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Note: 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 Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.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

+++++++++++++++++++++Document Profile+++++++++++++++++++++

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.

+++++++++++++++++end profile++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


(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 them.

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 objects;
  • end looting and punish the looters, as well as those who buy and sell looted goods;
  • 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.


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:


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 and families.

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 displaced.

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 life.

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 also looted.

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 hundred lives.

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 train.

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.

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