To date, Southern Blue Nile (SBN) has been inaccessible to U.S. government monitoring visits due to insecurity, but the cessation of hostilities negotiated at Machakos has allowed access. SBN has been severely affected by the prolonged civil war and will require sustained emergency assistance by the Office of Foreign Disaster Affairs (OFDA) and Food for Peace (FFP). Access to SBN remains blocked to Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) since the Government of Sudan (GOS) considers the area outside the OLS mandate. The monitoring team's analysis is that the scale of needs in SBN requires concerted UN response. To date the United Nations has been slow in securing full access to the region and increased pressure from the U.S. government and others may be needed to break the impasse.
Southern Blue Nile lies outside the area historically considered southern Sudan, but the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) has controlled around one-third of Blue Nile state since the mid-1990s. The region is ethnically and religiously diverse, with eleven major tribes comprising a group collectively known as the "Funj."
The protracted conflict in SBN has destroyed nearly all infrastructure and created large-scale humanitarian needs. Because the area is not served by OLS, humanitarian programs are currently limited to a small number of non-OLS NGOs. In the past year, the SPLM-controlled zone has been frequently bombed by the GOS, and there has been heavy ground fighting along the frontline positions. A GOS offensive in May 2002 retook the town of Gizan, displacing up to 25,000 civilians to Keyli, an area within the SPLM zone 50 KM North of Kurmuk. In August and September the fighting intensified and Keyli was bombed, causing internally displaced persons (IDPs) to retreat further into the hills for safety.
More recently the area has been stable following the cessation of hostilities brokered at Machakos. (SPLM authorities in Kurmuk have reported low-level skirmishes since the ceasefire agreement but no major violations.) Local authorities and the general population remain skeptical about long-term prospects and fear that SBN will be the first area targeted by GOS aerial bombardment if the peace talks break down.
Assistance to Date
Since 1999 OFDA has supported GOAL's primary health care activities in SBN, including eight clinics providing basic health services. The GOAL clinic in Gizan was abandoned in May 2002 when the town was taken by the GOS, but has since been re-established near the IDP settlements. Beginning in 2002, OFDA has supported Samaritan's Purse (SP) to locally procure and distribute food among the IDPs in the Keyli area. SP is also running a field hospital in Kurmuk with private funds, providing in-patient services and acting as a referral for GOAL's health activity. Church Ecumenical Action in Sudan (CEAS) is supporting limited food security and education activities, not funded by USAID.
Current Situation and Needs
The team visited the three IDP camps in Keyli with GOAL and SP staff members: Mayas (the most recent settlement, established in October 2002), Nazila and Jumam. GOAL estimates the combined population of the camps at 22,000. Conditions in all camps are poor. Shelter in the camps ranges from basic lean-tos made of grass to more permanent huts similar to those in surrounding villages.
Food is the top priority since most of the IDPs missed the planting season and are without household stocks. While food is an obvious need, additional information is needed to calibrate an appropriate response. The nutritional situation will be better known when an assessment sponsored by the indigenous agency, Relief Organization of Fazugli (ROOF), is completed in the coming weeks. There is an acute shortage of basic household items.
Water and sanitation needs are also a priority. The team noted the necessity of rehabilitating water catchments, providing latrines in IDP settlements, and rehabilitating the road between Kurmuk and Keyli.
Constraints to Increased Assistance
Providing additional food aid and other support for the IDPs will entail major logistical hurdles. The road from Kurmuk is in poor shape and only passable during the dry season. Travel time is approximately four hours to go 50 kilometers. Security conditions prevent NGO staff from staying overnight in Keyli, and limit the amount of time available to operate.
Due to a patchy harvest overall, there is no possibility of procuring food in other parts of SBN. Cross-border procurement in Ethiopia presents a number of concerns, including SPLM control of the transport from Kurmuk to the camps. With Ethiopia facing large-scale food shortages, the availability of surplus is increasingly unlikely.
Given the scale of needs and the limited capacity of non-OLS NGOs, the monitoring team's analysis is that a concerted effort by UN agencies is needed to mount an effective and sufficient response. To date, the GOS has restricted UN agencies from operating in SBN. UN representatives have advised that they intend to raise the issue of access to SBN at the next Technical Committee on Humanitarian Assistance (TCHA) meeting. The meeting, however, has been postponed until 2003. Given the urgency of needs, the issue should be raised as soon as possible, with strong donor backing to reinforce the basic principle of unimpeded humanitarian access. Diplomatic pressure (similar to that applied for access to the Nuba Mountains) from the U.S. government and others could help break the blockade.
If and when WFP gains access to SBN, food will need to be air dropped from El Obeid, with staff accessing the area from Lokichoggio in an arrangement similar to that for the SPLM zone in the Nuba Mountains. As the area has been isolated for some time and is distinct from other regions of Sudan, a comprehensive assessment of SBN is needed, critically in Keyli and the IDP settlements, to provide direction for emergency and longer-term programming.
Susan Bradley, USAID/FFP Emergency Officer
Ted Maly, USAID/OFDA Program Officer for Southern Sudan
Dan Suther, USAID/FFP Emergency Officer