On 21 June this year, ten years after Khartoum agreed that the United Nations could carry relief to all "war-affected populations" of Sudan, the UN's Operation Lifeline Sudan finally took its first steps in the Nuba Mountains. The ground-breaking visit by a five-man delegation came as Nuba patience was wearing thin, 13 long months after Khartoum promised UN Secretary General Kofi Annan that it would permit OLS to assess the need in the SPLA-controlled regions of the Nuba mountains that have been denied official aid for the last decade.

The UN team, led by Ross Mountain of the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, spent four days in the SPLA-controlled Mountains - an area it later said was "clearly under the control of the SPLA". It met SPLA Commander Yousif Kuwa, members of the Civil Administration, women's representatives, ordinary villagers in Heiban and Ngorban counties and a "substantial" number of displaced. At the time of going to press, a second, "substantive" visit scheduled to last two weeks was being prepared and only awaited government approval.

However tentative the UN's first step into formerly forbidden territory, the visit has raised great expectations among the Nuba. Until now, OLS's absence from rebel-controlled areas has amounted to complicity in the government's onslaught against the Nuba - a people whose society is a model of political and religious tolerance and whose very existence threatens the National Islamic Front's project of a conformist Islamic extremism. For the past decade, the UN has pumped resources into government-controlled areas where aid is used as a weapon to lure the Nuba away from the SPLA, but has acquiesced in the government's refusal to allow relief into rebel-controlled areas. During last year's famine, OLS spent a million dollars a day in southern Sudan but did not put a single bag of flour into the Nuba Mountains. Hundreds of Nuba died from hunger. Thousands more fled into government hands.

Although the UN assessment was facilitated by a four-day cease-fire - the first ever in the Nuba mountains - the visitors got a taste of life in rebel-controlled areas as soon as they arrived when government forces began shelling the airstrip at which they landed. They were only able to proceed in safety after contact was made with Khartoum to halt the shelling. The reason for the bombardment remains unclear. It seems unlikely that the government would wish to give the UN first-hand evidence of its aggression against the Nuba. Could it be that it had hoped to frighten the UN off? Perhaps even to turn the team back before it landed? Although Khartoum has finally bowed to pressure and permitted the UN a brief glimpse of the mountains, it is still far from certain that it will permit a relief operation. In apparent contradiction, President Omar Bashir told the NIF’s South Kordofan Council on the eve of the assessment that he would never allow relief to reach the Nuba.

In its report on its visit, the UN identified "substantive needs in all areas" but especially in the areas of food security, water, health and primary education. It said access to the mountains should be secured and improved. Its findings in the four "key" areas it identified can be summarised as follows:

  1. Food security and agriculture: The UN concluded that "food insecurity among the population is steadily increasing (and) the risks of famine and starvation are greater than ever." It said consideration should be given to pre-positioning food stocks. The possibility of food aid should not be excluded even though "the civil administration in place has expressed strong preference for the strengthening of the productivity of agriculture and animal husbandry... 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. Any disruption/delay in the rain pattern will translate into immediate food shortages, in a situation without reserves." There was a real need for agricultural tools
  2. Health and Nutrition: Despite the efforts made by the Nuba to establish a nurses' training school, three health centres and 26 small health units, the UN said all levels of the health system required medical and administrative training, provision of basic drugs and medical supplies including vaccines for immunization. Malaria was "by far the single most serious cause of death among children and adults", followed by respiratory infections and, among children, whooping cough, diarrhoea, eye infection, measles and meningitis. There were two doctors and insufficient midwives for a population estimated at 100,000 by the government and at 350,000 by the SPLA. Iodized salt was conspicuous by its absence.
  3. Water and Sanitation: Nuba from all walks of life identified water as their area of greatest concern. A technical assessment was required to establish the feasibility of providing water to each village in order to eliminate health hazards and relieve women and children of the need to walk for hours to fetch water.
  4. Education: Citing SPLM figures of 21,000 students, 128 teachers, 82 primary schools and, in its own words, a "limited" teacher training centre, the team said the primary schools it visited "were in poor shape and without furniture or equipment... Many children travel an hour and a half each way, every day, on foot through a difficult terrain to attend classes." Its conclusion was categorical: "Schooling is one of the most effective ways of restoring a sense of normalcy to the lives of children in disrupted communities... 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."

Given that food was not identified as the most pressing need in the mountains, it is perhaps surprising that the UN plans to begin its follow-up activity with a food assessment survey by the World Food Programme, with health, water and education left for a later stage. It is of paramount importance that any UN intervention in the Nuba Mountains meets the needs, and the desires, of the Nuba and acknowledges that they want to be enabled - not merely supplied. In Commander Kuwa's words: "Food aid is the poison of the community."

WFP, moreover, is not the agency best suited to tackle the problem that lies at the heart of the Nuba’s plight - the human rights violations through which Khartoum wages war by targeting civilians and, increasingly, the airstrips that supply them.

The UN report trod carefully around human rights issues - even though OLS itself now has a human rights component - saying, for example, that it was "unable to check" reports of abductions by government forces. To remedy this, and to get first-hand information on the humanitarian situation in parts of the mountains the sturdiest assessors cannot easily reach, future missions should add to their list of interlocutors the human rights monitors whose work over the past four years provided the basis for the definitive work on the Nuba at the end of the millennium: "Facing Genocide: The Nuba of Sudan."