Unhindered aid access vital for isolated Sudanese


OPINION:Ordinary people are trapped in the violence on the border between North and South Sudan, writes MACRAM MAX GASSIS

PLUMES OF black smoke stream across the barren foothills of Sudan’s Nuba Mountains. Each explosion marks an aerial bomb attack and the killing or injury of another innocent person from El Obeid Diocese, where I serve as bishop.

In remote villages, mothers shield their children in foxholes, praying they will be spared. This is the daily experience of Nuba’s people, hidden from the world in one of its most isolated corners.

I was exiled from my diocese in 1988 after speaking out against the killing of indigenous farmers in Darfur, and have since been in exile in Kenya. It is deplorable to watch history repeat itself as the atrocities committed in Darfur are now being perpetrated in the Nuba Mountains.

Last July, my diocese became split between two countries with the independence of South Sudan. After decades of fighting, which took two million lives, Sudan, north and south, had a chance at peace. After the South’s independence, the two states were to decide upon the division of oil revenues and the rights of border citizens. But negotiations have been fraught, eclipsing the peaceful solution so many ordinary Sudanese hoped for.

The Nuba people live in South Kordofan, a north Sudanese border state rich in oil, gold, copper and agricultural produce. South Kordofan was the main oil-producing state left in the north when the South seceded. It is home to thousands of militia who fought against north Sudan’s Khartoum government during the civil war.

The Nuba people identify ethnically with South Sudanese. Khartoum considers them historically linked to South Sudan’s insurgency, and so does not want them on such valuable land. Last June, Khartoum unleashed an assault on the Nuba Mountains. Nobody has been spared. Daily attacks with military aircraft target peaceful Nuba civilians, killing and maiming and forcing the mass movement of thousands. The UN estimates more than 36,000 have left their homes and villages. Their hunger has become malnourishment, and soon it will become deadly starvation.

When the rainy season starts this month, roads leading to those mountains will turn to muddy swamp, cutting the area off from the outside world. Its people will be left to the mercy of further attacks and completely isolated from food supplies, with no prospect of growing their own. The rains will add to an already critical situation, with more than 400,000 expected to face famine.

I have been attacked on pastoral visits to the Nuba Mountains where I sought to provide relief without distinction in terms of tribe, creed or gender. Walking through burnt-out ghost villages once thriving with life, I see decades of development reversed by bombs and bullets. Families describe seeing their farms raided by troops and running for their lives under threat of aerial bombs and long-range artillery shelling.

In a scene that resembles the Stone Age, thousands have taken refuge in caves, the only bomb-proof shelter in South Kordofan’s exposed landscape. Families huddle together as destruction rumbles outside, sharing their dwellings with dangerous snakes and surviving on leaves. They say they’ve no food, no hope and nowhere to go.

We are thankful for the efforts of the Irish people in providing medical supplies to the Mother of Mercy Hospital, the only medical facility for 300 miles. The hospital was built to hold 80 beds but now has 500 patients. Our medical staff work round the clock, treating horrific injuries, often without anaesthetic. Patients include children with severed limbs or who are malnourished, and traumatised mothers whose babies were killed in their arms.

The citizens of Sudan, north and south, do not want a return to war. This month, on behalf of my diocese, I will meet representatives of Ireland and Europe to sincerely appeal for the international community to help the innocent, voiceless people of the Nuba Mountains. Irish people can aid this appeal by raising awareness through their own political representatives.

To bring an end to this suffering, all parties to this conflict must immediately cease military operations in South Kordofan, most particularly attacks on civilian communities. A peaceful solution must be sought in line with what was agreed under Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, to end civil war and agree democratic governance and a peaceful sharing of oil revenues.

Khartoum’s government did not honour a public consultation process known as “the Popular Consultation for the Nuba”. This had agreed there would be a local referendum to reflect the views of people directly affected by the new borders under the peace agreement. This consultation should be revisited and adhered to with a sense of honesty.

The government of North Sudan and all involved must allow safe, unhindered access to international aid in accordance with international humanitarian law so we can reach the most isolated people. This is our only hope to prevent more bloodshed in Sudan and to avert what is becoming the world’s next major humanitarian catastrophe.

Bishop Macram Max Gassis of El Obeid Diocese has been nominated for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. He is in Ireland as a guest of Trócaire and is to meet President Higgins tomorrow at Áras an Uachtaráin

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