Sudan: Mixing Oil and Blood
by Benjamin Bock
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
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.
RELIGION AND RESOURCES
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
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
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
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."
SUDAN'S DISCARDED PEOPLE
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
"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
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.