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Unhindered aid access vital for isolated Sudanese

15 May 2012

by Bishop Macram Max Gassis of El Obeid Diocese, Sudan, 15 May 2012

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 that 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 since then have remained in exile in Kenya. It is deplorable that I am watching history repeat itself as the atrocities committed in Darfur are now being perpetrated in the Nuba Mountains.

Last July my diocese, El Obeid, 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 of Sudan’s ordinary people had hoped for.

The Nuba people live in South Kordofan, a north Sudanese border state rich in oil, gold, copper and agriculture. 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.

As an ethnicity, the Nuba people identify with the people of South Sudan. They are considered by the north as historically linked with South Sudan’s insurgency and are now ruled by a government that does not want them on such valuable land.

Last June, the Khartoum government unleashed an assault on the Nuba Mountains. Nobody has been spared.

Daily attacks by military planes are targeting ordinary, peaceful Nuba civilians, killing, maiming and forcing the mass movement of thousands. The UN estimates that over 36,000 have left their homes and villages so far. Their hunger has become malnourishment, and in the near future it will become deadly starvation.

When the rainy season starts this month, roads leading to the Nuba 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 reaching or growing food. 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 to 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 to the efforts of Trócaire and the Irish people for providing medical supplies to the Mother of Mercy Hospital, the only medical facility for 300 miles. The hospital was build for 80 beds but now has 500 patients. Our courageous medical staff work around the clock, treating horrific injuries, often without anaesthetic. Patients include children with severed limbs and facial disfigurements, traumatised mothers whose babies were killed in their arms and weak, malnourished children.

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

To bring an end to this needless 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, 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 agreed that there would be a local referendum to reflect the views of people directly affected by the peace agreement's new borders. This consultation should be revisited and adhered to with honesty.

The government of Sudan and all involved must allow safe, unhindered access for 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. (Saturday 12 May – Tuesday 15 May 2012). This article was originally published in The Irish Times newspaper on May 14th, 2012. 

Watch Channel 4’s documentary ‘Terror in Sudan’, which features the hospital funded by Trócaire.