 24 percent of the wagons carried relief,
and the rest carried merchants' goods. After that, there were no trains
at all until January 1989--that is, during the period of the worst famine,
trains did not bring relief where they could have.
Under the current government, attempts to use this train for relief
purposes were frustrated and the OLS reverted to an air bridge. Now the
government is anxious to offer this cheaper alternative to airdrops. It
is only cheaper, however, if most of the food actually reaches the beneficiaries,
something that has never actually been achieved.
Experience has shown that a ceasefire often is sought or agreed to (by
both sides) when it can serve military purposes, such as to reposition
and resupply troops. Now the famine offers the government a chance to acquire
needed spare parts for a military train, and have the track maintained
at international expense.
The government actively has sought a ceasefire--unrelated to the famine--for
months. It should be made clear to the Sudan government that it is being
held responsible in part for causing the famine, by engaging in human rights
abuses of destructive raiding and the long flight ban. The government should
be expected to defray part of the cost of the relief. Otherwise, it might
conclude that the next time it seeks a ceasefire, or additional international
emergency funds to maintain garrison towns, it need only unleash the army
and muraheleen on civilians living in rebel-controlled areas, then unilaterally
impose a lengthy ban on relief activities in those areas. This result would
be totally counterproductive to international humanitarian aims. The SPLA
also should be expected to defray part of the cost of the relief, since
it is partly responsible for long-term weakening of the rural economy and
for the attack on Wau that started a chain reaction of abuses that converted
a food crisis into a famine.
This material is being reposted for wider distribution by the Africa
Policy Information Center (APIC), the educational affiliate of the Washington
Office on Africa. APIC's primary objective is to widen the policy debate
in the United States around African issues and the U.S. role in Africa,
by concentrating on providing accessible policy-relevant information and
analysis usable by a wide range of groups individuals.