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Leaving no one behind.... Glimpses of the unique local agency and aid efforts in the no-go-areas of Sudan’s Nuba Mountains

When war broke out in 2011 in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, the government was quick to declare areas controlled by the armed opposition groups no-go-areas for traders, aid workers and media. While hundreds of thousands fled for other parts of Sudan or into South Sudan and Ethiopia, more than a million people stayed behind. This is a story of how they have lived and survived despite the isolation.

© Photos and text: Local2GlobalProtection, June 2020

In the face of renewed war and a quickly developing humanitarian crisis in June 2011, local aid workers, civil society and de-facto authorities along with a few international humanitarian actors choose to defy the Sudanese government’s ban on humanitarian access to the areas controlled by the armed opposition (SPLM/A-N).

As most international aid staff scrambled to comply with the government’s demands to leave the area, a set of unique humanitarian efforts took form in the part of South Kordofan called the Nuba Mountains. Locally led, and with limited external support, these efforts were shaped around the agency of a population who for long have practised a well-rooted tradition of self-reliance and social cohesion. This collaboration between local and international humanitarians - along with the daily struggle by individuals and communities themselves - have helped hundreds of thousands survive war, famine and lack of all, but the most rudimentary education health and veterinary services.

Fast tracking to the dramatic events over the last many months in Sudan, a new government in Khartoum is now negotiating peace with opposition groups across the country. Along with that comes possibilities for opening up access for considerably more aid to hitherto closed off areas. As negotiations continue in complicated terrain and with frequent ups and downs, UN agencies and NGOs are exploring how they - after an absence of nine years - may again try to make themselves relevant in the opposition-controlled parts of South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

As they do so, they may be well advised to recognise the very considerable efforts that has helped saving lives of hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable children, women and men make it through years of government ban on aid and trade.

Ongoing aerial bombardment and overland attacks against civilians, villages, schools, hospitals and local NGO compounds; deliberate starvation; mass displacement; lack of education, health, agricultural and veterinary services....... The list of threats, risks and challenges people have faced until recently is long. But equally important is the list of what has been achieved despite the difficulties.

In order to safeguard what has been achieved, the details of this extraordinary collaboration between communities, local authorities, NGOs and a few international actors will likely have to remain “in the shadows” for yet another while. In the meantime, this story attempts to shine a light on just a few examples of how those who have managed to continue aid efforts in the Nuba Mountains have struggled to live up to the principle of “leaving no one behind” - even when the vast majority of international humanitarian actors had long left.

At the moment of writing, the impact of Covid-19 on many of the activities described is significant and will be summarised towards the end of the story.

Local peace

Without the peace work, we would not have access for humanitarian assistance or trade in many of our most vulnerable areas.

Nuba Peace work coordinator

Building on decades of networking, strong relationships and persistent local conflict resolution work, local NGOs have supported more than 30 peace committees throughout Nuba. Reaching across tribal and even front lines, such peace activities have markedly reduced conflict and contributed very significantly to access, protection and the overall humanitarian situation in the area.

Several thousand individuals have been involved in local level peace work such as inter-tribal conferences, cross frontline dialogue - as well as for instance touring groups of "peace musicians". Together, this work has helped establish and maintain strong personal links, which in turns has made it possible to create conflict mitigation mechanisms across frontlines and between many groups and tribes. These activities include ongoing - in some cases on a daily basis - dialogue and negotiations between groups and individuals, which for decades have experienced conflicts over issues such as livestock raiding, grazing, water and other resources.

Talking to key individuals involved in peace work over more than a decade, a few words kept echoing through the conversations. Words like: Personal relationships, social cohesion, resilience, self-reliance, patience, tolerance. Textbook words, yes. But when spoken under a moonlit sky in the jebels they acquire a sense of concrete relevance and ring with a sincerity rarely sensed in a course or your usual peace seminar.

Local level conflict and tension continue and is likely to continue to affect the protection and daily activities of individuals and families across South Kordofan and Blue Nile for years to come. Still, ongoing locally led peace work has had remarkable success in many areas and continue to have a significant positive impact on people’s lives on both sides of the front lines. Reduced conflict and tension have meant increased freedom of movement and with that a significant increase in farmers ability to grow their crops – and for livestock herders to move their herds according to the seasonal availability of water and grazing.

A concrete - and striking - result of the local peace work is the availability of basic goods in many small and larger markets across Nuba. Looking back to the previous war (1985 – 2002) in the Two Areas, the difference to the current conflict is striking. During the "old war", trade between government and SPLA/M controlled areas largely broke down and even the most basic goods such as soap, salt, sugar, food items and fuel were absent in the areas controlled by the SPLM/A. Friends and colleagues will still talk for instance about the shame associated with the lack of clothing during those years.

Walking through smaller and larger markets during the latest war reveals a very different reality: Many of the basic goods you can find in the souks of Kadugli, Dilling or El Obeid are available in small shops and market stalls across Nuba - even if prices are high and purchasing power low due to impact of nine years of conflict and destruction.

THE HUMANITARIAN IMPACT OF THIS EXCHANGE OF GOODS AND ANIMALS - AND THE MOVEMENT OF PEOPLE ASSOCIATED WITH IT - IS VERY CONSIDERABLE.

Equally, trade in and out of the opposition-controlled areas has provided a very important source of income for populations on both sides of the front lines - exposed as they all are to ongoing and often severe food security crisis.

It may be worth keeping in mind that while many of the conflicts in and around Nuba continue to be exaggerated and exploited for particular political and economic interests, they should not simply be understood as spill-overs from Sudan's larger political, ideological, economic and military conflicts. Many of these conflicts are inherently local and rooted in real and existing conflicts of interests between a multitude of ethnic groups and tribes, between farmers and semi-pastoralists, between urban and rural populations, between religions – and between elites and disempowered. In short: these are conflicts that will not disappear even if a successful national peace agreement is found. Rather - many of these conflicts will have to be addressed, managed or mitigated day-in day-out for years and decades to come.

Understanding, respecting and safeguarding thE existing local level peace work would be an important priority for any future aid programming.

FOOD AND NUTRITION

Recent data demonstrate a fragile food security situation for many displaced and otherwise vulnerable groups in Jebel Nuba. Food insecurity analysis over the period 2015 to 2019 points out that hunger is strongly related to insecurity and farm access, with moderate food insecurity figures increasing.

Over 2018 - 2019, the share of moderately food insecure individuals out of the total population varied between 30 and 60%. Between 1 and 16% were found to be severely food insecure. Both sets of figures were subject to significant seasonal, demographic and geographic variation. Striking variations related to locality where also found in a 2019 survey. Between 26 and 96% of households confirmed they had one or no meal the day before. The 96% were particularly found in smaller, remote and - because of the conflict - isolated communities.

The independent Fewsnet (see link at the end of the story) June - Sept 2020 projections forecast that the central and eastern jebels are in emergency phase and some of the western jebels in crisis phase – a forecast that other sources consulted in early June can confirm. Please contact the Coordination Unit for detailed and up to date information (see contacts at the end of the story).

Still, it is important to note that many farmers and livestock herders have been able to uphold a reduced but nevertheless absolutely crucial food production throughout the crisis. Considering years of deliberate attacks on fields and harvests, ongoing looting of household animals, extreme scarcity of water, lack of veterinary services and very few agricultural inputs, the resilience and persistence of local farmers and livestock herders will be important to take note of in any future aid programming.

An important, but hard to estimate, factor for food security and nutritional concerns in the coming months will be the degree of movement across borders and frontlines as the political and security situation evolves. An influx of returning refugees or IDPs into opposition held areas has already had a negative impact on security. The closure of markets, both within and crossline, associated with Covid-19 is likely to deal a significant blow to families and communities who are heavily dependent on markets from now and until September when the next harvest is expected to start.

Once the lock down measures associated with Covid-19 eases up, and if an overall peaceful situation prevails, the influx of returnees may well resume. This may then be countered to some degree - but only some - by increased movement of people, animals and goods across the current frontlines - and with that an easing up also of trade and economic activities.

Quietly working away (with no logos to note) with salaries and work conditions that most international aid workers would never put up with, local NGO's have supplemented local food production with crucial humanitarian assistance to several hundred thousand of the most vulnerable and food insecure individuals across Nuba. Working with a small number of external actors, this work continues to be supported by a shared but very stressed logistic service (vehicles and communication) and supply chain. These efforts are informed by ongoing independent monitoring of relevant nutritional data as well as for instance a rather sophisticated pre- and post-distribution monitoring – not least given the nearly complete absence of phone or internet coverage and very difficult access.

Coordination, usually the domain of largely externally driven clusters, has grown up around a more locally focused Coordination Unit ensuring strong ties among the local actors active in the area - as well as with a few relevant external actors.

As major UN and international agencies prepare to get involved in assisting the vulnerable populations in Nuba, it is crucial, that they build on and support this existing and time hardened and proven local expertise and experience. By all means, news actors wishing to contribute should take active and very concrete steps to avoid weakening or destroying current local capacities as new employment opportunities and grants become available.

A wider, global, humanitarian community may also have a lesson or two to pick up from here as well. Assistance to hundreds of thousands has been going on for almost a decade by now - with local NGOs in the lead as most major international actors left in 2011. This fact may call into question often heard comments along the lines of: "locally-led humanitarian aid cannot go to scale - nor be carried out in keeping with humanitarian principles."

LOCAL PROTECTION

The planes do not give you time to run, so it is important to be very close to a safe shelter if bombing suddenly happens. That is why the key messages in the beginning was the importance of digging foxholes everywhere – at home, at the water pump, in the market, at schools, mosques and churches – everywhere!
Protection volunteers suggested that communities and local authorities move schools, mosques and churches to safer locations, whether close to caves in the hills or into the forest. Teachers were encouraged to take a small blackboard and conduct their classes under trees close to the caves in case aerial bombardment suddenly happens.

Nagwa Musa Konda in Forced Migration Review, 2016

In the days and weeks following break out of war in South Kordofan in 2011, research into local protection and survival strategies during the previous war, were turned into a short curriculum for village level self-protection workshops across Nuba (See link to L2GP website later). Young volunteers walked from village to village and sat with communities ensuring that existing experience and knowledge was updated to a new war and new circumstances.

The advice, knowledge and experience shared in the first years of conflict focused around:

  • Reducing risk of injury or death from aerial bombardment and long-range shelling by seeking shelter and providing first aid training and kits to communities
  • Reducing life-threatening risks from lack of food, clean water, income, basic services and shelter by mobilising traditional knowledge of wild foods and herbal medicine and introducing household rationing to stretch sparse resources
  • Overcoming fear, a sense of isolation and hopelessness, and erosion of dignity through basic community-based psychosocial activities including continuing education and other activities for children.

This awareness and training were picked up and supported by local NGOs and particularly a local Women's Association. Spreading further through schools, mosques and churches such basic protection and survival knowledge was estimated to have reached more than 400,000 individuals by 2014. A short documentary film “Fighting bombs with perfume” tells the story of these predominantly women-led protection efforts. Find the link to the film at the end of this story.

When the women come together, sit, and prepare the perfumes or do each other’s hair, they get a chance to talk, to explain their situation, and that gives them a chance also to comfort and encourage one another.
To me personally these small things are important too. Despite all the challenges, despite all the suffering, I do not want to look messy or walk around smelling bad. I want to be a normal Nuba woman and therefore I’ll protect my dignity for as long as I’m alive.

Nagwa Musa Konda

Awareness about unexploded ordinance intensified as more and more unexploded bombs, grenades and missiles accumulated around populated areas often targeted by the governments' bombardment.

Over time, other themes were added to the awareness and training by the village level protection groups that grew out of the first trainings. But a strong focus on physical protection, psychosocial support and well-being along with basic hygiene and house-hold economy including rationing food stocks for bad times has continued throughout.

As the intensity of fighting and bombardment lessened from 2016 onwards, more than 50 village level protection groups gradually began shifting their focus to a wider range of issues such as gender based violence, collective food production in support of school feeding, contributions to the salaries of local school teachers, vegetable gardening - and small community cash grants and village savings and loans schemes. Across many villages young and elder adults flocked to the schools in late afternoons to engage in adult literacy classes.

EDUCATION

When we know the alphabet, we can help our children. And we don't have to feel stupid in front of our children when they come home from school.

Woman in Heiban taking part in adult literacy classes.

Since Sudan's independence in 1956, education for the population of the Nuba Mountains has never been a priority for changing Sudanese governments. A 2005 survey confirmed an illiteracy rate around 75% in the area. In contrast to the government’s efforts to date, persistent efforts by villagers and local authorities demonstrate their very considerable dedication to improving access to education for both children and adults.

With very limited outside support, citizens and authorities have kept some 274 primary and 14 secondary schools as well as one teacher training institute running since war broke out again in 2011. In 2019, the Secretariat of Education reported that only 2% of schools were run and financed by NGOs or churches – the rest are community-driven and financed.

Many existing school facilities had to be abandoned as they were targets of ongoing attacks and aerial bombardment. In 2016 Human Rights Watch reported that 22 schools had been attacked in Nuba. As the danger grew, children, teacher and rudimentary teaching facilities shifted to caves, under trees and makeshift school buildings in or close by to the relative safety of mountains and big rocks.

With guidance and very limited support (textbooks, pens and notebooks) from local educational authorities, NGOs and a few outside actors, villagers and communities are responsible for running their own schools including establishing and maintaining the temporary structures used during times of conflict. Primary and secondary teachers work as volunteers with no regular pay. Instead they are supported - usually in-kind - by community members themselves. Some 50 to 60% of the teachers are untrained.

Such communal efforts ensured that about 86,700 children accessed basic primary education in 2019 - despite the fact that the entire area has not seen any educational support from the government since the conflict broke out. Still, only around 2,600 students attended secondary school in 2019. Such a low transition rate from primary to secondary school remain a deep concern to all involved with education in Nuba – in Sudan in general, 38% make it from primary to secondary school.

According to figures shared by the South Kordofan Blue Nile Coordination Unit, girls made up about 49% of students in primary school by 2019 – and just 40% in secondary. Work obligations at home, early marriage, traditional gender roles - and the lack of proper and dedicated sanitary facilities for girls are all mentioned as explanations for the lower attendance by girls than boys.

Even if secondary school attendance is low, the dedication shown by these young students and their parents is remarkable. After attending often rather rudimentary teaching in their home areas for years, thousands of students walk for days - in some cases a week - in order to gather in makeshift campus and boarding facilities to prepare for their certificate exams. Up to 2016, when aerial bombardment eased off, one could witness children and elder students suddenly letting go of their books diving into fox holes or running towards the caves for shelter. Only to return to their books and studies as soon as the imminent danger was deemed to be over.

In November-December 2019, 992 girls and 1,317 boys sat for their final primary exams. Of these, 1.834 (79%) graduated with a certificate which, owing to their own efforts and some creative solutions by local and regional officials, is recognised in the East African region. Equally, 151 girls and 185 boys sat for their secondary exams – with 81% graduating.

There are still men who refuse their daughters and wives to go to school. But we are quietly talking them into letting their ladies come here and learn.

Female member of a protection group in Heiban

The above examples can only give a taste of the humanitarian, peace and development efforts undertaking by citizens, communities, local authorities and NGOs collaborating closely with a few dedicated outside actors. Many activities, such as the tremendous efforts in human and animal health, for example, are not covered here.

Still, the way these different areas of work are interwoven and often seen as part and parcel of one large interconnected effort, does illustrate that the much spoken about humanitarian-development-peace NEXUS, does to a large extent actually exist in practice in Nuba. When activities are designed and implemented by local actors more closely in tune with their communities, the usual distinctions and artificial silos dominating much external aid appear to be more easily overcome.

As hostilities has eased off, an increasing number of people are returning from other parts of Sudan as well as from South Sudan. Welcoming them back and helping them, and the communities they return to, will require a very significant effort - not least at village, community and family levels. Managing predictable – and some unforeseen - conflicts as people and animals may move more freely will be key. To work with all of these challenges and tasks, it will be crucial to understand, connect with and help build and expand the existing efforts exemplified in this story. As the political negotiations around peace heats up, so do attempts to divide people and to instigate hatred and violence for particular interests and personal gain. Again - building on and supporting existing local efforts to manage and mitigate conflict and violence will be absolutely key through all stages of the negotiations and before, during and for a long time after a possible peace agreement.

This story is published, at a time when Covid-19 is having a significant impact on peoples' lives in Nuba - as well as on many of the activities described in this story. As there is no testing capacity for Covid-19 in the area, the actual number remains unknown but several cases with Covid-19 like symptoms have been registered. With extremely limited health services available to a population of around 1 million people, local authorities have chosen to limit the spread of Covid-19 by putting for instance a temporary stop to all crossline trading, markets as well as closing down all schools for the time being. This negatively impacts the overall food security and a whole string of livelihood activities very significantly. Not surprisingly, prices on basic commodities are going up significantly partly as a result of seasonal variation but also due to the absence of local and crossline trade including the livelihood options associated with that.

Despite all the efforts described in this publication, needs and opportunities to do so are as plenty as they are pressing. So are local expectations and hopes. Health services are in absolute dire and desperate demand across Nuba. So are much needed improvements in access to water, education, agricultural and veterinary services. Gender, domestic violence, inclusion, psycho-social care - all are issues that need more work and more support including from external resources. But as dire as needs are felt, so are the expectations and wishes that a renewed interest by external aid actors now would be put forward in a genuinely collaborative manner. That renewed aid presence and activity would be based on respect and recognition of what has already been achieved - and with the deliberate intent to enhance and support the very considerable existing local capacity, enthusiasm and resilience. A recent meeting of the most important actors in assistance to the areas suggested four issues as particular important for the future:

• Do no harm - ensure all interventions are conflict-sensitive

• Focus on women’s empowerment and gender equity

• Build on the humanitarian monitoring team and local organizations already in place

• Localization and the Grand Bargain – capacity strengthening of local actors, structures and mechanisms.

Should you wish to know more about the activities described here or other aspects of the humanitarian situation in the area, please contact the South Kordofan Blue Nile Coordination Unit at: coordination@skbncu.org

If you wish to read or watch more please visit this subsite at Local2Global Protection.

Please access current nutritional data at Fewsnet

“Women-led Self-protection in Sudan” - Nagwa Musa Konda and Laila Kodi in Forced Migration Review, 2016

“Fighting bombs with perfume”- documentary film about women-led protection in Sudan

Photos, text and copyright: Nikolas Strand for Local2GlobalProtection, June 2020

Contact L2GP at: nic@local2global.info

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nils carstensen
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