US urged to help avert famine in South Sudan

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» Analysis of the current fighting and its relation to famine 

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Human Rights Watch 
WFP, 4 March - The factional fighting in southern Sudan could widen into a devastating famine unless the United States intervenes diplomatically with rebel forces and others, Human Rights Watch said today. Recent experience in southern Sudan has demonstrated that the fighting now in progress will provoke a new humanitarian disaster, unless immediately checked.

In a 1 March letter to US Secretary of State Colin Powell, Human Rights Watch called on the Bush administration to use its influence with the southern factions to stave off the potential crisis. "This is a good example of where early and skillful US diplomatic intervention can make all the difference," said Jemera Rone, Sudan researcher for Human Rights Watch. "The lives of tens of thousands of civilians are at stake."

Rone said various factions of the Nuer, the second largest people in southern Sudan, are fighting a no-holds-barred war among themselves. Their fighting threatens to reignite the war between the Nuer and the Dinka, another tribe in southern Sudan.

Human Rights Watch recommended that the US insist that all military support to these groups be stopped and a cease-fire imposed; that the US help convene an all-Nuer meeting in which Nuer could democratically resolve their differences; that the US judiciously use aid to remedy perceived unfairness in the distribution of relief; and that the US also reinforce diplomatically and with material assistance a Nuer-Dinka Wunlit peace agreement that is threatened by the factional fighting.

- The US has tremendous clout with southerners. Now is the time to use it, Rone said. While the US does not have similar clout with the Sudan government and its Nuer militias, it should advocate that the Sudan government stop interfering with relief deliveries and stop arming its abusive Nuer militias, said Rone.

Sudan is in the eighteenth year of a civil war that pits the Arab and Muslim-dominated central government against marginalized African peoples. The Africans live mostly in the southern third of the one-million-mile-square country, the largest in Africa. Sudan's almost thirty million citizens are divided into hundreds of tribes with no one tribe having more than 10 percent of the population. 

The Nuer are already conducting inter-Nuer warfare. In addition, the Nuer and the Dinka are currently poised to go to war against each other; the Dinka are the largest "tribe" in southern Sudan, and the Nuer, the second largest. They are neighbors and cousins, sharing many customs and beliefs. History has shown that peace in the south is impossible if these two tribes are fighting each other.

The way that inter-Nuer and Nuer-Dinka war have been conducted recently is in violation of both traditional Nuer and Dinka practices of war and international humanitarian law, namely: burning homes, villages, community structures, and grain, and killing women and children. These types of abuses have been the proximate cause of several famines in recent years.

One example was the famine that hit the East Bank of the Nile in 1993, where tens of thousands died in the "Hunger Triangle" (formed by Adok, Waat, and Kongor, villages straddling the Nuer/Dinka divide). This crisis was precipitated by Nuer/Dinka fighting (1991-93), also in disregard of tribal and international rules of war, which grew out of the 1991 split in the Sudan People´s Liberation Army (SPLA) led by Riek Machar.

The fighting in 2001 is not traditional tribal conflict, because many other actors with their own agendas have inserted themselves. In addition to the government army, the other organized military players sharing the blame for this looming disaster are the government-backed Nuer militias, particularly the militias of Gordon Kong Chuol and Simon Gatwich; the Sudan People´s Democratic Front/Defense Forces (SPDF) of Nuer leader Riek Machar; and the SPLA.

In Eastern Upper Nile, the Nuer government militias and Sudan army are fighting against Riek Machar SPDF (Nuer) forces and the SPLA. Militia Cmdr. Gordon Kong of Nasir is active in trying to drive out these forces from areas adjacent to oilfields that are in development. In the process many civilians have been killed and forcibly displaced. His militia has even placed landmines in the compounds of relief organizations.

In Central Upper Nile, other SPLA (Nuer) forces have fought the SPDF (Nuer), with the result that government forces have captured towns not in government control for more than a decade. Cmdr. Simon Gatwich, another Nuer pro-government militia leader, joined the fighting, and reportedly threatened to lead a Nuer retaliatory attack on the Dinka.

The situation was further exacerbated by the SPLA's entry into the fray, which threatens to broaden the conflict into a Nuer/Dinka clash. The immediate danger of SPLA (Nuer) versus Riek Machar/SPDF (Nuer) fighting is that many Nuer see the SPLA as a Dinka army and consider this SPLA advance into Nyal a Dinka advance into Nuer territory. 

Now Nuer talk of taking “revenge” on the Dinka and attacking Dinka villages. This imperils not only Dinka civilians who have moved back to their border villages on the West Bank of the Nile, trusting in Wunlit. It also exposes to danger of retaliation the tens of thousands of Nuer internally displaced persons who took refuge in Dinka areas, likewise trusting in Wunlit. These displaced Nuer were expelled from their homes by the Khartoum government in 1999-2000 to erect a cordon sanitaire for the oil companies.

Source: Based on information from Human Rights Watch

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