Sudan: Mixing Oil and Blood

by Benjamin Bock

Amnesty International

Amnesty NOW magazine, Summer 2002


A first-hand account of life and politics inside Sudan. There, a starving population has endured decades of war, sparked by religious differences, but now fueled by oil.

Empty villages, destroyed huts, and burned out buildings dot an ocean of red sand and scrub. They provide chilling evidence of the scorched earth tactics that have devastated a landscape and a nation. The road into the Nuba Mountains of southern Sudan is itself a casualty of two decades of neglect, abuse, and war. The convoy of relief vehicles in which I am traveling opts for the bone - jarring sand tracks that weave through the bushes rather than risk breaking an axle on what was once a 185-mile paved highway.

My group was among the first outside observers since a January ceasefire to witness the devastation behind the government's cordon sanitaire. The Khartoum government had sealed off the Nuba Mountains for nearly two decades as it pursued what USAID assistant administrator Roger Winter called "a strategy of liquidation" against the Nuba people. In 2001 the forced mass removals into "peace villages" reached a peak. Then, miraculously it seemed, a U.S.-brokered ceasefire this January brought a cautious but welcome peace.

As horrendous as the Nuba Mountains conflict has been, it is a sideshow in Africa's longest, costliest, and deadliest war. The largest country in Africa has been at war with itself for nearly a half century. The conflict began just before independence in 1956 and, after a pause from 1972 to 1983, exploded with new fury. While many international reliefworkers blame government-allied forces for the bulk of atrocities, Al's Annual Report 2001 notes that "all parties to the conflict committed gross human rights abuses against civilians, including indiscriminate bombing, abduction, enslavement, forcible recruitment, torture, and killings." An estimated 2 million Sudanese have died, and 4.5 million have been internally displaced since r983.

The story of Rebecca Achol offers a vivid case in point. I meet her in the town of Kadugli, the administrative center of the Nuba Mountains. Sitting beneath a tree on the roadside, she recounts how a group of men came to her village nine years ago. "They burned the village down," she says, clutching her 9-month-old son in her arms. "I left everything behind and ran. Too many people were killed. I lost my aunt and my grandmother." She and her children have lived at the mercy of friends and relatives, sometimes on the streets, ever since.


The Sudanese conflict is often mischaracterized as simply a clash of religions: Arab Muslims in the North, who control the fundamentalist Islamic government, against African Christians and animists in southern Sudan. The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) controls most of the resource-rich South, save for several key garrison towns. Since the mid-1980s, when former dictator Gaafar Muhammad al-Nimeiry imposed Islamic law, Sharia, throughout the country, southern Christians have rebelled against attempts by the fundamentalist regime to Islamize the country. Punishments under Sharia include stoning and amputations, both of which Amnesty International condemns as torture.

In reality, the war has never been merely a north-south or Muslim-Christian conflict. Armed opposition groups, including Muslim rebel factions, have sprung up in virtually every part of the country. Sudan's inttractable civil war is fundamentally a struggle over resources and how the country's wealth should be shared.

Southern Sudan is rich in oil and water, while the North is largely desert. Egypt has a stake in the free flow of the Nile River through Sudan, while Western countries are keenly interested in Sudan's oil reserves, estimated at between 800 million and 4 billion barrels. Fighting is now most intense around the oil fields, where numerous villages have been destroyed or abandoned. Between January and April alone, 150,000 to 300,000 civilians have been displaced from this region. The Nuba Mountains' strategic location close to Sudan's oil has meant that its people suffer the fate of thousands of Sudanese in the way of the oil rigs: starvation, mass removal, and death. "Violations by government security forces and armed opposition groups are directed at the population living in oil fields and surrounding areas, and are an effort to control, protect or destroy the oil production capacity," notes Amnesty International in its report, Sudan: The Human Price of Oil. "The main casualty of the full-scale war in Sudan are civilians."


As we drive further into the Nuba Mountains region, we crisscross a large swath of upheaved ground that forms a boulder-choked welt on the land. The presence of armed guards and signs planted willy-nilly in the sand reveal that we are traveling alongside a pipeline that runs l,000 miles, from just south of the Nuba Mountains all the way to Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

Since the pipeline became operational in 1999, oil and money have flowed in earnest. In 2001, oil earned the fundamentalist Islamic government $800 million, which it uses to finance the endless "jihad" While the government spends about $1 million a day on the war, humanitarian agencies report that 3.1 million Sudanese citizens need emergency food aid.

Sudan's blood-soaked oil business is a multinational affair, with major involvement of oil companies from China, Malaysia, Sweden, Canada, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Qatar. Chevron did the initial oil exploration in the early 1980S, but U.S. sanctions currently bar U.S. oil companies from operating in Sudan.

Amnesty International has been particularly concerned about the role of Royal Dutch Shell in supplying aviation fuel to government combat aircraft, including helicopter gunships. A May statement by Amnesty charges that Sudan's air force, in violation of international law, has attacked civilian populations. Because the conflict areas in southern Sudan are isolated, no one knows the full extent of the current operations, but Amnesty cites reports that the air force is "currently carrying out indiscriminate or deliberate bombings and shellings of civilians living in the oil-rich Western Upper Nile." It called on "all oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell, ...[to] take immediate steps to ensure that the oil they produce does not end up fueling military aircraft" that target civilians. The situation is exacerbated by Khartoum's refusal to allow NGOs to bring humanitarian assistance to the estimated 1.7 million civilians living in the besieged oil-producing region.

A recent lawsuit also has shed light on the role that oil companies play in furthering the war. The suit, filed against the Talisman Energy Company by the Presbyterian Church in Sudan, charges that the Canadian oil company has undertaken a "joint strategy" with the Islamic government in Khartoum. According to the class- action complaint filed in U.S. District Court in New York, "government troops and allied militia engaged in an ethnic cleansing operation to execute, enslave or displace the non-Muslim, African Sudanese civilian population from areas that are near the pipeline or where Talisman wanted to drill."

The plaintiffs have introduced as evidence a May 7,1999 memo, allegedly from Talisman. It asked the Sudanese government to "conduct cleaning up operations" in villages near the oil drilling area. Two days later, the Khartoum regime launched one of the largest military offensives of the civil war. According to a Canadian government investigation detailed in Human Security in Sudan: The Report of a Canadian Assessment Mission, the ensuing attacks by aircraft, helicopter gunships, and troops destroyed villages, driving out or killing half the population in the area.

Talisman, which recently reported that output from its lucrative Sudanese oil operation jumped 17 percent in the first quarter of 200Z, denies the charges and rejects the authenticity of the memo. "We absolutely and completely emphatically deny these charges," says Barry Nelson, a Talisman spokesperson. "The charges that they raise run absolutely counter to everything we have done and everything we believe in Sudan. We have a long and well-documented record of doing good things in Sudan."


For a glimpse of the impact on civilians of oil policies and war, you need not even leave the capital. On the outskirts of Khartoum, the sprawling Mayo Camp houses tens of thousands of the 4.5 million internally displaced people (IDP) that the war has created since 1983.

The wind here is relentless. Plastic shopping bags flap frantically in the thorn bushes on the far side of a large dirt field. The dust clouds part to reveal a small city of mud huts and improvised shanties. These are the discarded people of Sudan. Their clothes, homes, and lives are a patchwork of castaway items.

I find Adeng Akec (pictured on cover), a 20 year-old mother of four, cooking over a small, charcoal fire. Children run in and out through the walls of what passes as her home. The structure of rags and cardboard stretched between sticks does little to keep out the elements, much less people and animals. Her story is an oft-repeated one in this camp.

"We came here because of the war," she says glumly, dressed in a worn, stained dress. She looks down, around, anywhere but into my eyes. A member of the Dinka tribe, she lived in Unity State, the heart of the oil region. When I ask her how she lost her home, she looks nervously at a security agent who has insisted on accompanying me around the camp. "I was a child, but I remember a battle happening between Arabs and our people," she says vaguely. "Some people were killed but I don't know how many."

"Life is difficult," she says quietly. "l sometimes leave my children alone in the house and go looking for work. I wash clothes for the Arabs, and use that money to get some food."

Her neighbor, Maria Dut, strolls over, holding a baby on her hip. Her five children, like most I see here, are filthy and dressed in rags. She too fled from fighting in Unity State. Dut interjects, "Sometimes when we don't have any work, we just go without food. From four days ago my kids were sick, so I couldn't work and had no money. I just had to beg food from my family."

A nearby therapeutic feeding center run by Doctors Without Borders cares for up to 120 malnourished or starving children a day. In a country in which one in five children is malnourished, there is an endless supply of misery.

Ashol Majok sits on the floor on a mat at the center, holding her emaciated and listless child, a feeding tube taped into her nose. "


Benjamin Bock is the pseudonym of a journalist and author who has written widely about politics and human rights in Africa. He must conceal his identity to continue reporting in Sudan. Names of some refugees have been changed.

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