Humanitarian Mission to the Nuba Mountains, by Sam Totten, 15 January 2015
In April 2014 Sam Totten began to focus his attention on providing food to those in most critical need in the Nuba Mountains. He has just returned and filed this account of his mission to those in “most critical need.” Below are excerpts from this lengthy narrative account (email from Sam Totten received 17 January 2015):
By “most critical need” I mean those individuals who are going without a single meal for a day or more per week on a regular basis. It is such individuals who are most likely to be suffering from malnutrition to severe malnutrition. The following narrative provides a day by day, and in some cases, an hour by hour, account of the mission.
Following the long flight from Fayetteville to Nairobi, Kenya on 11/28/14, I flew (with Alexander Tarjan, my interpreter) to Juba, the capital of the new nation of the Republic of South Sudan, two days later. There, I met with representatives of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-North (SPLM/Army-North) in order to obtain a permit to travel through rebel-held territory in the state of South Kordofan, Sudan, which is also the home of the Nuba Mountains. I was informed by the SPLM/A-N representatives that virtually everyone in the Nuba Mountains is hungry, with many, if not most, eating but once a day. When I made it clear that my intent was to deliver food to those in most critical need, I was informed that I’d find such individuals (a) far from the good size towns, villages and suqs (open air market places); (b) in those areas in closest proximity to the ongoing ground battles; and (c) up in the mountains where they have sought shelter in caves in the hope that the latter will provide adequate protection from the aerial bombings by the Government of Sudan (GoS).
On December 3, my interpreter, Alexander Ramadan Tarjan, and I flew…from Juba to the Yida Refugee Camp, which is situated right along the South Sudan/Sudan border. We left Juba at 11:00 AM and reached Yida at 1:00 PM… Before taking off for Yida, we met with the current coordinator of the Samaritan’s Purse unit in Yida, and when I asked him if refugees were still pouring into the refugee camp, he said: “It’s slowed down a lot. Only about 500 people a month are coming in these days.” I quickly did a calculation in my head and thought, “While that may be a lot fewer than in the past, that is still some 6,000 people a year.” What I was to discover during the course of my trip into the Nuba Mountains, it’s also a fact that each and every month more and more people are being forced from their villages and ending up in internally displaced persons (IDPs) in forlorn parts of the Nuba Mountains.
In Yida, we (my team) purchased four thousand dollars worth of food (primarily large 100 pound bags of sorghum, 100 pound bags of lentils, large jugs of cooking oil, and 100 pound bags of sugar). We quickly discovered that no one had any salt for sale. Actually, bulk quantities of any type of food was scarce, and that was largely due to the fact that the ongoing civil war in the new nation of The Republic of South Sudan made the long, arduous drive from the markets in either Kampala, Uganda or Juba to Yida both treacherous and often deadly. It is also not uncommon for trucks to be hijacked and their drivers left stranded in the middle of nowhere, if not killed. As a result, the cost of food is now sky high.
We ended up leaving Yida about three in the afternoon the same day we arrived, and reached the [Ryan] Boyette’s mountainside home at around eleven that evening. During the journey Ryan informed me about the towns and territory currently held by the SPLM/A-N as well as the towns and territory held by the GoS. He also informed me of the ever-increasing use of MIGs and Sukhoi Su-24 attack jets by the GoS to carry out major attacks on both those towns and areas held by the rebels as well as against civilian populations. Along the way, he duly pointed out the burned out carcasses of several NGO-owned trucks that had dared enter the region and had been bombed relatively recently by the GoS’ Antonovs.
Along the way we did not detect any aircraft flying overhead. In one way that was not unusual as many, if not most, of the aerial attacks are carried out against civilian populations from early to mid-morning—and noon at the latest. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule but at least as far as we could ascertain, no planes were in the sky that night.
As we made our way up into the mountains, we were stopped at various checkpoints (generally a rope drawn across the road or long tree branches formed in a standing X that blocked the road). Since Ryan knew most of the rebel leaders we ended up speaking with the latter in order to obtain the latest information in regard to the fighting in the region. In each instance, we were informed that we should not have a problem reaching Kauda, our destination, as the closest fighting would be centered some thirty miles from the closest point we’d be passing.
The main topic I was interested in discussing with Ryan as we made our way up to Kauda was the extent of the hunger in the region, including malnutrition, severe malnutrition and starvation. As I explained to him, just as I had to the SPLM/A-N representatives in Juba, my goal was to transport food to those individuals in most critical need. “I realize that just about everyone is hungry in the Nuba these days and that many people are existing on a single meal a day,” I said, “but I want to reach those people who are really desperate and attempting to exist on less than a single meal at least a day or two a week.”
Ryan said that as far as he was able to ascertain, one place where food was desperately needed was just outside a place called Kurchi (also spelled Kurchee), and another was a place called Kwalib. He said that those outside Kurchi—that is, those residing in villages closest to the front near Kadugli—often did not have enough food because the various freelance humanitarian groups bringing in food to the Nuba could not reach the area due to the ferocity of the battles.
As for Kwalib, Ryan said that it was a good distance north and that the fighting up there had also been fierce and large numbers of people had fled their villages and were now either living in internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps or trying to reach refugee camps in South Sudan. He said that since it was so far north—and so close to towns that the GoS military controlled—that few, if any, freelance humanitarian groups had ventured up there to deliver food and/or medical supplies.
Toward dusk, a lorry driven by rebels, with a dozen or more heavily armed rebels riding in the back of it, and that was towing a large anti-anti-aircraft gun on wheels passed us as it headed south. No doubt, we thought, they were on their way out towards Kadugli where a ground battle was raging. After spending a night at the Boyette’s mountaintop home, my team—Alexander Tarjan, my interpreter and Daniel Luti, our driver, a highly educated 27-year old Nuba Mountains civilian who resides in Kauda with his wife and baby daughter—headed into Kauda. That morning I had decided we should head to Kwalib for the very reasons Ryan and expressed during the journey the night before.
It took most of the day to arrange a meeting with the local commissioner, who we had to see in order to obtain permission to travel to Kwalib. We also needed to obtain a letter of introduction (written in Arabic) from the commissioner in Kauda to the commissioner in Kwalib. Since the Kauda commissioner was in a meeting that morning and was not available, I decided to head to a suq (Suq Talata) outside of Kauda about five miles that was having its market day. The plan was to purchase additional food (sorghum, lentils, dried beans, sugar and salt) to carry up to Kwalib. The trip to the suq proved fruitless since no one in the extremely active and very large suq had any bulk food for sale. That, in and of itself, was a clear sign that the food situation was more than tight, clearing suggesting that even those living relatively close to the larger towns (such as Kauda) might be having a difficult time obtaining an adequate supply of food.
Upon our return to Kauda, the commissioner was still not available so we drove into Kauda where Alexander and Daniel got lunch. While they were eating, an Antonov flew overhead and everyone shop owners and customers—scrambled for the deep (usually around eight feet deep) holes that are now a common feature in most suqs and compounds in the Nuba Mountains. Fortunately, the Antonov did not drop a bomb but its appearance was a precursor to what we were about to face in the coming days.
That afternoon we finally had a meeting with the commissioner and obtained the requisite permission and letter of introduction we needed. That accomplished, we immediately drove to the main suq in Kauda where we purchased another eight bags of sorghum (each of which weighed about 200 pounds) to add to what we had already purchased in Yida the day before. Once again, though, no one in the suq had any salt for sale. By the time we completed the purchase of the food, loaded it, and headed out to the main dirt road leading towards the town of Heiban, another major town in the Nuba Mountains, the sun was beginning to set. By the time we reached Heiban it was pitch black….
The next day we got up before sunrise and headed to Kwalib. Some fifteen minutes outside of Heiban, on the narrow dirt road we were traveling, a large farm tractor was parked just off the road and totally covered with the leafy branches of trees in an attempt to camouflage it. Just another sign, we figured, of the frequency of the bombing in the region…
As we got to closer to Kwalib, the topography changed rather dramatically. That is, instead of the mountains gradually rising from the flat desert floor in sheer walls of rock and plateaus, the land at the foot of the mountain was “littered” with boulders of all sizes—from the size of bowling balls to the size of cars. Indeed, fields of boulders spread over hundreds of feet along the base of the mountains, and on the ledges of the mountains above, huge boulders sat perched at incredibly precarious angles. My immediate thought was: the largest boulders probably provide fairly decent protection for those seeking shelter from GoS bombs and the concomitant shrapnel.
Eventually, the drive along the base of the mountain led to a small, makeshift internally displaced persons camp. After asking around for the local commissioner, we were led to a fairly good-sized compound. Upon informing him of who we were and handing him the letter from the commissioner in Kauda, we discussed the situation in the region. The commissioner informed us that over the past several months there had been a lot of fighting, along with a lot of bombing. “In fact,” he said, “this morning, Antonovs attacked a village near here.”
The commissioner also said that as various villages had been attacked, more and more people were fleeing their homes, and either going up into the mountains, the IDP camp that was nearby, or heading to a refugee camp in South Sudan. He also said that food was at a bare minimum, and that no one had had salt for a long time. We told him we had tried and tried again to purchase salt—at three different suqs, in fact—but to no avail. He nodded his head in understanding.
I was told that the people really craved salt and sugar due to the fact that sorghum, which is the main staple in the Nuba Mountains, tastes terrible when not salted or sweetened. So, the only way they can really stomach the sorghum is to disguise the taste with salt, which is their main way of making the sorghum more edible. Many have a hard time even getting the sorghum down without something to mask the taste.
Over and above that, of course, is the fact that all human bodies need salt. And unlike people in the U.S. (and other First World nations), the Nuba do not eat processed foods, such as canned vegetables, potato chips, pizzas, etc., all of which contain plenty of, if not far too much, salt. While common knowledge over the past several decades has strongly suggested that too much salt can raise a person’s blood pressure, which puts him/her at increased risk of health problems, such as heart disease and stroke, what is much less discussed is the impact of having little to no salt in one’s diet. In this regard, in 2010, Harvard Medical School published a paper titled “Salt and Your Health: Part I: The Sodium Connection,” and therein the authors commented on the significance of salt to the human body:
Make no mistake about it: salt is essential for human health. The average adult’s body contains 250 grams of sodium — less than 9 ounces, or about the amount in three or four saltshakers. Distributed throughout the body, salt is especially plentiful in body fluids ranging from blood, sweat, and tears to semen and urine.
Sodium is absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract, always bringing water along with it. It is the major mineral in plasma, the fluid component of blood, and in the fluids that bathe the body’s cells. Without enough sodium, all these fluids would lose their water, causing dehydration, low blood pressure, and death. (italics added by ST)
The point here, of course, is that the lack of the ready availability of salt in the Nuba Mountains has much more significance than “merely” masking the bitter or nasty taste of boiled sorghum or as an agent that makes it more appetizing.
Once we concluded our discussion regarding the food situation in the region, I asked the commissioner if we could head out to the area that had been bombed that morning. He said we would need to seek permission from the commander of the SPLM/A-N unit that was encamped nearby. He, in turn, said that he would be pleased to introduce me to him. Prior to heading over to meet with the commander, the commissioner suggested that we unload the food in a large, empty warehouse nearby. We readily agreed. As the commissioner and his colleagues looked on, they were both impressed and greatly appreciative of the amount of food that we were able to deliver.
Once the food was unloaded, to my eye it didn’t look all that impressive as it sat piled up in such a large space. Though I kept my thoughts to myself, the issue gnawed away at me. As it did, I, fortunately—at least for my peace of mind—recalled what Dr. Tom Catena, the only surgeon in the only hospital (Mother of Mercy) in the Nuba Mountains, had told me earlier in the year during an interview I conducted with him. More specifically, speaking about the critical lack of food in the region, Catena told me that, “For the better part of the year, there’s been no food available in the market, and the few willing to sell their food (sorghum) [are] charging ten times the usual price. The price of one malwa (the size of a large paint can) [has gone] as high as 45 Sudanese pounds (US$15).” Forty five Sudanese pounds is a significant amount of money for the average person in the Nuba Mountains, and it is highly unlikely that the average person would be able to purchase more than ten or so cans (which would amount to $150.00 USD) before his/her funds were sapped. That is understandable in light of the fact that the average annual income in the region is equivalent to $348.00 US dollars.
I also attempted to recall what Catena had told me regarding the dangers of malnutrition, which many people in the region are suffering from:
Malnutrition and its less severe cousin, subnutrition, impair the body’s immune system, thus rendering it more susceptible to any disease. Therefore, a poorly nourished person is unable to fight off infection as well as someone who is well nourished.
Simple problems like a simple pneumonia and diarrhea become life threatening in the malnourished. Malnutrition in pregnancy leads to low birth weight babies, who are more prone to disease. The malnourished mother might produce inadequate quantities of breast milk, thus compounding the problem for the already vulnerable neonate.
Lack of food also drives people to look for food sources elsewhere—sometimes eating foods which contain poisons or other non-nutritive foods. Lack of food drives children into the trees to fetch wild fruits, with the result that many fall out of the trees, sustaining fractures and head injuries. We had many children come in with both limb and skull fractures as a result of foraging for food in the trees. Some of these children have very severe arm fractures, which are improperly treated at home. We’ve had to amputate the arms of more than one child as a result of the severe infection which results from these improper treatments.
While my recall of such facts tamped down my discontent a bit, it also kept the fire going in regard to getting in as much food as possible to those facing such challenges/issues.
Early the next morning we got up and headed back to the Yida Refugee Camp in South Sudan. About two hours out, a jeep-like truck mounted with a weapon with a huge barrel—a weapon known as a Bi-Camp—raced past us carrying four or five rebels. I wanted to get a photo of the group and their weapon so we sped up and signaled them to them to pull over. They stopped in the middle of the road, asked us what we wanted and when Daniel told them, one of the passengers in the front seat blurted out, “No!” and with that the jeep took off again.
In the far distance, over a mountain range, huge billows of smoke rose in the sky. Another town had been hit by the GoS. (Later, we were informed that both attack jets and Antonovs had hit a town that morning.) About fifteen minutes later, we came up a large suq at a place called Andhulu, which was having its market day. Thinking that we might get a better price on the food if I wasn’t present during the bargaining session—which, again, was based on the notion that whenever storeowners see a “Khawaja” (white person), they almost automatically kick up the price of the item for sale by 100 to 300 percent or more—Daniel suggested that I park the truck a good ways away from the heart of the suq, near a large tree that offered welcome shade from the hot sun, and wait alone with the truck. I readily agreed, and with that Alexander and Daniel entered the suq to see if there was sorghum, salt, lintels, and sugar that we could purchase in bulk.
As our passengers got water, Daniel set out to locate the commissioner, who, we had been told, was likely across the road in the large compound. In the meantime, I sat down with a good number of our passengers and chatted with them. As we were all resting and talking someone cried out “Antonov!” Everyone jumped up and scrambled for all they were worth. I jetted straight ahead, almost tripping over a young woman and a young man as all three of us raced down a short incline that led to a large, dry wadi. Once we reached the wadi, all three of us dropped down on our stomachs as close to the riverbank as possible and then…waited. Several minutes later, we heard people shouting that the plane was gone. Incredibly relieved, the three of us got up and headed back up the dirt bank to the area where we had all been seated. As everyone came together again, the chatter focused on the close call we just had, the immense relief everyone felt, and how lucky we were that the Antonov didn’t bomb us….
Sitting alongside the commissioner was a hefty fellow, who I found out was the local director of police. After introductions, we sat down and explained why we were there. Both the commissioner and the director of police said that those Nuba residing high up in the mountains nearby were suffering terribly from a lack of food, and that what we had brought would help stave off the constant pang of hunger they suffered on a daily basis and would, hopefully, stave off severe malnutrition. The commissioner told us that about a mile away was a civil building in which they could store the food until they could get it up to the people in most critical need, or until the people were informed about the food and could come down, pick it up and “foot it” back to where they were hiding in caves….