NAIROBI (AlertNet) - Experts warn that a quarter of a million Sudanese could be on the brink of famine by March. War between the government and rebels in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states means that few humanitarian agencies can gain access to those at risk.
Some 140,000 refugees have crossed into neighbouring South Sudan and Ethiopia, and the United Nations (U.N.) warns this figure could reach 500,000 in the coming months.
How serious is the threat of famine?
The Famine Early Warning System (FEWS NET) says the two states will reach level four, or emergency levels, by March. This is one stage short of level five, or famine.
Many people have been unable to plant and harvest since fighting broke out in South Kordofan in June and in Blue Nile in September. In South Kordofan, thousands have been forced to take shelter from bombing in the Nuba Mountains.
“(This is) a looming catastrophe that will make Syria, in terms of total casualties, look like a gang war in the park,” said Eric Reeves, a U.S.-based Sudan analyst. “There’s no food getting in. There’s no food being produced. All the food reserves were consumed by mid-summer. They are eating grass. They are eating inedible berries.”
In Yida refugee camp, in South Sudan’s Unity State, refugee children are “dying on the way or dying shortly after they got to the camp,” according to Reeves’ sources.
“What we are seeing surpasses, and has for many weeks, the U.N. threshold for a food emergency,” he said.
Why are the U.N. and other agencies not responding?
Khartoum refuses to allow international agencies to deliver humanitarian aid to civilians in areas controlled by the rebel Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), saying it will be used to feed fighters. It also suspects some international agencies want to use aid to funnel support to the rebels.
"We submitted a new proposal to the government on how (rebel) SPLM-N controlled areas could be assessed and reached with emergency food assistance. We are awaiting to hear from them," said Amor Almagro, an information officer with World Food Programme (WFP) in Sudan, which has been trying to negotiate access to South Kordofan and Blue Nile for months.
In August, U.N. helicopters were allowed to deliver some health supplies, vaccines and nutritional assistance into the rebel-held town of Kauda. No other cross-line access has been permitted.
Is food aid being used as a weapon of war?
Analysts say that the government has used starvation as a tactic to fight rebels for many decades.
“This is a regime that did the same thing in the 1990s to these people; that has relentlessly denied humanitarian relief in Darfur; that denied, at times, over one and a half million people in South Sudan access from Operation Lifeline Sudan,” Reeves said, referring to the U.N.-coordinated relief effort that flew aid into South Sudan from 1989 to the end of Sudan's Second Civil War in 2005.
“To them (Khartoum), local populations are supporting the rebels, which in many cases is true, and therefore are legitimate targets, which is of course in contravention of international law,” said Harry Verhoeven, a researcher affiliated with the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford.
After a disputed gubernatorial election in South Kordofan in June, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is reported to have said: “If the people here refuse to honour the results of the election, then we will force them back into the mountains and prevent them from having food just as we did before.”
Equally, rebel groups in Sudan have a history of manipulating food aid to support their fighters.
But Khartoum says aid can be delivered through the Sudanese Red Crescent?
“It would be very difficult for anybody to have confidence in them (the Sudanese Red Crescent) at the moment. I am pretty certain that people in the Nuba Mountains would just see them as a organ for government,” said Juba-based John Ashworth, who has worked with churches in Sudan for 29 years.
“The Sudanese Red Crescent is permanently disgraced by their performance in Kadugli (the capital of South Kordofan) during the height of the ethnic slaughter there,” Reeves said, referring to the outbreak of the conflict in the state in June.
Rights groups have alleged that government forces and allied militia carried out ethnically targeted attacks on Nuba civilians, charges the government in Khartoum has denied.
In July, mass graves were identified in Kadugli, weeks after some 7,000 civilians, mostly women, children and the elderly, were forced to leave the protection of the U.N. compound, allegedly by security men disguised as Red Crescent staff.
What do U.S. lobby groups want?
Lobbyists argue that the international community has a duty to intervene under the U.N.'s Responsibility to Protect doctrine to ensure people do not starve.
“We are calling for the U.S. to work multilaterally to get support for some kind of alternative mechanism to be getting food in there or to be prepositioning food on the borders to be ready for this situation,” said Dan Sullivan, director of policy and government relations at United to End Genocide.
Sullivan also called on the United States to push for the U.N. Security Council to expand the arms embargo, currently only applicable to Darfur, to the entire country. China and Russia are major arms suppliers to Sudan, accused of violating the existing embargo.
Is the U.S. government likely to respond?
"We are feeling a lot of pressure, if there's no international access, to look at ways in which assistance would be carried across the border without their approval," Princeton Lyman, U.S. special envoy for Sudan, said last month.
But politics and logistics make this unlikely, analysts said.
This language is simply part of a broader political “pressure game”, Verhoeven said, to extract concessions from Khartoum while also being seen to respond to domestic lobby groups.
Neither Ethiopia nor South Sudan would be keen to strain relations with Sudan by allowing cross-border aid deliveries from their territory. Khartoum accuses the ruling SPLM in South Sudan of supporting the SPLM-N rebels in Sudan, a charge it denies.
“For the Americans to provide food aid to what they see as maybe hunger stricken populations, but also regions where rebel movements operate, I think politically that would be a minefield,” Verhoeven said.
The West’s arming of rebels in Libya to overthrow former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has also created suspicion about its misuse of the responsibility to protect as a pretext for regime change.
“Whenever people proclaim that a famine is about to emerge or deny the existence of a famine, typically they are driven by political motives,” Verhoeven said.
What is likely to happen?
The most likely scenario is that Sudan will allow limited humanitarian access, which it will tightly control.
It's likely that hunger conditions will have to worsen further before sufficient pressure builds on the government of Sudan to start relaxing restrictions on humanitarian access," said Aly Verjee, a senior researcher at the Rift Valley Institute.
"Past mechanisms, notably the Operation Lifeline Sudan model, may be resurrected or re-branded in an attempt to deal with the current crisis."
Khartoum is currently considering an initiative by the Arab League, African Union (AU) and U.N. to deliver aid to rebel areas.
What can be done to end the conflict?
Experts say more should be done to address the root causes of the war, rather than simply bandaging the symptoms.
South Kordofan and Blue Nile contain large numbers of people who fought with the SPLM during the Second Civil War.
Under the 2005 peace deal, which offered independence to South Sudan, residents of South Kordofan and Blue Nile were offered “popular consultations” to determine ties with Khartoum. These have not been completed.
“They want some safeguards of their ethnicity, their culture, their language, their religion,” Ashworth said.
“All the statements that we have heard from Khartoum are that there will be no diversity of ethnicity and culture, that Islamic Sharia will be strengthened. So they are basically fighting for their survival as a people, as a culture.”
South Kordofan is the main oil production state in Sudan. Blue Nile is rich in minerals and may have oil and gas like most of the areas surrounding it.
Experts agree that a political solution is needed because Khartoum cannot crush the rebels militarily.
“It’s probably going to continue to be a stalemate,” Ashworth said.
“It’s very unlikely that Khartoum will be able to overrun the strongholds within the Nuba Mountains. They have never managed it before.”
Some leaders appear willing to negotiate. In June, presidential aide Nafie ali Nafie signed an AU-mediated agreement, which agreed a political and security framework for the two states. But Bashir later nullified it.
“Ultimately, Khartoum will have to recognise that the SPLM-North is a legitimate political actor, just as the SPLM-North will have to recognise that you cannot maintain a parallel army,” Verhoeven said.
“Unfortunately, I think quite a few more people will have to die before an agreement is reached.”
(Editing by Julie Mollins)
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