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Story Publication logo April 6, 2012

Peter Moszynski on the Nuba Mountains and South Sudan

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Rebecca Hamilton brings in-depth coverage of the cultural, political, economic and legal challenges...

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Image by Cedric Gerbehaye. South Sudan, 2011.

Traveling to Sudan since 1981, first as an aid worker and later as a journalist for The Guardian and The British Medical Journal, Peter Moszynski is now the adviser for various documentary films for the BBC and Al Jazeera. Pulitzer Center Cedric Gerbehaye interviews Moszynski about the political situation in the Nuba Mountains and South Sudan.

You just came back from the Nuba Mountains in Southern Khordofan, what have you seen there?

There had just been several battles in the area. On the border, in Jau, there had been heavy battles as well. The SPLA-N [Sudan People's Liberation Army-North] just captured Toroji and Dar. I saw several hundred Nubian fighters and several dozen Darfuris from JEM (Justice and Equality Movement, a rebel group). I did not see any southern soldiers, no Dinka nor Nuer.

While I was there I saw several destroyed tanks and unburied bodies lying around. The place was littered with ammunition, unexploded tank shells and several churches had been blown up or shelled. The area was heavily mined. I saw a bunch of newly captured boxes of anti-personnel mines with Farsi (Iranian language) on them. We saw what people call « chain bombs » which are cluster munitions. Apparently, one kid had his hand blown off touching one. All the houses in the town were destroyed. The SPLA-N captured over hundred vehicles. A few days later an Iranian drone was shot down.

I didn't see many people in the area. Some people took shelter in the ruins and there were several dozen unaccompanied kids. The majority of people had fled into the hills to escape the fighting.

Khartoum doesn't allow journalists to enter the Nuba Mountains but why not allow aid organizations?

I think because they don't want the rebels to have access to food supplies. We saw something similar in the 1990s when there was a blockade from December 1991 until January 2002 and the North refused to allow aid to rebel-controlled areas. Now the rebels says that the North is using food supply as a weapon of war. I think Khartoum is now very frightened of allowing international access to the rebels. It's worth pointing out that Khartoum claims that these rebels are terrorists who objected to the peace deal and who are supported by South Sudan. But it's also worth remembering that the fighting started there in June last year before the South was independent when the government started shelling with artillery the house of the governor, Abdelaziz Al-Hilu, who was the deputy governor and is now the military leader of the SPLA-North. The problem began because they did not implement some points of the peace deal, the CPA[the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, which ended a long north-south civil war]. They didn't implement the popular consultation; they didn't fully implement the elections. Obviously the peace deal had not been implemented by the time that South Sudan became independent and it was very tragic watching the international community and the United Nations peacekeeping mission pulling out. Worse was leaving the civilian population there in extremely precarious conditions. When the fighting started in June many people told us they had gathered at the UN base in Kadugli for protection and yet people would be killed in front of the gate when Egyptian peacekeepers would refuse to do anything or let the people come inside. And they didn't stop the Sudanese security forces from shooting civilians.

I also met people who said that they were beaten up because they were accused of joining rebel-controlled areas.

One of the things that people were complaining about was the fact that the international community had left them in the hands of a indicted war criminal, Ahmed Mohammed Haroun, who was supposedly elected governor in disputed elections in May last year. Haroun is wanted by the ICC [International Criminal Court] for war crimes he committed in Darfur. But before going to Darfur in the war in the 1990s, he was allegedly responsible for many of the atrocities that went on in the Nuba Mountains and it appears that the war crimes that were apparently committed in the Nuba mountains in the 1990s didn't fall under the jurisdiction of the ICC because its mandate only goes back to 2002. The people in the Nuba Mountains and the refugees from Nuba now in South Sudan are constantly complaining that they have been attacked by their governor.

A deal should be signed on the demarcation of the border. What can we think about that ?

I think there are two issues: whether they will actually implement the agreement and the discussion of aid access. I'm very suspicious if they will ever implement all this. Of course time is running out because now it's the beginning of the hungry season—there's only 20% of the lands that have been cultivated this past year. And then there's also the issue of the areas that fall north of the border, the situation of the people of Blue Nile and Southern Khordofan, and also the future of Abyei as well as the issue of the demarcation of the border.

It's completely mistaken to think that the problem in South Kordofan and Blue Nile has to do with arguing about the border. It does not.

What is the reason why Khartoum is fighting in those two regions ?

Khartoum says it's an internal affair and blames outside forces on instigating the problem. As soon as it became apparent that the South would separate, Khartoum said no rights for the minorities in the North. No talk of other culture, other religion or other language. Arabic is going to be the official language and Islam is going to be the religion of the state and we won't make any compromises. The CPA was supposed to address the issues of South Sudan but was also supposed to address the issues of North Sudan. The international community appeared to believe all the problems have been solved by the independence of the South. Now what are the people in the areas left in the North supposed to do about it? They said they have been used as sacrificial pawns in the peace process and their rights have been ignored. The Nuba feel betrayed by the international community, by the United Nations, and by their colleagues in the South.

What can be done ?

The best is that these things would be handled by the Security Council. It would be better if China and Russia came on board with some form of mandate for the neglected area from the peace deal. They need to revisit the two areas which were ignored: The eligibility to vote in Abyei and what would happen in Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan. Now it's irrelevant because the South has separated. Most Nuba did not want the South to separate.

What can the outside world do otherwise ?

Provide aid to the border and allow people from the Nuba Mountains to bring it in themselves or better still have agreed access. The United Nations is very frightened of the idea of bringing aid without the consent of Khartoum.

How is it possible on a practical level ?

When the rain comes food distribution will become extremely difficult and people will even be more hungry. We are talking of 300 000 people or more within the Nuba Mountains facing starvation if no aid is brought to them. It could be through safe area or open corridors. Maybe it could be flown in. If there's no agreement to pass through the border it could be left at the border and then local organizations could bring the food inside. People are also calling for a no-fly zone. If they want to avoid a famine they have to do something. Either they bring it in non-consensually or they bring it to the border.

The South has cut off the oil passing through the pipeline ? Can you explain what happened during the past weeks? What is the current situation ?

Let's go back to the context. Khartoum was getting about 2 billion dollars a year in oil revenue from the South. Then they said that instead of getting 49% from the revenue from the South they will collect a similar amount from transit fees for the oil pipeline and were asking U.S.$36.50 per barrel. Last week they made an offer for U.S. $35 per barrel. Juba is talking of 80 cents to one dollar per barrel which is an extremely different position. The world market price is less then a dollar a barrel for transit fees. Which means that Khartoum is demanding 35 times more than what is normal.

In January 2012, Juba announced that if Khartoum didn't agree to a more reasonable price they would stop transiting the oil within two weeks. For now, there are still talks in Addis Ababa under the African Union.

Juba says they have enough money to pay the salaries of the soldiers and the government workers for the time of the construction of the pipeline (11 months).

I think it's wishful thinking, I can't imagine the pipeline to be done in less than 3 years. I don't think they've got money for more than 6 months. Juba's budget is 95% dependent on oil revenue. The problem is that probably half of the budget goes to security—particularly the wages of soldiers and former militias. They cut half their budget in an emergency austerity measure. Either they don't pay their soldiers which will cause mutinies or they don't have any money for services.

In a way it's very good if they don't exploit their oil because it will oblige them to diversify their economy away from oil. There's also a plan of trucking the oil.

In December there was a very large concerted attack from Lou Nuer against Murle in Jonglei state in the east of South Sudan. Can you explain what happpened ?

The Lou Nuer joined in with the local Dinkas and they decided they would have some kind of final solution to the Murle issue. 6000 fighters went down on the town of Pibor burning the place and doing all sorts of atrocities and subsequently the Murle have been stepping up revenge attacks against them. Right now there is supposed to be a civilian disarmament. The SPLA have sent two brigades to Jonglei for that.

I fear there is more violence to come and I also fear that the current disarmament campaign will make things worse because it is supposed to be voluntary and in practice what you see are heavily armed SPLA soldiers kicking down doors. The trouble is that this is happening in a context of what is declared to be genocide against the Murle. There are about 2 million Nuers in total from various clans and there are about 100,000 Murle.

It is important to remember that the heart of these tribal fights is the cattle. In most Nilotic cultures people believe that all the cows in the world belong to them and any cows elsewhere can be stolen. And also there's a problem with the bride prices that inflated during the war and have become a real issue.

What are your impressions eight months after the independence of South Sudan ?

On the good side, education is the one thing that has changed markedly. Now most kids seems to be going to school and this is the biggest success story. They are some signs of development and stability in Juba but these have not unfortunately been replicated elsewhere. Juba became a magnet for people. There is a massive urbanization. And in a way it is neglecting agriculture in the rural areas. It's difficult to expect too much progress after so many decades of war and lack of development but at the same time people had hoped for better. Last year between the referendum and the independence everybody was so optimistic. But now a lot of that optimism has faded and it appears that little progress has been made in terms of access to health care, in terms of turning around the socio-economic situations of most rural people. They are very good at all the trappings of nation-building like new uniforms, nice ministry buildings and big houses for the ministers but there has not been enough attention paid to the rural economy.

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