JAMAM, South Sudan — Needing water, the teetering mass of people lurched forward, some dropping to the ground in thirst, unable to walk any farther. The tens of thousands of refugees already had marched hundreds of miles over weeks of grueling terrain to cross into South Sudan, but they still hadn’t reached a United Nations refugee camp.
The aid group Doctors Without Borders set up emergency clinics along the way, saving some lives but losing others.
“There was no food and there was no water,” Abukar Joda, wearing a torn secondhand shirt, said of the long journey. “Many died because we couldn’t find water.”
The thirsty refugees pouring out of Sudan’s Blue Nile state are only a fragment of the vast human toll in Sudan, where hundreds of thousands of people are starving to death and fleeing their homes in war-torn lands whose names are unknown to most outsiders. The border district of Abyei has been razed and its population driven out, the famished Nuba Mountains are coughing out a steady stream of starving refugees and Blue Nile is a desolated war zone of abandoned villages.
These hot spots – known in diplomatic circles as the Three Areas – have pushed 270,000 refugees into South Sudan, tens of thousands into Ethiopia and untold others into neighboring Sudanese states to seek safety.
As South Sudan this week marks one year since it gained independence from Sudan, the squabbles and occasional military flare-ups between the uneasy neighbors continue to overshadow the fates of these border populations in Sudan despite the hundreds of thousands of lives that are hanging in the balance – and the fact that one-third of a U.S.-backed peace deal originally was directed toward resolving the conflicts in the Three Areas.
Before South Sudan’s January 2011 referendum on independence, fears of renewed north-south war led international diplomats and Sudanese officials to push the rest of the 2005 peace deal to the back of the agenda, said Jon Temin, the Sudan director at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a research center. The result, Temin said, was that South Sudan was able to secede largely without violence, but the rest of the peace deal’s provisions were left in shambles.
“This was a tradeoff that politicians and diplomats chose to make,” Temin said.
That strategy seems to have backfired.
U.S. officials now consider the raging war in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile a chief obstacle to resolving the violent border disputes between Sudan and South Sudan. In a recent interview, Princeton Lyman, the ranking U.S. envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, said he was “very pessimistic” about the prospects for cross-border peace unless the conflicts in those areas resolved first.
Any satisfaction that U.S. and other diplomats felt at overseeing Sudan’s partition after decades of north-south conflict was short-lived, with the fighting erupting before South Sudan’s secession was even official.
In May 2011, Sudanese forces swept through Abyei – a disputed district along the border that’s inhabited by ethnic South Sudanese but used as a grazing ground by nomadic northerners – and drove South Sudanese off the land, displacing some 100,000 people.
A month later, fighting erupted in the Nuba Mountains, and then spread to Blue Nile last September as Sudanese forces tried to dislodge the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North militia, which had fought previously alongside South Sudan but refused to disarm until the peace deal provisions were fully implemented.
In the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, civilians in the rebel areas mostly have run out of food as Sudanese warplanes prowl the sky, driving villagers out of their homes and fields into the mountainsides and bush for protection.
During a weeklong visit to the rebel-held Nuba Mountains in April, a McClatchy correspondent witnessed children rummaging for food in treetops. Several families said they had nothing more to eat. Residents seemed resigned to widespread starvation during the summer rainy season, when road access to the area will be impassable.
“What can I say? Our life is in God’s hands,” Ibrahim Kuku Naher, 48-year old local chief, said in the mountains of Tess, where thousands had gathered under boulders. “Some will pick (food) from trees, but others will die.”
For now it seems that the only way for relief to reach the needy is a peace deal or cease-fire. The Sudanese government has cut off the rebel-held areas from aid organizations, fearing that humanitarian relief will aid the rebellions.
Ryan Boyette, an American aid worker who refused to be evacuated from the Nuba Mountains when the war broke out, said that with markets in the area now empty, up to 800,000 people were eating leaves, sap, roots and bugs to survive.
“Many of the communities in the local area now have no food at all and the other communities have reduced their food intake to try to make it through the rainy season,” Dr. Tom Catena, an American surgeon who’s running a hospital in the rebel-held Nuba Mountains, wrote in an email late last month.
There appears to be no Plan B if famine strikes. In March, Lyman told a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing that, “if necessary, we will examine ways to provide indirect support to Sudanese humanitarian actors to reach the most vulnerable.”
Some food aid has been entering the Nuba Mountains covertly for months, but it doesn’t appear to be enough. McClatchy witnessed an unmarked truck that was carrying food entering the area from South Sudan, and civilians described having received rations that they said lasted only a few days.
Roads are now impassable due to the summer rains. U.S. officials say air delivery of food aid would require the permission of Sudan, which is unlikely. Humanitarian officials say that thousands could die.
Even after they reach South Sudan, the refugees are finding little relief from their living nightmare.
The Jamam refugee camp in northeast South Sudan sits atop a baked mud floodplain, with dangerously low amounts of fresh drinking water. Since the seasonal downpours began, that camp has overflowed, spilling toilet waste onto the bare earth where refugees sleep and raising mortality rates in the camps, Doctors Without Borders said last week in a statement.
“These people have fled terrible violence in Sudan and lost family members during their arduous journeys for safety, and now they are sitting exposed in refugee camps on a floodplain and dying from preventable diseases due to horrific living conditions,” said Tara Newell, the group’s emergency coordinator in Jamam, who called on the United Nations to find an urgent solution to the crisis.
Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His work is underwritten in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues.