Desperate in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains: ‘They’ve Started Eating Leaves’

BY Larisa Epatko  May 9, 2012 at 4:53 PM EST

Disputes along the border of Sudan and newly independent South Sudan blow hot and cold. Last month, fighting between the northern and southern armies over Sudan’s Heglig oil fields took the conflict to a new high. Although the battles there have stopped for now, the danger still exists for people who have fled the violence and are hiding in caves in the Nuba Mountains.

Tristan McConnell, GlobalPost’s correspondent in Nairobi, Kenya, traveled to South Sudan to report on their plight. Members of the rebel army fighting Khartoum brought McConnell and several other journalists into the disputed area last week.

For almost a year, Sudanese armed forces have bombed the Nuba Mountains area in response to the rebels fighting them. The civilian population is too scared to plant their crops, so they’ve missed the last harvest and will miss the upcoming one as well, McConnell said.

Without any crops, they’ve started eating leaves, he said. “To see a woman sitting down and cooking supper for her eight children and all she’s got in the pot is a load of boiled leaves is just horrendous. That sort of thing just shouldn’t happen.”

The region is too volatile for the international community to supply aid, so no food is coming into the area either.

Hundreds of refugees per day are embarking on the three- to seven-day journey to get to refugee camps on the other side of the border in South Sudan, McConnell said. “The ones who get there are the lucky ones. The ones who stay behind have nothing.”

In one village he visited, where 9,000 people used to live, about half its residents have left. The chief has said if no food comes in the next few days, the rest should leave, McConnell said.

The rainy season begins in a few weeks and will last until October, effectively trapping them without any supplies.

The rebel army has set its sights on the downfall of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

“They don’t want to separate and become an independent country like South Sudan,” McConnell said. “They want to change the way Sudan is governed, and that means overthrowing Bashir’s Islamist regime in Khartoum. That might seem slightly ridiculous — the idea of this funny little rebel group that no one’s heard of fighting its way to Khartoum. But they seem to be notching up some victories against the northern army.”

They’ve also forged alliances with other rebel groups, including rebels from Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile — another disputed territory — with the goal of representing a united presence of resistance from the eastern to the western border, McConnell said.

This new group is calling itself the Sudan Revolutionary Front. (McConnell interviewed its chief during his reporting trip. Read all of his dispatches from the Nuba Mountains.)

The coalition says it wants to create a country where people of different tribes, religions and languages can coexist with a democratic constitution based on individual freedoms and basic human rights, he said.

That coexistence seemed out of reach when South Sudan tried to occupy the Heglig oil fields of Sudan in April. Diplomatic pressure and a strong military backlash forced the South Sudanese forces to withdraw after a week.

(McConnell wrote about the Heglig dispute and how people were surviving in nearby Bentiu.)

“I was expecting a ghost town, but it wasn’t one,” he said of Bentiu. Aside from a heavy military presence and twisted metal and other remnants of the violence, he said it looked like a normal town. “I think people have learned to live with the constant threat of bombing and insecurity.”

More coverage of Sudan:

Bombings Spur Relocation of Sudanese Refugee Camp

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

The NewsHour has a partnership with the international news website GlobalPost. View all of our World coverage and follow us on Twitter.