In Violent Areas of Sudan, Many Finding Refuge in the Hills

BY Larisa Epatko  October 19, 2011 at 5:11 PM EST

Fighting in the border areas between North and South Sudan has sent tens of thousands to seek refuge in the Nuba hills of Southern Kordofan as they watch and wait for the violence to end.

In June, violence swept Southern Kordofan when Sudan’s army tried to disarm fighters allied to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the ruling party in South Sudan. The conflict took place about a month before South Sudan became an independent country on July 9.

Fighting again surged in September between Northern government forces and the northern branch of the SPLM in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile state.

Aid agencies say an estimated 150,000 people have fled their homes in Southern Kordofan. About 27,500 people have left Blue Nile for refugee camps in neighboring Ethiopia, according to the United Nations.

The bombing has continued, even though frontlines have been established, said Ryan Boyette, who worked for a local nongovernmental organization on agriculture and water drilling projects in Southern Kordofan for several years. When the NGO’s staff left due to the outbreak of violence in June, Boyette chose to stay. He recently visited Washington, D.C., and provided an update on the situation there.

When the fighting started in June, “it was very scary,” he told us. “I lived close to major towns in Nuba, and my wife and I could hear the gunshots; we could see fires started in the town. We didn’t know what was going to happen. The next morning there was bombing in the area with jet fighters.”

Fighting has since concentrated around Kadugli, the capital of Southern Kordofan. And the Sudan People’s Liberation Army has established its own civil administration within areas of Nuba. But in the absence of a peace agreement, the violence has continued, and people who are camped out in the hills are afraid to return home.

“It’s really difficult for the people right now. They don’t know what to do or where to turn. They don’t know if they should walk to South Sudan, which could take weeks,” said Boyette. About 15,000 people have fled to South Sudan as refugees, he added.

It is difficult for humanitarian aid agencies to bring supplies to the area, and stocks are running low in marketplaces. “You can’t buy rice or sorghum or sugar or tea,” Boyette said. “There’s nothing in the market you can get, even something like a bar of soap that you take for granted. So people are dirty, their clothes are dirty, and hygiene and sickness are becoming issues.”

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has warned of a looming food crisis if conditions don’t improve.

According to the agency, Southern Kordofan is one of Sudan’s largest production sites for sorghum, a cereal crop, but people escaping the fighting weren’t able to plant seeds for this year’s harvest, causing prices to double. A small FAO team of national staff are in Southern Kordofan trying to distribute seeds and tools to families in calmer parts.

People are just waiting now, Boyette said, for help from the international community, for ways to get to South Sudan and for the fighting to stop.

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