South Sudan: When the army is also the aid agency

By Austin Bodetti, special to Humanosphere

From two stuffy offices at a small hotel in the dusty South Sudanese capital, Juba, a dozen Sudanese refugees affiliated with the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North spend their days arranging for humanitarian aid to reach people hundreds of kilometers away. The Sudanese government has been conducting a bloody counterinsurgency campaign in the Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains, two regions along the South Sudanese border that, like Darfur, face genocide and humanitarian crisis. For many civilians there, this aid agency means survival.

The fact that this aid agency represents a powerful paramilitary illustrates the complexity of delivering aid amid fighting. If aid organizations want to deliver help to the region, they have to go through the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North, which controls entry into Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains, and its aid agency. Humanitarian organizations, which often need to maintain neutrality to ensure their access to civilian populations on both sides of a conflict, must now cooperate with a paramilitary’s humanitarian wing.

South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011. Since then, both countries have been engaged in civil wars, Sudan fighting rebels in Darfur and along the South Sudanese border, South Sudan battling defectors from its ruling party across the country. These simultaneous conflicts have significantly complicated aid delivery in both countries.

The aid agency claims that it wants to help all civilians, but its dependence on the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North, which has specific military and political goals, renders this claim dubious. The aid agency may act less as a neutral humanitarian organization than as a tool for propaganda. There is an inherent conflict of interest, for the armed group may be inclined to use the humanitarian group for its own purposes. Despite all of this, the aid agency maintains that it is a neutral party. “The humanitarian office only coordinates with the South Sudanese government on humanitarian access,” said Yusuf Hassan, a coordinator with the aid agency. “We have no political relationships and do not coordinate with other movements.”

He and his coworkers focus on working with intergovernmental organizations and international nongovernment organizations in the region. Hassan arranges for humanitarian aid to fly from Juba to war zones in planes owned by the United Nations. “We even let activists and journalists go in those planes,” he said. “We want them to see the suffering.”

Celebrities such as George Clooney and journalists such as Nicholas Kristof have traveled to the Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains to witness the genocide. This revolutionary movement wants a Western audience.

Which begs questions about the true aims of the aid agency. Particularly when no one can doubt that the aid agency is part of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North.

“Our movement has own its government and institutions in the liberated areas,” said Hassan. “We have ministers and governors just for this purpose. The movement deals with NGOs as its own government and provides everything for them, especially security.”

The movement’s singular, unilateral authority in the territory that it controls has had good consequences and bad. It managed to expel the Sudanese Justice and Equality Movement, known for abusing human rights in the Nuba Mountains, and other Darfuri revolutionary movements from the region to protect Nuba civilians. Though Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North may afford civilians protections, some of its former leaders have criticized it for failing to enact its democratic ideals. For now, the movement remains the sole power in the rebel territories of the Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains.

Though the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North and its aid agency claim to support the civilians whom they defend wherever those civilians are, these claims warrant some skepticism. International aid organizations have to work with the movement because it’s the only group that can give them access to the Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains.

“We also run two, parallel humanitarian programs: one for refugees inside South Sudan and another for the internally displaced in the liberated areas,” Hassan explained. “Furthermore, we protect humanitarian workers and help them do their jobs in liberated areas.” The aid agency runs two parallel programs to address the very different problems and environments faced by internally displaced people in Sudan and Sudanese refugees in South Sudan.

Civilians in the Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains must contend with the Sudanese Armed Forces, which often target them deliberately. Refugees from these regions in South Sudan, meanwhile, must avoid the violent civil war there, where the rebels often see them as collaborators with the South Sudanese government. The aid agency oversees both, tasking the movement’s fighters with ensuring the safety of all foreign humanitarians.

The aid agency must confront a major problem in its support for civilians in rebel territory.

“There is a logistical difficulty in that the Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains are divided by a section of South Sudan, so, if you want to pass between them, you have to go through South Sudan or the areas controlled by the regime,” said Hassan. “Though not much can be done about it, our situation would certainly be easier if the liberated areas were connected.”

South Sudan has backed the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North, assisting with the movement’s humanitarian and political goals, yet the upheaval of the South Sudanese Civil War means that the movement must deal with a conflict in which it has no part.

Across the border, the Sudanese government has refused humanitarian access, preventing nongovernmental organizations based in Khartoum or the rest of the country from reaching regions that depend on humanitarian aid. Human rights abuses continue in the Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains, where the Sudanese Air Force is using cluster munitions. These weapons endanger the humanitarians working for and with the movement and the civilians whom they serve. As the movement’s fighters attempt to block the Arab militias that have executed and raped civilians, the aid agency provides the humanitarian assistance of which there remains so little.

Austin Michael Bodetti is a reporter for War Is Boring and a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College. He focuses on conflict in the Arab world.

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