Sudan: Independent Report on Blue Nile Province 1998.5.21

Sudan: Independent Report on Blue Nile Province 1998.5.21

[IRIN note: The following report was written by an independent freelance journalist just returned from a visit to Sudan's Blue Nile province, and is being distributed by IRIN for humanitarian information purposes only. It is not a UN publication and may not be taken to reflect the views of the UN. Issue date: 21 May 1998.]


The Sudan People's Liberation Army is fighting a major new offensive in southern Blue Nile, and has taken string of garrisons and fortified outposts since the beginning of May. The isolated but heavily reinforced bush garrison of Wadega, forty kilometres west of Kurmuk on the Ethiopian border, is the main catch in this dry season offensive along with the smaller outposts of Guffa, Aldugu, Melkan, Sama'a and Nila. During the dawn attack on Wadega on May 5th, the SPLA say they "annihilated" two battalions, and have buried over 200 dead. The garrison trenches have been used as mass graves, but some of the bodies still lie in the bush. Captured weapons include Howitzer guns, T 55 tanks and a number of anti-tank guns, along with ammunition and food stocks.

The focus of the offensive is now Ulu - south of the regional capital, Damazin. Local SPLA commanders claim the new gains have given them control of an additional 7,000 square kilometres.

The Blue Nile military zone - which has been active since SPLA took Yabus in March 1996 - has effectively depopulated villages and border towns, and affected an unknown number of local people, as well as transitory displaced groups from neighbouring Upper Nile, and Bahr al-Ghazal.

The next few weeks will be crucial in the annual dry season offensive, with less than a month before heavy rains enforce stalemate. Rains usually put a halt to any major military operations until the end of the year. The Khartoum government is also pursuing an end-of-season offensive, and reports several towns recaptured in Upper Nile and Bahr al-Ghazal. Since early May, insecurity and the government offensive has disrupted some relief efforts in Bahr al-Ghazal, where chronic food shortages have been a focus of international attention.

Peace talks

The latest offensives present additional obstacles to peace talks and humanitarian access, although there is a tentative agreement for both sides to meet in Addis Ababa in August. Despite pressure to agree on a cease-fire during recent talks which included a personal appeal from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in Nairobi the fighting continues. The talks were in fact held just before the peak of the dry season offensive, when both sides typically try to advance in order to establish maximum gain before consolidating during the rainy season. The SPLA turned down an offer of a cease-fire from the government, saying it should not be linked to the facilitation of humanitarian assistance.

Peace talks held from May 4-6 in Nairobi, under the auspices of the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), agreed to hold a referendum on "unity or outright secession" for the south. But the government and SPLA representatives were unable to agree on the area of "the south" to be covered by the poll, or issues of separation of religion and state. No date has been set for the referendum. SPLA representatives also expressed concern that a referendum may intensify conflict between different factions and militia in the south.

Disputed identity: Blue Nile Province

The Blue Nile Province will be one of the main obstacles to any further negotiations over a referendum, because it has a disputed north-south identity in a conflict with no clear boundaries. The new offensive is the first time the SPLA has penetrated so far into a province that the government considers northern territory. Both the north and the south claim Blue Nile, along with the Nuba Mountains area of southern Kordofan. Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains challenge many of the stereotypes of the fifteen year long war, which is typically described as a north-south war, pitting "Arab Muslim" against "the Christian-animist south". In the disputed provinces, the populations are mixed and the ethnic boundaries unclear. Some of the rebel leaders are Muslim, and many of the so-called "northern" populations are ethnically and linguistically closer to the south.

Blue Nile Province is also significant in that it is agriculturally and minerally rich. The regional capital, Damazin, is the site of Sudan's largest dam and crucial for hydroelectric power it is also a gateway to the very heart of the north. Although the potential of southern Blue Nile has suffered chronic underdevelopment - and now conflict - the terrain is extremely fertile and considered a "bread basket" for the north. Rudimentary exploitation of minerals includes a gold mine near Kurmuk, a town straddling the Sudan-Ethiopian border. Southern Blue Nile opens access to oil-rich areas of Upper Nile, around Bentui.

Scorched earth policy and the displaced

In the area of conflict around Wadega and Ulu, crops have been destroyed in a scorched earth policy pursued by government troops looking for "fifth columnists". Villages have also been razed to the ground in the internecine battle with militia allied to SPLA defector Riek Machar. Burnt and abandoned villages and crops give testimony to widespread destruction. Some of the burnt tukuls still contain water pots and household goods, left by fleeing villagers. Villagers who are cautiously returning to the newly taken SPLA areas complain of military conscription and being forced to work on government farms. Young boys have been recruited into the war on both sides, and families separated.

In terms of aid, southern Blue Nile is a no-man's-land, with only a trickle of food and medicine brought in covertly by dedicated church groups. Its disputed status and on-going conflict means there is unlikely to be official permission for humanitarian assistance in the near future. This is of great concern to those who have managed to do limited surveys or observations of the displaced and war-affected populations, who believe urgent assistance is necessary to prevent an accelerating humanitarian crisis.

Since the SPLA took the border town of Yabus in March 1996 which lies next to Upper Nile there have been transient groups displaced from Upper Nile and Bahr el Ghazal. Movements of people over the last two years typically pass through the SPLA areas sometimes settling on a temporary basis and into a refugee camp across the Ethiopian border (known as Kubri Khamsa, or Shogoli, near Asosa). Some return from the refugee camp back into the conflict zone; some travel north from neighbouring provinces into government territory. Continued conflict and scorched earth tactics have left much of southern Blue Nile eerily depopulated, with even the border points and markets little more than ghost towns.

A rudimentary survey carried out by church groups in Yabus and Kurmuk in November 1997, estimated 25,000 displaced in need of assistance but the survey was confined to those areas alone. From November 1997, 750 tons of maize has been brought to Yabus by a church programme for the displaced, along with 100 tons of seeds and tools. Soap and salt has also been brought in, but the assistance has been piece-meal and beset with logistical problems. What limited aid there is has also been hampered by the urgency of the needs of the displaced themselves: seeds distributed in April were eaten. Local aid workers express concern that the seeds were chemically treated. Local church and aid workers say that displaced groups both locally and from other provinces move from area to area, constantly shifting, rarely building houses or planting.

One of the main logistical problems in the area in terms of assistance is the dependency on SPLA for transport. For several months, food has been discreetly brought in from Asosa, Ethiopia, but SPLA trucks and landcruisers are preoccupied with the new offensive. Main roads have been mined, leaving only the rough "attack tracks" cut through the bush by the SPLA.

According to one expatriate aid worker - who had managed to do rudimentary surveys of the populations in the recent conflict zone - there are high levels of widespread malnutrition, including secondary malnutrition and some acute malnutrition. Affected populations show chronic eye problems and respiratory tract infections, and malaria; the area has a particularly high rate of leprosy. Malnutrition is pronounced in children, especially Vitamin A deficiency.

Civilian trauma

There are also many cases of trauma among civilians caught in crossfire and battle. Civilians have suffered bullet wounds and shrapnel injuries, as well as fractures associated with war. Badly wounded civilians have no real options, as there is no structure for medical assistance. Very few of the seriously wounded soldiers and civilians have been transported to the ICRC hospital in Lokichokio in Kenya, near the border, but there is no established system for such cases in this area at present.

The plight of the civilian population is well illustrated by the few now returning to Jiiru, a village next to the recently captured garrison Wadega. The population includes Mabaan, Jumjum and Uduk peoples. Those who have returned say the SPLA encouraged them to flee into the hills during the dawn attack on May 5th, but some were caught in crossfire. Six-month-old Mahmoud Rahan was shot in the abdomen while strapped on the back of his mother, Samia, who was running into the hills with two other young children. She said she was unable to send out a search for medicine until the fighting was over, and is using gentian violet for the entry wound of a lodged bullet. The SPLA has promised to transport the mother and child to the hospital in Kurmuk, which is a rough four-hour ride but the baby's chances in the hospital are also slim. Run by local doctor Ivone Atar Adaha trained in Eygpt the hospital has an operating theatre without light and basic drugs. Soldiers smoke marijuana in the hospital compound for pain relief. In May, several civilians were being treated alongside 81 wounded SPLA.

Prisoners of War

Doctor Atar is also treating several badly wounded POWs, held by the SPLA in Kurmuk. Mostly suffering fractures, the wounded include tank driver John Nogo, the sole survivor of a government tank destroyed in Wadega. He has third degree burns on his face and torso, which are being treated with gentian violet and antibiotics. Local SPLA leaders say they are willing in principle to transport him to the ICRC hospital, but that his transportation would present a "security problem" they fear the more unruly SPLA elements, and even local villagers, could shoot him en route.

The SPLA took 134 POWs from Wadega, and are keeping them in a school compound in Kurmuk. They include two officers, Colonel Omar Aden, Division 4 Damazin, and 2nd Lieutenant Abdulwahab Ibrahim, Northern State. The bulk of the POWs, however, appear to be locally conscripted men and young boys from Wadega and environs. One young boy, Yagoub Alfil Malik, says he is fifteen years old but, according to Dr Atar, is actually much younger. He conveyed he had been trained to "go on the offensive" and that he was terrified during fighting. The use of child soldiers in Sudan's war are a little-documented tragedy.

The POWs appear in good condition but are unlikely to be kept in Kurmuk for long. According to Kurmuk Governor Malik Agar the POWs present a "logistical problem", because of the food and manpower needed to keep them. Mr Agar says that, depending on contact with SPLA headquarters, the options are limited to: arranging a handover with ICRC; consultations with church groups in the area; or the most likely option taking them to the nearest government garrison and sending them back to "enemy territory". They will be "given the option to stay with the SPLA". This strategy of return is used to demoralise government troops, on the assumption that the returnees will lack will to fight and are likely to go through further rounds of interrogation.

SPLA territory

Although the SPLA has held territory in southern Blue Nile since 1996, the area has been unstable. Kurmuk was briefly re-taken by government troops in March 1997. SPLA defector, Riek Machar, has destablised the rear of the territory with factional militia, reinforced from Upper Nile, who now fight alongside government troops. In the latest move, SPLA commanders in the field describe their offensive as a "pincer movement" designed to take Boing. The garrison is described as "a sizeable concentration" which includes goverment soldiers and militia. Although Boing is not as heavily fortified as Wadega, the battle may be bloodier because of the internecine war with Riek Machar. Some local SPLA commanders are known to bear active bitterness as a result of the brutal massacres between rival factions in Upper Nile, when Machar defected in August 1991 to set up the Southern Sudan Independence Movement/Army.

According to SPLA Commander Majak d'Agoot, Southern Blue Nile, there is an effort on the part of the SPLA to "raise a flag of truce to detractors in the south". The SPLA fears that the prospect of a referendum could exacerbate divisions in the south. So whilst acknowledging the destructive affects of Riek Machar's scorched earth policy on the civilian population, Commander Majak says southern unity must be paramount - "we have been sending letters and ambassadors of peace to Riek Machar". There is concern that Machar could influence the vote in a southern referendum. While there is disagreement on long Riek Machar's influence can remain in the area, local SPLA leaders concur that he is "the most important card held by the government".

However, even if the SPLA successfully completes its latest offensive - called "Operation Restore Keker" - it will be difficult for the rebels to defend such a large area. It is geographically isolated from the rest of the SPLA gains. If Boing remains in government hands, moreover, the area will be vulnerable on two fronts - with the government garrisons re-supplied from Damazin, and Reik Machar's militia supported from supply routes in Upper Nile. SPLA have begun to work on setting up civil structures, in an effort to consolidate the territory, although there is presently no real presence of its relief wing, SRRA. Attempts to persuade civilians to settle back into the "liberated" zone include a tentative promise to provide church groups with 500 sacks of maize from the captured food stocks at Wadega garrison.

Gold mining

Despite its precarious status, southern Blue Nile now provides the SPLA with some indisputable advantages - including access to the Ethiopian border for trade, food and "logistics". The currency of the new "liberated" zone is primarily Ethiopian Birr. Over the last month, however, SPLA movement over the Ethiopian border has been more restricted.

The SPLA also plan to make use of a gold mine 11 kilometres outside Kurmuk, previously run as a joint venture between a Chinese cartel and the Khartoum government, until the SPLA took Kurmuk in January 1997. The Chinese workers fled with a contingent of government troops protecting the mine. The mine exploited local labour, and used rudimentary methods of mining namely narrow vertical tunnels of about 10-12 metres deep, and panning. Prefabricated buildings, a few washing trays and abandoned fuel tankers remain. According to the SPLA Governor of Kurmuk, Malik Agar, records seized at the mine showed an annual net production of US $11 million a figure that has not been independently confirmed.

In Nairobi, SPLA mines representative Peter Adwok says the SPLA benefit from a gold belt that runs from Kapoeta, Eastern Equatoria, to Kurmuk, Blue Nile - and have been looking for small-scale investors. SPLA control mines in Kapoeta, Buma, and in the Yei area, which are basically inactive, apart from some local panning and trading gold is traded across the Kenyan, Ugandan and Ethiopian borders. Gold from Blue Nile is traded in Kurmuk and taken into Ethiopian markets.

No man's land

Massive displacement and depopulation characterises the newly "liberated" zone. Civilian populations are faced with no real options in a war where there are no "innocents" - shuttling from one side to another, many are forcibly conscripted, or interrogated, and must constantly struggle to survive without the most basic civilian structures or services. Human rights abuses are rife - at least three civilians known to have been tortured by government troops as suspected "spies" have been taken to the ICRC hospital in Lokichoggio over the last few months. Unknown numbers have been killed and abused in factional fighting between the southern rebels since 1991. Abuses are also generated by unruly elements from both sides, and the inevitable lawlessness in the absence of an established civilian administration. Pastoralist militia, bringing large herds of cattle from the north, have added to crop and environmental damage. Prospects are poor even if the territory is defended and consolidated - food is scarce, and planting is unlikely to take place this season. With no official blessing of humanitarian aid, continued isolation of the area will increase present food shortages and malnutrition rates - but out of sight of the international community whose focus is now on the emergency in Bahr al-Ghazal.


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Date: Thu, 21 May 1998 12:22:49 -0300 (GMT+3) From: IRIN - Central and Eastern Africa <> Subject: Sudan: Independent report on Blue Nile Province 1998.5.21 Message-ID: <>

Editor: Dr. Ali B. Ali-Dinar, Ph.D

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