A relief worker ( Dada Shantashubhananda of AMURT) gives his opinion on the humanitarian crisis in Sudan (first published in 1999)


 NR:  Why is Southern Sudan considered to be a humanitarian crisis area? 

DS: South Sudan has become a priority for the UN, UNICEF and other relief agencies. There are many countries in Africa, which are fragmented into numerous tribes. However in Sudan there is clear division between the people of the South who consider themselves to be African and Christian, and those of the North, who are Muslim. And this is the reason why the country has experienced so much turmoil in last 16 years. 

NR:   What is the reason for the famine conditions of this region? 

DS: The main split between the North and the South took place in 1983.  Sixteen years of fighting have devastated Sudan.  The country was not rich, though the south is considered to be potentially rich.  It is very fertile and rich in minerals. We are talking about tribal people who had  very little for their survival and then found themselves in a war lasting almost two decades.  

 In 1998 a number of things came together and created extreme difficulties for certain areas of South Sudan.  Basically in almost every year of the past decade they were faced with a "hunger gap" in the months of January-August (in some areas it goes from March to August). This is the period when the previous crop finishes and the new one has not come in.  In 1998 this became a catastrophe due to no rain in March until the beginning of August, the rain came late and devastated their cultivation.  When the rain came it came in such an abundant pattern that it flooded areas and most of the crops were wiped out.  The hunger gap which was supposed to end in August 1998, was extended right to the present moment..

NR: How many people are affected by this catastrophe?

DS:  If we look at the region wise statistics, we see a lot of internally displaced people in the Bahar al Gazal area where we are working. We are talking about 200,000 in this region wandering around looking for food and they are putting a lot of strain on the small feeding centres started by the non governmental organizations (NGOs) creating more instability in these areas.

NR: Can you describe how the civil war is being conducted and what effect it has on the people?

DS: Recently one of the south Sudan rebel leaders defected to the government and turned on the local population, burning houses and destroying crops. This was a big blow to the southern Sudanese and created much psychological instability. Usually the forces of the government move in the dry season with horses and attack settlements in Southern Sudan. The Popular Defense Force  (a government agency) made a shocking attack in February of 1999.  They raided and took a bounty of 700 people who forced into slavery. Usually they take women and children and the men are killed.  On this particular raid they took 700 people, 2000 cattle, and killed 70. During war, men die, and in Sudan this causes a particularly serious problem. Men marry and usually have 10 wives (and around each wife there is household). When one man dies there are 10 family units or households affected causing a very bad condition for women and children.

NR: What are the relief agencies doing to help the people of this region?

DS: Around 1993-1994 people around the world began to have awareness of this crisis and that is when the Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) was started. OLS is a consortium of different agencies.  OLS works under the auspices of the UN. Members include UNICEF, the World Food Program (WFP) and then there are many NGOs such as Care, Save the Children, and others. They started as a relief operation in 1993 and 1994, and they were hoping to solve the problem in a short time.

 But they eventually changed from relief to long-term sustainable programs in education, agriculture, income generation, water facilities, dam building, hygiene and health centers. The whole emphasis shifted from relief to development.  

 The logistical problem has made the whole operation very difficult. They have  to fly into South Sudan 1000km from the supply camp on the Kenya border. All relief materials have to be flown in. There are no secure land routes.  The cost of the food and relief materials is then multiplied 3-5 times due to the high cost of transport.

 NR: How much has been spent on Sudan?

DS:  It is a million $ per day operation, going on for the last six years, that is why this is considered a complex operation even for the largest NGOS and relief organizations. This is an operation that is still struggling to bring the minimum necessities of survival to the people. 

NR: How is AMURT working to create sustainable solutions to the problems of the area?

DS:  AMURT started in August 1998 at what was supposed to be the end of the hunger-gap period. We made an assessment trip to the Bahar al Gazal area. A second assessment team went in October 1998 and the actual establishment of the permanent camp was in 2 December.  It is in an area bordering the government-controlled area and considered to be one of the most vulnerable and unstable areas.

Originally we discussed an education program, similar to what we have done in other parts of Africa.  But we made it a bit innovative. Not only did we want to support schools with the material supplies, but we also introduced a sustainable approach to education. The schools should be able to stand on their own. This proved to be something interesting and well suited to the mentality  of the local people. They had a custom that each family would contribute to a teacher's upkeep. So they welcomed the chance to work as a community.  We spoke to them about how to support the teachers and children.  The community decided that they would like to cultivate land, and that this would be a project for the school.  It would be what UNICEF and OLS calls a “School Garden”.  This is a development program, not a relief program where food is just given.

NR: Can you say something about the conditions of the schools and gardens?

DS: We now have 52 schools under our care.  Very few have premises, some are in mud houses and some are bush schools, which are under trees. We are responsible for 6000 children.  It is a primary education from grades 1-7.  Our next phase is to develop boarding schools. Presently some students have to walk 4-10 hours to reach the school. We cultivate 143 acres of land to support these schools.  We work in a single county. School gardens and farms have vegetables (many of which are new to the area)---they grow cucumber, egg plants, pumpkins, French beans, and onions . One of the first experimental vegetable gardens which we started uses local irrigation technologies.  It was a known technology but was not widely used in this area.  It is called a "shadoop" which is a system for lifting water from a source to 2.5 meters above and then into a channel which goes to different seed beds.  We started harvesting after 2.5 months, and the vegetables are doing well.

NR: What do you see as the future of Southern Sudan?

DS:  Sudan is a country of contrasts. Some people live with nothing, yet there are community values, culture and roots and they have their own identity, which cannot be denied. We are facing an exhausted community—physically, psychologically and they are not able to cope with such a threatening reality.  But they are determined to find a solution.  The international community has not put much energy into helping to resolve the problem in a political way.  There have been some meetings and a ceasefire.  The conflict does not seem ready to end very soon.  But even if the war ends, we are with a community which is fighting for its survival due to a harsh climate and difficult conditions--they still have a long way to go to create a decent living condition.