- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The “Lost Boys” of Sudan walked for months over punishing terrain and waded across rivers teeming with crocodiles to get to refugee camps in neighboring countries.

More than 20,000 orphans were forced from their homes because of civil war. For many, the journey was a death march. Only about half of them made it to the camps where aid workers gave them the doleful nickname.

The war ended with a peace agreement in 2005, but history now is repeating itself.

A massive humanitarian crisis, triggered by another conflict and heightened by an approaching rainy season, is threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of people along the border between Sudan and South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation.

Sudanese troops have been engaged since last summer in a battle with southern rebels in the states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile north of the border.

As many as a quarter-million people in South Kordofan are “one step short of famine,” Nancy Lindborg, assistant administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, told U.S. lawmakers at a congressional hearing last week.

More than half a million people have been killed in or displaced by the fighting.

“We may not know them as the Lost Boys, but their suffering is the same as ours,” said Thon “William” Chol, one of the Lost Boys who now lives in Washington.

Mr. Chol fled to a refugee camp in Ethiopia after Sudanese troops in 1987 attacked his village in Jonglei state, now part of South Sudan. Most of his family were killed in the attack. Mr. Chol was 4 years old at the time.

On the brink of war

Nine months since South Sudan became independent from Sudan, the two nations teeter on the brink of an all-out war.

Clashes between their armies escalated in April and militias continue to wage dangerous proxy wars deep inside each country’s territory.

Sudan this week declared a state of emergency in areas bordering South Sudan, giving authorities wide powers of arrest.

On Tuesday, the South claimed to have killed 27 Sudanese soldiers, as Sudan accused the South of “widening the aggression.”

Instability in oil-rich South Sudan will have an impact on global gas prices. There is also a risk that neighboring countries will get sucked into the conflict, which would divert resources from the fight against al-Shabab militants in Somalia and the hunt for Lord’s Resistance Army rebel leader Joseph Kony in Central Africa.

While as many as 23,000 people have fled South Kordofan, U.S. and United Nations officials estimate that up to 300,000 people have been displaced within that state. More than 93,000 people have fled from Blue Nile to refugee camps in South Sudan, and another 36,000 to camps in Ethiopia.

South Sudan, which is predominantly black, Christian and animist, became an independent nation in July of last year after seceding from the mostly Arab Muslim north.

In their mountain and jungle hide-outs in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, many of those displaced by the war daily outwit death by chewing leaves, a traditional coping mechanism. And in the comparative safety afforded by refugee camps, children, scarred by the horrors of war, instinctively burrow foxholes to evade the enemy’s bombs.

Blue Nile has been transformed into a series of bombed-out ghost towns and villages, according to Jehanne Henry, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch who made a rare trip to the state in April.

Sudan has not allowed journalists, international monitors, or aid groups to visit Blue Nile or South Kordofan. There have also been no U.N. monitors in the area since the world body’s mandate for peacekeeping operations expired in July.

No access to war zone

The international community has been pushing the Sudanese government to give it access to this war zone. The United Nations, the Arab League and the African Union have also proposed a plan to provide humanitarian aid to the residents of Blue Nile and South Kordofan.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s government has agreed in principle to this plan but is worried that the aid will wind up in the hands of the southern rebels.

U.S. and U.N. officials are trying to allay these concerns.

“The idea would be that the government of Sudan should give access to the different areas where the conflict is taking place with the African Union and the Arab League being able to guarantee that the humanitarian aid would not serve a fighting purpose,” said Antonio Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees.

“Both governments are very sensitive to the problems of the risk of humanitarian aid being diverted,” he added.

The governments of Sudan and South Sudan accuse each other of supporting rebels in the other’s country.

On a visit to Khartoum late last month, Princeton Lyman, the U.S. special representative for Sudan and South Sudan, urged the government to approve the humanitarian aid plan.

“There will be no security on the border unless that problem [in South Kordofan and Blue Nile] is resolved,” Mr. Lyman told lawmakers at a hearing on Thursday.

A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Khartoum said the Sudanese government is still analyzing the humanitarian situation in South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

“It will take two to three days, or a week’s time to assess the situation,” Alobeid Murawih, the Sudanese spokesman, said in a phone interview last week.

He blamed the delay in reaching a decision on the aid plan to the invasion by South Sudanese forces of Heglig, a disputed oil-rich region near the north-south border.

Heightened tensions between the neighbors have a direct impact on the refugees, especially those living close to the border.

Bombed-out villages

Refugee camps have been set up in the South Sudan border states of Unity and Upper Nile. Security is a top concern at the camps in Unity state, located a few miles from the border with Sudan. Sudan armed forces have bombed at least one of these camps, the Yida settlement, and the area is teeming with rival armies, militia and rebel factions.

The need in Jamam camp in Upper Nile is different. Residents at this camp face dire shortages of water.

On her visit to Blue Nile, Ms. Henry said she saw abandoned villages and large craters created by bombs dropped by Sudanese Antonov aircraft.

“The bombing has had the effect of driving the population out of the area, and you are left with abandoned fields, villages, markets,” Ms. Henry said in an Internet phone interview from Juba. “It is a very eerie feeling.”

The urgency of the situation is compounded by a fast-approaching rainy season. Torrential rain turns the few roads that run through this region into impassable rivers of mud.

“The rainy season will have a dramatic impact in the region because it will make access more difficult in areas where infrastructure is poor and it will create an environment which is conducive to malaria, for instance,” said Mr. Guteres.

“It will dramatize the humanitarian situation,” he added.

In South Kordofan, many of those displaced by the fighting are hiding in caves in the Nuba Mountains. In Blue Nile, they have taken shelter in forests.

“The rains are making people feel they need to pick up the pace and that they should come now before the roads become impassable,” said Ms. Henry.

She worried aloud that thousands of people may not be able to make it to the camps in time.

The conflict, which began in South Kordofan in June and spread to Blue Nile in September, disrupted the planting season.

Lise Grande, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan, said as many as 4.7 million people in South Sudan may require food assistance.

President Obama has authorized up to $26 million to support the U.N. refugee agency’s efforts to assist the refugees.

However, Nenad Marinkovic, a South Sudan-based researcher with the anti-genocide Enough Project, said the international community has not done enough to alleviate the suffering by civilians in South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

“With the ongoing crisis between South Sudan and Sudan this issue has been put aside altogether.” he said.

Mr.. Guteres, the U.N. refugee agency chief, said the international community must come together to help resolve the humanitarian problems so that the people of South Sudan can enjoy the benefits of their newly-won independence.

“There is no humanitarian solution for humanitarian problems, the solution is always political,” he said.

“The international community should not forget South Sudan,” he added.

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