THE NUBA, VICTIMS OF THEIR COUNTRY'S GOVERNMENT
by Renato Kizito Sesana
The Khartoum regime is implementing a slow genocide of the Nuba people. In
spite of the fact that the Sudan government tries to seal off the Nuba
Mountains from any contact with the outside world. Our staff visited the area
and we challenge the international community to come to the assistance of these
people victimized by their own government.
In the course of last year I visited the Nuba Mountains five times. All the
trips were of humanitarian and pastoral nature. I brought relief items and
visited the Catholic communities. I encouraged people in their difficulties and
shared with them thoughts of peace, and of how it is possible for Christians to
co-exist in peace and justice with their Muslim brothers.
From June 15 to July 6, this year, I visited the Nuba Mountains again on a
similar mission. However, my trip ended abruptly when the Sudanese army tried
to capture the group of which I was part (another priest, a brother and two
journalists), and at the last minute, they shelled the plane that came to
From a certain point of view, they had a right to do so: We had entered Sudan
"illegally". From a different perspective, my party had not only the right, but
the duty to go there.
This small episode can highlight that there are very different understandings
of the principle of national sovereignty and the right to humanitarian
assistance by the civilian population.
For the Sudanese government, the sovereignty of the state is supreme.
Accordingly, the United Nations' operation that was set up in 1989 with the
mandate of taking relief food to the civilian population victims of the civil
war called Operation Lifeline Sudan and its member agencies, must respect the
Sudanese sovereignty and abide by the prohibition to fly over or to land, or
in any way operate in areas to which access is forbidden by the Khartoum
regime, even if those areas are controlled by the SPLA.
While up to this point the interpretation of the Sudan government of its
sovereignty cannot the challenged, the problem starts when the same government
denies access, as it is presently doing, to areas where civilians are in danger
of death because of lack of food and medical assistance. For instance, Khartoum
is these days denying access to humanitarian aid not only to the Nuba Mountains
but also to the cholera affected areas of the Bahr el Ghazal. Khartoum is even
denying the existence of cholera, calling it "watery diarrhoea". The Pochalla
area, next to the Ethiopian border, where thousands of civilians are in danger
of starvation because floods have covered the fields since May, was denied
access, without any explanation, for several weeks, and permission was given
only on August 8, causing death and incredible suffering to the people.
According to a growing number of observers who reason more from a humanitarian
perspective than from a legalistic stand, there are situations where the
principle of sovereignty can be overruled by the human rights of the civilians.
The most fundamental human right is the right to live, to have access to food and medical
assistance. From this viewpoint, the concept of sovereignty as it is upheld by
Khartoum is outdated, coming from ages when there was little awareness of the
human rights, and when there was no attention to issues that cut across
boundaries and national sovereignty like ecology.
In the particular case of Sudan, how can we take seriously the sovereignty of a
state which does not care for the most basic needs of its citizens? Why doesn't
Khartoum allow humanitarian agencies to take relief to the sick Nuba and to the
cholera affected areas? One cannot help but think that the Khartoum regime is
actually taking advantage of the natural calamities in order to punish the
civilians of those areas. A friend from the Southern Sudan told me recently:
"Khartoum wants our destruction, they are happy if cholera kills us, they can
spare money and bullets". While this could be an exaggeration, is the
international community bound to abide by such an inhuman attitude?
We live in a world where people accept that some items have a value that goes
beyond the national boundaries, so the towns of Salvador de Bahia, Venice and
Zanzibar, just to mention some, and even the stones lying at the bottom of the
ocean have been declared "common heritage of humanity". Are the Nuba people
less valuable than those stones? Can't they claim to be considered at least at
the same level?
Unjustly punishing its civilian citizens, the military and clerics who control
the Khartoum regime will most probably achieve the opposite of their aim.
Instead of affirming and strengthening their sovereignty, they are proving to
be illegitimate rulers of their people. They are behaving like parents who
badly mistreat their children and demonstrate their being unfit to take care of
them, so the tribunal removes their offspring from their care.
That Khartoum grossly violates the human rights of its own civilian has been
denounced more than once by the United Nations observers, like Gasper Biro, and
by the United Nations General Assembly. Khartoum lives in a situation of
diplomatic and economic isolation, even at regional level. July 15, 1996, the
Secretary General of the United Nation, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, said in a
strongly worded statement, unusual in the circles of international diplomacy:
"The Secretary General is deeply concerned by the recent serious deterioration
in the humanitarian situation in Sudan, as a result of the unilateral and
unjustified obstruction by the Government of Sudan of urgently required
humanitarian assistance to the affected population in Southern Sudan, including
Pochalla and cholera-affected areas, as well as areas of the Nuba Mountains.
The Secretary General expresses the hope that the Government of the Sudan will
continue its co-operation and fully abide by the humanitarian principles of
neutrality, impartiality and transparency upon which Operation Lifeline Sudan
was founded in 1989, as well as adhere to its commitments to the General
Assembly to assist all persons in need throughout the country."
The United Nations and their humanitarian agencies are normally bound by the
respect for the national sovereignty of the member countries. Yet some people
think that there is a basic human right to humanitarian assistance not yet
codified as a law by the international community, and such right can, and
should, overrule any other consideration. The former French President, Francois
Mitterand, at the time of the Gulf War had proposed to include in the
international law "... the right of humanitarian intervention in the internal
affairs of a country, when part of its population is victim of a persecution".
It is exactly the case of the Nuba in Sudan. But this basic human right,
courageously proposed and defended in front of the United Nations by Mitterand,
has not yet been accepted, even if there are some examples of humanitarian
Resolution 688 of the Security Council is a step in that direction when it
establishes its competence when human rights violation reaches such proportion
as to endanger international relations and is a threat to peace. Resolution 43/
131, adopted by the General Assembly under French initiative, regards
humanitarian assistance to the victims of natural catastrophes, and stresses
the need for establishing the right of freely accessing the victims. Maybe the
time is not too far when the right of intervention in case of political
catastrophes, like civil wars, will be sanctioned.
There are only two examples of United Nations interventions against the will of
a national government. One is the action in favour of the Curds, in 1991, when
they were victimised by the Iraq government and the United Nations went ahead
with humanitarian relief without the consent of the legitimate government
(though, again, it is doubtful that a government victimising its own citizens
could be considered legitimate). The case of the UNOSOM operation in Somalia is
different because at the time there was no government whatsoever in Mogadishu,
however, it also proves that when the international community really wants to
intervene in favor of civilian victims, it can find the appropriate ways.
At a time when the mass media offer the possibility of transforming the world
into a global village, we cannot use them only for singing the same tunes, but
for creating that unity of action reclaimed by the human needs of the time.
A Challenge From The Young at Heart
Those who believe in the right of intervention in spite of the opposition of
the national government, base their conviction on the fact that there are
social principles and moral laws that, even if not written and part of an
international agreement, bind peoples and governments. Moreover they are
convinced that the "international community" and the international law are not
an accomplished reality, but a reality in constant progress. Part of this
progress is the emergence, with the passing of the years and the increasing
awareness on human rights issues, of more and more precise and effective laws
for the protection of the individual persons and of the peoples.
Personally I do not feel guilty of breaking any Sudanese or international law
because I brought medicines and clothes to the Nuba people. On the contrary I
think that the Sudanese government is guilty of oppressing and killing its own
citizens by denying them access to humanitarian relief.
I am also deeply dismayed by the attitude of some Western governments, like the
USA and Britain: They have made a big issue of the three terrorists who
attempted to kill Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and threatened sanctions
against Sudan for protecting them. What the Sudanese government is doing to the
Nuba is genocide, the cultural and genetic annihilation of the Nuba. And yet
for this the USA is not ready to raise an eyebrow.
The humanitarian agencies working in difficult situations like on the Nuba
Mountains, have different guiding principles. Some would accept to work there
only if they can do so in neutrality, like, for instance, for the International
Committee of the Red Cross. For others, the principle is commitment to justice.
For others again, the basic principle is solidarity, sharing risk and suffering
with the people, even assisting them with lobbying and advocacy.
For the Christian action, the basic principle is incarnation. It is the
principle of Jesus, the God, who for our sake became "incarnate", took up human
flesh. The Christian community is as such not involved in power politics, in
theoretical problems of law and rules, or in academic discussions. The
Christian identity shines in the sharing and identification with the poor and
For this reason the Khartoum regime can be sure that in spite of shelling,
bombing, and the permanent upheaval created by their action, the missionaries
will continue to be present with the suffering civilians, in the South and in
the North. Some missionaries have built their huts next to the huts of the
people and nothing will move them. A missionary priest with a long, flowing
beard, who at his next birthday will be 70, has made the plains of the
devastated Dinkaland in Southern Sudan his home. He was recently asked by a
visiting journalist: "Aren't you afraid to live here in a tent and in Spartan
conditions, under the constant threat of a military incursion?". He looked back
astonished and said: "But if I do not do this while I am still young, when do
you expect me to do it?".
I wish there were more "young" people like him, even in the high responsibility
level in the United Nations structure, ready to defy the rules in order to
identify with and assist the sick and starving civilians of Southern Sudan.
UPPER NILE: MORE CIVILIANS THREATEND BY HUNGER
According to a statement dated 10 August 1996 by the Fashoda Relief and
Rehabilitation Association (FRRA), the humanitan branch of SPLA-United, "a
disaster of great proportion is looming in the northern sector of Mid-West
Upper Nile Zone," courtesy of the most recent fighting between SPLA-United and
government forces. FRRA, which has its head office in Nairobi, was recently
recognised by the United Nations' agency, Operation Lifeline Sudan.
The report points out that the most recent clashes between the opposing troops
at the Wathikwoc chieftaincies, "caused displacement of entire civil population
in area". The worst hit areas, says the FRRA report, were the villages of Nhon,
Arumbuoth, Delal-Ajak, Nyiwudo and Aweth, whose combined population is
estimated at 20, 000 people. "Most of them have moved southwards and are now
gathering in Athidhwoy chieftaincy," it says.
The situation is further compounded by the fact that the government forces and
their militia men mowed down all the crops still in the fields. Under normal
circumstances, the crop would have been harvested in September. The Islamic
regime based in Khartoum has been accused several times of employing the
scorched earth method in its military offensives in order to force the
survivors into the government controlled towns.
Currently, says the FRRA report, the conditions of the displaced people is
distressing. Hunger is not the only problem: people lack shelter and are
exposed to rain and mosquitoes. "It is difficult to tell what fate awaits the
children and the elderly if nothing comes in their way to help arrest the
The document notes with a lot of concern that even before the military
offensive, hunger was taking its toll in the area of Mid-West Upper Nile yet
the Sudanese government did not seem to be in a hurry to clear the World Food
Programme/OLS barge carrying relief food. By the end of May the barge was still
docked at Kosti, fully loaded because the National Islamic Front (NIF) was
"dragging its feet in giving permission for it to move, probably awaiting the
outcome of their military offensive". "It is ironical that while the NIF regime
was delaying the departure of the UN barge, it made the WFP to pay for everyday
the barge spent waiting in Kosti".
The report also appealed to "the conscience of the world community to heed the
plight of these civilians who are victims of the NIF policies of extermination.
These displace people are in urgent need of food, medicines, tents and
blankets, among other things".
For further information, please contact:
Fr. Kizito, SCIO, tel +254.2.562247 - fax +254.2.566668 - e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org