Thursday, August 13, 2015

Forgotten conflicts – Our silence is a shame to humanity

As you read this, there are more than 40 conflicts unfolding in countries around the world. Many of them don’t get the media or policy attention. Tales of war from places like Syria and Iraq are never far from the headlines but the toll of decades-long conflicts – from Colombia to the Ogaden, from Kashmir to Western Sahara – is just as devastating for the people who live there.

In South Kordofan journalists are banned by the Sudanese government from entering the rebel-held region, where civilians have taken to living in caves to survive the endless bombing. South Kordofan's death toll of 4,500 may seem insignificant compared with many other conflicts, but the rebels and the people of the Nuba Mountains fear Khartoum won't stop until they are all driven out. There are almost a 200,000 refugees and almost half a million are in need of immediate humanitarian aid.

Nagwa Konda, director of the Nuba Relief, Rehabilitation and Development Organisation (NRRDO) – a local NGO that struggles to cater for the desperate needs of the Nuba – said hope in her region was fading.  “There is a catastrophic humanitarian situation going on right now in the Nuba Mountains. Children in the Nuba Mountains are suffering from daily aerial bombardment, from hunger, dying from preventable diseases.” 

Omar al-Bashir and his Khartoum-based regime say they are fighting a rebellion in South Kordofan driven by vested interests and Western plotters that want to overthrow his government. The Nuba say they are fighting for their own survival. The Nuba, numbering between one and two million, are a collection of distinct peoples of black African origin who speak an array of different languages. Many are now Muslim, but there are Christian and animist Nuba too.  Along with a few Arab pastoralist tribes, they have the geographical misfortune of living on the fault line between Sudan’s largely Arab and Islamic north and its predominantly Christian, animist and black African south.  The origins of their oppression date back to the colonial era when the British segregated them, declaring the Nuba Mountains region a special “Closed District.” The Nuba were not allowed to stray northwards without a special permit and schooling was left up to missionaries. When Sudan emerged from British rule in 1956, the Nuba were already politically, economically and socially marginalised and lacked any educational system.

South Kordofan had been under the governorship since 2009 of Bashir’s trusted lieutenant Ahmed Haroun – like him indicted by the International Criminal Court for allegedly orchestrating atrocities in Darfur. By 2013, Bashir had deployed between 40,000 and 70,000 troops to South Kordofan. Local Arab tribes, the Misseriya, were coopted by Khartoum to fight their black African rivals. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) pulled out of South Kordofan in January after its clinic was bombed for a second time, leaving Doctor Tom Catena at the Mother of Mercy Hospital as the last surgeon in the Nuba Mountains, performing around 1,000 surgeries a year.

"You  want to ask me why I fight?” Thayr Urwa Hamdan Said, a new rebel recruit, exclaimed.  “After the separation of the South, Omar al-Bashir  said that Sudan is now an Islamic Arab country that would be governed by Islamic sharia laws. They have to recognise and bear in mind that there are other people living with them in this geographical area called Sudan. That is why if we do not overthrow this government we would be second-class citizens in our own country.”

Atrocities in nearby Liberia and Sierra Leone have stolen the regional headlines over the years, but the separatist struggle in Casamance is West Africa’s longest-running civil conflict. Three decades of on-and-off separatist conflict in Senegal's southern region of Casamance have killed thousands of people, displaced tens of thousands more, crippled the rural-based economy and turned large tracts of territory into no-go zones due to landmines. A ceasefire was declared last year by an important rebel leader, but even if it holds, grievances and resentment linger and underlying socio-economic problems threaten to consign another generation of Casamançais to living like second-class citizens in one of Africa's supposed beacons of democracy. The rebellion was born out of the resentment of the southern Diola people for Senegal’s dominant Wolof group in the decades following independence from France in 1960. The Diola, who represent only 3.7 percent of the population but 60 percent of people in the Ziguinchor region, have traditional beliefs that set them apart from other Senegalese groups. According to the Association for the Development of the District of Nysassia (APRAN), a local NGO that has been working to help the displaced return home, 78 villages in Lower Casamance were completely destroyed during the fighting and more than 150,000 people lost their homes. Thousands of civilians remain internally displaced by the conflict, including some 6,000 in Ziguinchor, and at least another 10,000 refugees are split between The Gambia or Guinea-Bissau, many still harbouring deep resentment for Senegalese authority. Demba Keita, secretary general of APRAN, told IRIN that many people want to return home but feel conditions are not right to allow them to do so.

“Their villages were wiped out and now they have no means for reconstruction," he said. "The state of Senegal does nothing to help them. We cannot convince donors to engage in reconstruction, because they feel the peace process does not move forward.”

For the most part, the separatist struggle in Casamance has been fought in a media vacuum. International attention has focused on other, more immediately troubling conflicts with bigger bombs, larger death tolls, and more terrible atrocities. Amnesty International, however, did draw attention to the extrajudicial killings, disappearances and flagrant human rights abuses in an influential February 1998 report.

“Hundreds of NGOs have worked for the development of Casamance. But if you drive through Casamance, you don’t see any development,” said Abdou Elinkine Diatta, who fought with Atika in the 1980s and 1990s before becoming a rebel spokesman. “Maybe it has helped develop Dakar. But there has been no development in Casamance."

Robert Piper, then UN humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, admitted last year that the situation in Casamance presents a real “dilemma” for the international aid community.
“On the one hand, there are very real needs here, particularly food insecurity. On the other hand, we also need to recognise that this is a well-endowed part of Senegal that should not have a humanitarian operation.”

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