SUDAN: Blue Nile subsistence farmers forced to flee

Villagers fish at a river near Sali. Their families are camped nearby in the woods after they fled their homes due to aerial bombardment/Photo: Hannah McNeish/IRIN
Huwa Gundi, 21, sits on a sheet outside two makeshift tents near her home village of Sali, where her extended family of eight now live off one meal a day. Cradling her four-month-old baby, Fatma, she says her three other children have died since the start of the conflict in Sudan’s Blue Nile State in early September.

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“They were sick, and they died; there was no medicine”, Gundi said, adding that Fatma now has diarrhoea and a fever at night. “We heard the voice of the Antonov [plane used by the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) for dropping bombs]. We know it well,” she said, referring to the bombing of her village, Sali, which she and her family were forced to abandon.

“We don’t have anything to eat; we just go into the bush and then in the old farms we find some `dura’ [sorghum] that is growing and we just make porridge”, she said.

“Fighting between SAF and SPLM-N [Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North] is very far away from here, so I don’t understand why the Antonov comes and bombs us in our village,” said Gundi.

Clashes between the two sides have been going on in Blue Nile State since 2 September when SAF forced the opposition political party-turned-rebel-group out of the state capital, Damazin.

In a nearby settlement where other displaced people have gathered, Arafa Bashir stirs a pot of watery okra soup which – together with the sorghum they have scavenged from abandoned farms – will feed the 10 people crowded around one tent.

Such scenes of misery are replicated across the conflict area, as people flee their villages in fear of aerial bombardment.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says 27,500 people have fled the conflict in Blue Nile State to nearby Ethiopia since early September. The agency is due to open a second camp 200km from the border with a capacity of 3,000 peoplea as fighting and SAF aerial bombardments continue.

Gundi’s family may not have fled far from farming areas, but the sorghum will soon run out, and livelihoods are being affected, too: A few days ago, she said, an Antonov came and bombed the river where she looks for gold to sell in Kurmuk, a town an hour’s drive away near the Ethiopian border.

FAO appeal

Last week the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) launched a $3.5million appeal to help 235,000 people facing food shortages in the two war-affected states that are also Sudan’s major sorghum producers – Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan.

Erratic rainfall and tens of thousands of people being forced to abandon their farms has already led to a doubling of the price of a 90-kg bag of sorghum this year to 140 Sudanese pounds (US$52). FAO predicts prices will continue to rise as shortages bite, but says that getting information on the real situation in Blue Nile was difficult due to the ban on aid agencies by Sudan President Omar al-Bashir.

At Kurmuk hospital, the only one between SAF-controlled Damazin and Ethiopia, the only remaining doctor, Evan Atar, thinks large-scale food shortages are imminent.

“I think the next month is going to be really tough; the people are not going to harvest anything,” Atar said. “They are already running [away] and no one is taking care of their farms, for fear of bombardment.”

Atar cautioned that even SPLM-N stocks in the rebel stronghold of Kurmuk, just 10 minutes walk from the Ethiopian border, would run out in three months.

In what was once a thriving market town, only a few shacks and stalls selling cigarettes, okra, sorghum and basic household items are open.

Flight to the forest

“We left everything; we just took the cooking pots,” said Siham Kolfa from a makeshift den in a forest two hours’ drive north of Kurmuk.

Kolfa said her family left their village two weeks ago and that the three children had eaten the little food they had on the journey.

“There is no food here; we just go to the forest and find something we can eat, mixing it with sorghum we find on empty farms,” she said.

In Maiyas village, where over 3,500 people live, village chief Khidir Abusita said a bomb dropped by an Antonov plane killed six people recently.

“We just eat from these small, small farms,” Abusita said. “We just do it near to our houses, as this year we haven’t been able to go away to our farms in the valley. Little bits of food remain, and only sorghum.”

He said the village also had no medicine, while a market in a larger nearby village only had coffee, cigarettes, lentils and flour for sale.

Food as a weapon

Malik Agar, ousted Blue Nile governor and head of SPLM-N, said while Khartoum might have the upper hand in terms of air power, his group would fight with whatever they had, including landmines. He accused President Bashir of using food as a weapon.

“The strategy is to break the will of the fighters,” Agar said. “The civilians are their mothers, their wives, their beloved ones. If you bomb them you will scatter them all over the area.”

Agar claimed that in the pre-harvest lean season, “there was no food to run out of” in Blue Nile.

“We are asking the UN to open corridors” and push for a tripartite agreement to allow humanitarian aid to come in, Agar said from a rebel hideout near Kurmuk.

He claimed that up to half of Blue Nile’s 1.2 million residents were now on the move, figures that cannot be verified by independent sources.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been working with Sudan’s Red Crescent aid agency in the north of the state, which has seen an influx of thousands of displaced people.

“We have delivered services to almost 18,000 people in nine different localities in Blue Nile State around Damazin town,” providing shelter, water, clothes, cooking and washing materials, said Alexandra Matijedic, ICRC communication coordinator in Khartoum.



Theme (s): Conflict, Early Warning, Food Security,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]