United Nations Humanitarian Assessment Mission to SPLM/A Areas of the Nuba Mountains, 19 – 24 June 1999

Editor’s note: This report has been edited and shortened to exclude information, such as background to the Nuba Mountains, that is familiar to the readers of NAFIR.

  1. Introduction

The Government of the Sudan agreed on 22 May 1999 to authorize the United Nations to send a Humanitarian Assessment Mission to the SPLM/A held areas of the Nuba Mountains. This assessment took place from 21 to 24 June 1999.

1.1. Objective

To assess humanitarian needs of the civilian population in the SPLM/A areas of the Nuba Mountains.

1.2. Background

Due to restricted access, current UN humanitarian and development interventions in South Kordofan State concentrate exclusively in GOS-controlled areas.

In line with the universal and fundamental right to humanitarian access to all civilian populations, the United Nations has over the past years requested the Government of Sudan to allow such access to the population living in SPLM/A areas of the Nuba Mountains.

  1. Main Findings and Recommendations

The limited time and logistics constraints, coupled with the almost complete absence of reliable information on the humanitarian situation in the region, clearly limited the quantification and generalization of the findings of the mission.

The main findings and recommendations of the mission are:

There are significant humanitarian needs in all areas visited that should be urgently addressed; these needs essentially relate to food security, water, health and primary education;

In particular for the many displaced people, but not excluding others, access to food through the lean season and until the harvest comes in, is not assured. The mission met villagers living in lower areas who were already showing signs of malnutrition and were surviving on leaves on leaves and wild foods. There seems to be an a-priori need for outside assistance, in particular for seeds and tools, irrespective of the evolution of the current rainy season, and assuming the absence of major military activity;

Close monitoring of the situation during the rainy season and at least for the next 3-4 months is required, since any disruption/delay in the rain pattern will translate into immediate food shortages, in a situation without reserves.

Provision of and access to safe drinking water, especially in the dry season, is a dire need. A technical assessment will have to be undertaken if a large part of the population is to benefit both from a health point of view as well as relieving women and children from the burden of walking for hours in fetching water.

All levels of the health sector require support. Immunization of children and provision of essential drugs and medical supplies are priorities. Basic training of medical staff and/or the fielding of qualified medical personnel should be considered;

Basic education represents an important priority. It is seen as a means of self-achievement and reliance for future generations;

Special consideration should be given to the condition of women and children. Due to direct and indirect exposure to the conflict, children suffer trauma and the disruption of their schooling. Treatment should be available for traumatized children;

In order to plan for and provide the necessary humanitarian aid, the accessibility of the areas in question needs to be considerably improved and secured. A period without hostilities would increase the well being of the people in the Nuba Mountains as well as those throughout South Kordofan in Government and non-Government held territories;

Additional needs assessment missions to quantify humanitarian requirements will have to be undertaken in the very near by WFP and other agencies drawing on the combined UN experience elsewhere in the Sudan. The feasibility of setting up a propositioned stock also needs to be explored.

  1. Sectors

Four key areas of needs for possible humanitarian intervention were identified:

food security and agriculture, ii) health and nutrition, iii) water and sanitation, and iv) basic education. In addition, cross-cutting issues related to women and children were discussed and are presented below for consideration and follow-up.

3.1. Food Security & Agriculture

The people in the Nuba Mountains, including in the SPLM/A controlled areas, have been facing situations of pronounced food insecurity and sometimes famine, caused by conflict, and compounded by natural factors. People had no choice but to leave fertile land and to settle elsewhere, e.g. on the more marginal mountain slopes, causing deforestation, erosion, depletion of soil, but above all declining productivity and yields. Agriculture is taking place under new farming conditions, but because of the isolation of the areas concerned, the people have no access to new appropriate farming techniques nor to new seeds for other or adapted crop varieties. While a combination of war and irregular rainfall may cause severe crises, depending on the intensity of each of the two factors, the underlying and worsening structural conditions are making matters worse, and food insecurity among the population is steadily increasing. The risks of famine and starvation are greater than ever, unless action is taken.

Food Security and conflict. Food security and conflict/civil unrest do not go well together and the situation in South Kordofan, including the area under consideration is not different. On the contrary, reports of insecurity, bombardments, and other military actions are a reality for many people who have seen their livelihoods disrupted. The mission has met a substantial number of displaced people who have fled from the fertile plains to higher and rocky grounds in the SPLM/A controlled parts of the Nuba Mountains. The most affected people are undoubtedly the displaced.

A second category of people whose food security has been affected are the people living in the non-Government held areas, who used to farm and/or who used to keep cattle in areas that have become too insecure, in particular the plains. An important source of their income has been lost.

Thirdly, there are people whose houses/fields have been destroyed at one time or another because of the conflict. To the extent that they have not moved elsewhere, and in areas considered safe, many have rebuilt or are rebuilding their dwellings. Since they generally live in areas bordering the insecure areas, categories 2 and 3 are partly overlapping. The Mission was informed that bombing by Antonov Aircraft and artillery shellings have also caused civilian casualties and dislocation of families.

Finally, the food security condition of any region is conditioned by relations with the outside world, mainly through markets, whether it is for food, non food, or other goods and services. The SPLM/A controlled areas in the Nuba Mountains are characterised by the virtual absence of markets and links with the outside world, which has created a barter/subsistence economy in which it will be difficult for development to take off, to ensure access to the necessary inputs, such as seeds and tools, or even to cope with other structural changes such as cultivation on marginal areas on slopes, depletion of soil etc.

Food security and natural causes. Natural disasters are a second cause of food insecurity and eventually of famine. In a subsistence economy such as in the Nuba Mountains, where the economy is not diversified and agriculture fully rain-dependent, the success of the harvest is directly related to rainfall patterns. Little is necessary to cause food shortages. In the past there have been several crop failures, which have led to famine type of situations. Substantial numbers of people have reportedly left the area in various years looking for food in 1991, 1992, 1993 and most recently in 1998 following irregular rains during the 1997 planting season. Others, as was reported to the mission by people interviewed, have perished.

Present situation. The rains last year (June/July through September), although a bit late, have been relatively good and the harvest has been satisfactory for those not affected by the conflict. The rains in 1999 seem to have started as expected. The majority of the population is not expected to face exceptional problems in the lean season until the harvest comes in (September/October). Although the food situation is never abundant, barring military upheaval, they should manage. However, it is important to stress that many of the people interviewed in the lower lying areas, and being part of the other categories, identified earlier, did mention food shortages at this moment. They could not give any indications how they would feed themselves during the next months, apart from benefiting from sharing or searching for wild foods. Moreover, the people living on the border remain vulnerable to military action, including damage to crops, livestock and houses. The children in the somewhat higher located area and valleys.

Obviously, the mission had no capacity to quantify its findings. The civil administration estimated that some 10,000 people who were displaced last year, most of them living in Heiban County would qualify for food assistance. A March 1999 workshop on food security organised under the aegis of the NRRDS and various NGO’s made reference to some 38,000 people in need of full food assistance for a period of 6 months. Moreover, the Civil Administration in place was considered some sort of security stock to be used in case of unexpected food shortages as a result of a delayed harvest caused by weather adversities.

Self-reliance and outside assistance. While the possibility of outside food aid should not be excluded, the civil administration in place has expressed strong preference for the strengthening of the productivity of agriculture and animal husbandry. Improved seed varieties and tools were requested in order to switch towards faster growing crops. Technical Advice on water harvesting techniques and in the field of agroforestry were also sought. On several occasions the matter of animal health was being raised. It was reported that animals, including in particular chickens, were dying as a result of diseases. The area in question is characterised by subsistence agriculture but the agriculture sector by itself is relatively diversified, and a variety of crops are being grown including sorghum, maize, sesame, groundnuts, cowpeas. Generally people have vegetable gardens.

The relative isolation of the area and the absence of formal marketing channels with the outside world are real constraints. Cross border trade is discouraged, and the Arab Market, which used to be held at given times is known locations in the Nuba Mountains, has become more a concept referring to the phenomenon of cross border dealings. Therefore, money is scarce, barter has taken over and off-farm employment is virtually non-existant. There is a real need for assistance in the form of agricultural tools.

In particular for the displaced people, without excluding others, access to food through the lean season and until the harvest comes in (September/October 1999) is not assured. There seems to be a priori need for outside assistance, irrespective of the evolution of the current rainy season, and assuming the absence of major military disruption.

Further identification of people affected and quantification of needs will have to be undertaken in the very future by assessment missions such as normally undertaken by WFP elsewhere in the Sudan. The feasibility of setting up a prepositioned stock also needs to be explored.

Close monitoring of the situation during the rainy season and at least for the next three to four months is required, since any disruption/delay in the rain pattern will translate into immediate food shortages, in a situation without reserves.

3.2. Health and Nutrition

The conflict in Southern Kordofan has severely affected the provision of health services to the population – which was already rudimentary prior to 1989.

There are reportedly some 26 small health units throughout the 4 counties in SPLM/A areas. There are also 3 known main health centres, one of which is the Lumun Primary Health Care Centre. The later services villages some 1 ½ to 7 hours walking distances away caring for some 60 patients a day. There is also a Health Workers Training Centre at Kudaro which is the only place where any training of health staff takes place.

Malaria is by far the single most serious cause of death among children as well as adults. Of 1,200 patients treated at Lumun Primary Health Care Centre in May 1999, 234 were reported malaria cases. Respiratory infections also account for a major area of health concern to the general population. Specific to children are whooping cough, diarrhoea, eye infection, measles and meningitis. An epidemic (measles) was reported in 1995 but there are no reliable mortality figures. During the Mission’s visit, no epidemics of any type was observed nor information received. A major vaccination programme, which began on 3 May, was still underway in the Kauda area. On the average 220 children were being treated daily at the only such centre, which followed the normal UNICEF EPI Programme.

A general problem noted by the Mission is the severe shortage of salt in the entire region. Moreover, the availability of iodised salt is a rarity. Signs of this deficiency was noticed and the health centres reported that goitre is indeed a significant health problem.

The infant mortality rate is reported to be high. The case of a mother who gave birth to twins in Lumun village a day before the mission’s arrival, illustrates this and the problem faced by women. The first child died immediately after birth while two hours later the second was stillborn. While pregnant, the woman was suffering from anaemia and vitamin A deficiency. There was also no mid-wife in attendance. For the entire population there are no more than 2 doctors (one of whom is an expatriate provided by an NGO). Outside the 3 health centres, there are few mid-wives.

During a short visit, it was impossible to carry out a systematic assessment of the nutritional status of the population, including children and mothers. In view of the absence of immediately available data, information gathered was only through observation and some questioning of mothers and health staff. For example, the mission was told that in some districts breast feeding was not common, particularly during the planting season. Mothers would leave babies with grand parents or older siblings to feed them while they are working in the field. It is perhaps not coincidental that many deaths among very young children occur during the early parts of the rainy season.

All levels of the health system require support. There is a need not only to train medical staff, but also to up-date the minimal knowledge level of those paramedical staff currently serving. Provision of basic drugs and medical supplies is essential. Of particular importance is the urgent supply of vaccines for immunization. In addition, the immediate provision of iodised salt is strongly recommended. It would also be necessary to up-grade existing physical structures of the rural health units. Support will also be required in giving basic training in administering a health service system.

3.3. Water and Sanitation

Water was the top priority expressed both by the population and the authorities. Women, in particular, strongly voiced the need for water wells or easy access to water. This is not surprising as it is women or girls who for the most part fetch water for the family.

During the rainy season, water is readily available to most. However, during the dry period, many travel over long distances to collect water. It must be noted that particularly in the dry season water is collected from sources which are usually shared with livestock, which contributes to water contamination and disease. Moreover, no proper survey appears to have been carried out to determine the extent of the availability of water, in which areas, and in what quantity. The local institution responsible for co-ordinating NGO activity, the Nuba Relief, Rehabilitation and Development Society (NRRDS) – has done a rudimentary study. It would be useful to investigate other sources of hydraulic data to determine areas where water may be easily available. NRRDS have requested assistance in urgently rehabilitating 12 boreholes in different parts of the region.

Related to the water issue is sanitation. In view of the difficulties of access to water in general, and clean water in particular, the level of hygiene and sanitation is low. The lack of soap in the area has contributed to poor hygiene conditions and exacerbated health problems. Despite this, the local authorities reportedly enforce compulsory latrine digging at market places.

A technical assessment to establish the feasibility of providing water to each village is essential if a large part of the population is to benefit both from a health point of view as well as relieving women and children from the current burden of walking for hours to fetch water.

3.4. Education

The mission found that education was also a most important priority. It is seen as a vital means for achieving progress in the Nuba.

We were informed that all there were 82 basic primary schools throughout the area controlled by the SPLM/A in South Kordofan. Those seen by the mission were in poor shape and without furniture nor equipment. Children sit for the most part on the floor, and in some cases, stones or cement blocks as in Kauda. In the latter place, there is an abandoned boarding school built in the sixties. It is extensive, solid and would only require minor rehabilitation work. According to residents, air bombardments and military action forced its abandonment as a school. According to information received, there are over 21,000 students with 128 teachers in the four counties of Heiban, Dilling, Nagurban and Kadugli. There is a centre for the Training of Teachers. This however, actually caters more to only limited aspects of teaching.

Girls and boys attend mixed classes and there seems to be a variation in the percentage of girls in schools according to the region. This is 20 percent in some schools and up to 55 percent in others. On the average, schooling age starts at 6 years. In the light of the limited number of schools, many children travel an hour and a half – each way, every day on foot through a difficult terrain to attend classes.

Experience has shown that schooling is one of the most effective way of restoring a sense of normalcy to the lives of children in disrupted communities. It helps them cope with the trauma of daily life.

In order to reinforce the importance given to education by everyone in the community, it is essential to alleviate the lack of trained teachers. To that end the Teachers Training Centre should be given support by supplying trained teachers and by giving in service training to those currently teaching. Books and other school supplies must be made available. Most of all, a needs assessment to determine what is needed and where, has to be carried out. This something the current Mission could not undertake within the limited time available.

3.5. Women and Children

While women and children face all the problems which are faced also by men, they carry the greatest burden falling on the family in communities in conflict situation.

The Mission heard – but was unable to check – complaints of abduction of particularly women and children by armed elements originating from GOS controlled territory. On the second day of the visit of the Mission, the Mission met a 12 year old boy who in October 1998 was abducted and "sold for 40,000 pounds". The child was apparently traced by his mother in Kadugli and brought back to Lumun village in early June 1999. Children also suffer trauma and from the disruption of their schooling due to air bombardments. Some of them were admitted to the health centres. As no special centres exist for traumatized and orphaned children, those are usually taken in by relatives.

Women in this highly rural society carry many burdens. They work on the farms and look after the family. They, together with the children (mostly girls) fetch water – which is extreme cases means travelling 4 hours each way. Due to the limited health facilities and absence of mid-wives, they are further exposed to additional dangers during pregnancy. Allegations were also made by women raped by soldiers.

3.6. Access and Security

The area visited is clearly under the control of the SPLM/A of which Yousif Kuwa Makki is the regional Commander. Despite the very limited infrastructure evident (including the total absence of vehicles) we noted the capability of the military to communicate messages and commands albeit with some delay. Full assurances regarding the safety of any UN personnel who may visit or operate in the area in future were given by Commander Kuwa. He denied problems of irregular armed elements in his area. The SPLM/A Commander also had no objection to the use of the full range communications equipment that was carried by the team.

Fighting between GOS and SOLM forces would appear to be intermittent – mostly during the dry season (January to May) – featuring raids by both sides with reportedly more frequent aerial bombing and artillery shelling by the GOS.

This mission benefited from a 4 – day cease-fire declared by both sides – the first ever in this region. Clearly future UN missions would need similar undertakings for the areas in which they were operating.

The mission by pre-arrangement with both sides flew into Karkar airstrip – one of the few airstrips, (not all of which are useable in the rainy season) that are reportedly available in the area under SPLM/A control in the Nuba Mountains. These airstrips are viewed as strategic targets by the military.

The only mode of travel in the area is by foot. However, two UN vehicles were flown in for the mission and a 60 km. Track cleared in advance to permit their us during the mission. Most of the time the mission moved on foot with the aid of porters carrying goods.

Future missions/supply deliveries are likely to be needed – initially at least by air. There are however, prospects for cross line surface transport similar to arrangements negotiated through the TCHA between the Government and SPLM/A. Issues related to mines will need to be explored. Given the level of suspicion and mistrust between the two parties this could take time. Discussions on both these modalities are being initiated with the parties to this end.

3.7. Administration & Coordination

Local Administration. During a series of discussions with Commander Kuwa, the mission was appraised of the existence of a Civil Administration and a humanitarian organisation (NRRDS) operating in SPLM/A held areas.

The Civil Administration is composed of a Congress (meets every 5 years), an Advisory Council representing all four counties (Kadugli, Heiban, Nagorban and Dilling), and of the county committees. Each county has a local council, and is sub-divided into payams and villages.

The Nuba Relief, Rehabilitation and Development Society (NRRDS), based in Gidel, Heiban county, has a representation office in Nairobi. The function of NRRDS is to collect support from donors and NGO'’ abroad. NRRDS retains responsibility for the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the Nuba Mountains. NRRDS has representatives in each county and covers community development programmes in the sectors of agriculture, education, water and health. NRRDS implements projects with local communities and reports directly to donors on the use of their contributions.

Moreover, NRRDS, in collaboration with NGOs, has organised several discussions on food security in the Nuba Mountains, including a workshop in Gidel on 14-15 June 1999. It has not been possible for the mission to visit the NRRDS office, nor has the mission met the participants in the various workshops.

  1. Follow-up actions and issues

Specific proposals for immediate assessment and supply missions at the technical/sectoral and security levels as well as agreement on impartial and cost-effective modalities for the channneling of aid relief supplies to the area will need to be addressed between the Parties and UN agencies concerned.

As a first step, a food assessment survey should be undertaken by the world Food Programme (WFP) to identify needs of the populations in both GOS and SPLM/A areas of South Kordofan State. Further assessments should follow to address needs in the sectors of health and nutrition, water and education.

Division of programme/operational responsibilities needs to be clarified among UN agencies and implementing partners for the different types of assistance required by the civilian populations in SPLM/A held areas of the Nuba Mountains.

Consideration should be given to developing a comprehensive approach to humanitarian interventions in all areas of South Kordofan State, covering both GOS controlled areas and SPLM/A areas of the Nuba Mountains.

Geneva, 8 July 1999