Home | News    Thursday 25 May 2006

Embattled South Sudan’s Bentiu emerges from war


May 25, 2006 (BENTIU) — Amidst the swampy reeds that line the banks of the Bahr El Ghazal River, a large ship with a crane towers over the small El Salaam bridge, which connects Rubkona town with Bentiu, the capital of Unity State in south Sudan.

A soldier of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) inspects, January 2005, an unused RPG missile in the ruins of a bombed-out building in the southern town of Rumbek.

The ship, a dredger, had just finished clearing the overgrown 97km waterway that links Bentiu — via the Bahr El Jebel River, as the White Nile is called here — with Malakal and Juba in the south and Khartoum and Kosti in the north. The project took 107 days to complete.

"Weeds, water lilies and tall grass had formed a very heavy vegetation deck that was totally closing the waterway," said Tag El Sir, a retired marine engineer who is overseeing the dredging operation for the Abu Salma River Services. It is the first time the waterway is open in decades and represents the most visible peace dividend for a town that suffered greatly during the 21-year civil war.

"Life will change for sure. A lot of traders will come," El Sir observed. "It is very cheap to transport large quantities of bulky goods by river, such as building materials, fuel, sugar, and dura [sorghum] — the main staple food, which comes from the north."

The first barge, which has patiently inched up the river behind the dredger, has arrived as well. It is heavily loaded with red bricks, cement and stones for the reconstruction of the town, which lies in the middle of Sudan’s main oilfields.

"During the war there were many clashes, but people sat together and solved their problems. Now there are no more problems in Bentiu," said Brig Steven Nyeal, a commander of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in Rubkona.

Violent past

Unity State contains some of the largest oil fields in Sudan. During the civil war and following the discovery of oil by Chevron in the 1980s, some of the fiercest fighting took place in this area, in particular since 1999, when oil extraction began. The Sudanese government was determined to maintain its hold on the region, supplying its own troops and arming and financing local militia to clear the area for oil exploration and extraction as well as fend off the SPLA.

"Civilians were chased out of the area. [They were] using helicopter gunships to bomb people out of their villages," a political analyst said.

Political disagreements, power struggles and rivalries over the bounties of war, as well as the ethnic makeup of the local militia, led to widespread inter-militia fighting as well and added to the volatile security situation. The conflict, the analyst added, translated into massive forced recruitment of men and adolescents. The latest recruitment drives took place as late as February and June 2004.

Following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), the two main militia - the SSUM (South Sudan Unity Movement) in Bentiu and the SSIM (South Sudan Independence Movement) in Rubkona - continued to harass and tax the local population, traders and returning displaced southerners at various check points.

"The militias were the power and the police around here," the analyst observed.

A degree of stability returned after the SSIM and the SSUM formally agreed to join the SPLA under the 9 January 2006 Juba Declaration, signed by Paulino Matiep, former leader of the SSUM and current deputy chief of staff of the SPLA forces. "All militias have joined the SPLA, and there are no more problems, apart from some minor issues, but they are solved immediately," said SPLA’s Nyeal, who used to be the second field commander of the SSIM.

Tensions can easily flare-up, however. In March, many houses belonging to relatives of former SSIM militia members who had decided to join the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) rather than be integrated into the SPLA were burnt. Still, Bentiu retains its strategic importance, and the streets are awash with militiamen and soldiers, as the SAF and the SPLA keep large contingents of troops in the town and the two militias largely maintain their seperate forces, despite their formal alliance with the SPLA.

Humanitarian situation

The ongoing conflict destroyed the social fabric of the people of Unity State. Traditionally, the Nuer people are semi-nomadic, moving from place to place in search of the best grazing lands for their cattle, but the fighting disrupted their way of life. The villages surrounding Bentiu and Rubkona, which used to provide food and wealth, came under attack by militia. In the process, some villages were destroyed to prevent rival militias benefiting from their resources.

The population has essentially been chased out of the areas within a 50 km radius of Bentiu, apart from the northern area, the analyst said. According to the UN, by March 2002, an estimated 174,200 civilians were displaced from the oilfields. Approximately 37,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) arrived in Bentiu and Rubkona in 2000 alone. Population figures for the two towns have continued to fluctuate ever since, but the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) estimates the current population to be around 100,000.

The towns transformed into two large IDP camps, where the population had access to humanitarian assistance, but was also at the mercy of the armed forces. They were subject to military taxation on travel and purchases and threatened and harassed on a regular basis.

In addition, an aid worker explained, the displaced people had to survive in unsanitary and unsafe conditions, making them prone to ill health and malnutrition. "Everybody was huddled close to the towns for security reasons, often living in swampy areas," she said.

"People were separated from their villages and couldn’t cultivate," said Dorothy Dickson, acting head of the international NGO Action Against Hunger in Rubkona. "In 2002 to 2003, SAM [severe acute malnutrition] rates were about 8 percent among children under five, while GAM [globalised acute malnutrition] rates went up as high as 38 percent in Rubkona."

The situation has improved in the last two years, but the malnutrition rates remain relatively high. "The food balance is still fragile," Dickson said. "As long as people can gradually cultivate more food and become less dependent on food aid, malnutrition levels will gradually come down, but it can easily be disrupted."

A new hospital, donated by a Chinese oil company and run by the Ministry of Health, became operational this year and was a big improvement, said Alex Tuzza, Bentiu field coordinator for the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières France. "The opening of the hospital is a positive development, but the underlying health infrastructure - a network of clinics, nurses, a referral system - is still missing," he said. "We are still in an emergency as far as health services are concerned."

Improving the quality of the water was another priority, as many malnutrition cases were illness-related. "As long as there is no clean, potable water, many children will get diarrhoea and quickly become malnourished," Dickson said.

Returning refugees and displaced people from Khartoum might increase the pressure on limited resources. "The state government is not ready yet to receive them, and there is little food," Tuzza warned.

Building a new life

During the war, the El Salaam bridge would be closed during the night, and people would withdraw to the northern bank of the Bahr El Ghazal for security reasons. "The roads going south would stop in Bentiu," a regional observer said. "Nobody would go south from here."

This situation changed dramatically after the signing of the Juba Declaration in January 2006. "Since the peace agreement, the whole area has opened up, and roads are being built at an amazing speed," she said. "The roads to the south, to Leer and to Rumbek, are being rehabilitated and trade is booming. Rubkona has a huge market now."

Most of the roads are being built by oil companies and are all-weather gravel roads, as the heavy clay of the black-cotton soil in the area would otherwise make travel impossible during the rainy season, explained Reinout Wanrooij, Unity State area coordinator for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Since January, bus services had started to operate again, he added.

"There is better access to products from the south, and more and more women are starting to wear African dress, asserting their identity," Dickson added. During the war, the largely African population had adopted Arab dressing styles, as no southern traders had been able to reach Bentiu with their textiles, she explained.

Two consortia of oil companies, dominated by Chinese contractors, are now operating in Unity State: the Greater Nile Petroleum Company north of the Bahr El Ghazal, and the White Nile Petroleum Oil Company south of the river. Most Western companies have pulled out of the area as a result of security concerns — a number of Chevron’s employees were killed during the war — and because of public pressure by human rights groups.

"Last year, we were afraid to go out, but this year we are moving around more often and haven’t had any problems," said an employee of a Chinese oil company.

Displaced residents have also started to return from Khartoum, and many newly built ’tukuls’, or huts with thatched grass roofs, are visible in town.

"Since December the situation has totally changed," a military observer for UNMIS in Rubkona said. "The town was like a cemetery, but now farmers are bringing their produce to the market, and more and more traders have started operations in town."

"There is a sense of gradually moving from a very insecure and unstable period to a general sense of hope," the analyst said. "But there is still a lot of military around, so the situation can easily change."

Tensions remain

Despite the improvement, tensions linger beneath the surface, and observers warn that a number of potential flashpoints could easily throw the region back into turmoil. The most serious concern is the outstanding border disputes, the political analyst observed. "Currently, there is a different understanding between the southern and northern authorities where the borders are," he said.

The Heglig oilfield, north of Bentiu, straddles the north-south border, and the exact location of the border determines how much of its oil revenues Khartoum needs to share with the government of south Sudan. The referendum on southern independence, planned in five years’ time according to the provisions of the CPA, might turn Unity State’s northern boundary into the border between two independent countries, adding significant weight to the decision on its exact location and increasing the potential for conflict.

"The bickering over borders and the sharing of oil revenues might jeopardise the implementation of the CPA," the analyst warned.

Another source of tension is the seasonal movement of Arab groups through northern Unity State, leading to an increase in cattle raiding and the abduction of women and children.

"Baggara [cattle-herding] Arabs usually move south to the Bahr El Ghazal River from Southern Kordofan [State] during the dry season," the regional observer said. "Some claim they have been stopped at the border by the SPLA this year, which raises issues of rights of access to land and water that were traditionally held by certain ethnic groups."

Similar tensions also occur between the various Nuer groups, such as the Bul, the Leek and the Jikany. "Previous ethnic rivalries might revive in the absence of a common enemy, and a great effort has to be made to support local reconciliation efforts," the observer said.

A UN police team visiting Rubkona also heard complaints from traders about the increased number of road checkpoints within Unity State, manned by unidentified armed men, hindering business activities once again.

On the dredger, however, the celebrations for the opening of the Bahr El Ghazal River mask these difficulties. "When we opened up the Bahr El Ghazal, people were so happy," said Tag El Sir. "Children were jumping into the open water, and fishermen would throw in their nets right behind us and offer us their first catch."


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