More than 350,000 Sudanese were refugees in seven countries at the end of 1998: an estimated 170,000 in Uganda, some 60,000 in Ethiopia, 45,000 in Kenya, nearly 35,000 in Central African Republic, about 30,000 in Congo-Kinshasa, nearly 10,000 in Chad, and 2,000 in Egypt.
Up to 4 million Sudanese were internally displaced – the largest internally displaced population in the world. A huge population of Sudanese exiles lived in Egypt and elsewhere, many of whom considered themselves refugees although host governments did not give them official refugee status.
Sudan hosted approximately 360,000 refugees from neighboring countries: about 320,000 from Eritrea, 30,000 from Ethiopia, about 5,000 from Chad, some 3,000 from Congo-Kinshasa, and about 2,000 from Uganda.
The immense country of Sudan has long experienced conflict between north and south because of racial, cultural, religious, and political differences. The country's long civil war has primarily centered in Sudan's impoverished southern region. The conflict was further complicated by major divisions within the north and within the south.
The current phase of civil war has persisted for 15 years, pitting the main rebel army, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), and its allies against the government's military and its allies.
The SPLA has drawn support primarily from black African southern Sudanese, who are mostly Christians or adherents of traditional religions. The SPLA is a participant in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), a coalition of seven political groups – most of them based in northern Sudan – opposed to the current Sudan government. The military alliance between the SPLA and the NDA solidified in 1996 when both forces collaborated to open a significant military front in northern Sudan for the first time.
Sudan's current governmental leaders staged a coup to gain power in 1989. Controlled by the hard-line National Islamic Front (NIF), the government has armed civilian militia groups that regularly attack military and civilian targets in the south. Several rebel factions have defected to the government during the 1990s, adding to the volatile military situation.
SPLA military advances during 1997 regained much of the territory that the rebels lost to government troops during the first half of the decade. By the end of 1997, government forces controlled most major towns in southern Sudan, while rebel troops held vast rural areas and a handful of secondary towns.
Civilian populations have been targeted and exploited by all sides in the war. A 1998 study by USCR estimated that 1.9 million people in southern and central Sudan had died since 1983 because of the war.
The government and its allies regularly have attacked civilian targets throughout the south, including displaced persons camps and hospitals. Rebel troops also have committed atrocities against civilian populations, particularly in the first half of the decade.
Sudan government authorities have blocked or harassed humanitarian relief operations. Rebel factions have manipulated humanitarian aid programs to gain food for their troops and have used camps for refugees and displaced people to conscript new soldiers.
Politics and War – 1998
Ongoing war and blockages of international humanitarian relief efforts triggered massive famine that killed tens of thousands of people in southern Sudan during 1998.
Heavy fighting continued as government forces, SPLA rebel troops, government-armed militia, and other armed factions mounted military offensives against each other. The SPLA continued to regain territory lost in previous years but failed to capture strategically important government-held towns.
Peace negotiations failed to make significant progress. The government and rebel armies agreed to a partial cease-fire in parts of southern Sudan during the second half of the year. However, it applied only to limited areas and enabled both sides to continue the conflict in other regions. Nor did the cease-fire curtail raids by government-backed militia, which continued to destroy villages and farms in Bahr el-Ghazal Province. Fighting between pro-government factions in the south created additional insecurity, particularly in the Western Upper Nile region.
Sudan government planes bombed civilian targets more than 40 times during the year, including civilian hospitals, according to UN security officials. A government plane bombed a civilian hospital in the southern town of Yei hours after USCR staff completed a site visit there in November.
In July, USCR called for a moratorium on all bombing in southern Sudan. USCR issued an analysis of the cease-fire, calling it a "welcome step" but cautioning that "it does not remove the most serious obstacles to emergency food aid deliveries needed to ease the famine."
USCR urged President Clinton to appoint a special presidential envoy to work for peace in Sudan. "It is time to make the people of Sudan a priority at the White House," USCR stated. "It is time to put more of the President's personal commitment and prestige on the line to...seek lasting peace."
USCR published a report in December, Quantifying Genocide in Southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains, 1983-1998. The report estimated that 1.9 million people had died in Sudan of war-related causes, including some 70,000 deaths in the first half of 1998.
"Sudan's civil war has been characterized by an incremental ferocity that has left untouched practically no one...in southern Sudan," the USCR report stated. "Hundreds of thousands have died, but the deaths have usually occurred in small numbers, in a thousand villages, many of which are isolated.... The [Sudan] government has been relatively successful in sealing off much of Sudan from the prying eyes of journalists, aid agencies, and social scientists."
Internal Displacement and Famine
Endemic food shortages and massive population displacement resulting from the war reached new extremes during 1998.
Hundreds of thousands of southern Sudanese became newly uprooted – adding to the nearly 4 million people already displaced from their homes – and chronic malnutrition deteriorated into full-scale famine. An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 people perished in the famine, according to most estimates; one estimate placed the death toll at 100,000.
Hardest hit by the famine was southern Sudan's Bahr el-Ghazal Province. An SPLA military offensive in early 1998, and scorched-earth tactics practiced by government forces and their allies, uprooted tens of thousands of people from their homes in the first months of the year.
Up to 100,000 ethnic Dinka fled from the government-controlled town of Wau in early 1998 to escape a government pogrom that left hundreds, perhaps thousands, dead. The displaced population from Wau sought food and shelter in surrounding rural areas where local residents already faced a serious food shortage.
Malnutrition increased when Sudanese authorities imposed a two month ban on most humanitarian aid flights to Bahr el-Ghazal Province in February and March, effectively blocking food relief to the local population. Raids by government-supported militia during mid-1998 destroyed crops and cattle herds, driving still more families from their homes and into the grip of the famine.
As the famine intensified, more families became uprooted in search of food. Tens of thousands of people who had fled government repression early in the year nonetheless returned to government-held towns months later in a desperate search for food. An estimated 70,000 displaced people congregated in Wau town, including more than 20,000 children under age five. Some 1,300 people died in Wau of famine-related causes at the peak of the famine there in August.
"Many of the displaced are seriously malnourished after having visited six or seven different locations in search of food," ICRC reported. "Internally displaced people are too weak to [eat] dry rations, and they have no shelter or other non-food material which are also necessary for their survival."
UN officials responsible for coordinating humanitarian relief efforts, known as Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), responded slowly to the famine in the first four months of the year. Significant numbers of people died of starvation before OLS managed in the second half of the year to mount a massive airlift of food to the estimated 2.6 million Sudanese facing food shortages.
Large UN cargo planes delivered more than 100,000 tons of relief food by year's end. A handful of relief agencies operating independently of OLS also delivered tens of thousands of tons of food and supplies. UN officials characterized it as the largest air drop of food in history, with as many as 30 relief flights daily. International aid efforts cost an estimated $1 million per day.
Health surveys indicated that more than half the children were malnourished at some locations in the famine zone. Aid agencies operated more than 30 intensive feeding centers in Bahr el-Ghazal Province for the worst-affected children and adults. The new feeding centers, however, often stimulated additional population displacement as weakened families left their homes to congregate at feeding sites.
A mid-year study of the effectiveness of food aid programs in the famine zone found that many displaced families typically suffered the worst malnutrition, yet sometimes received the least food aid because local cultural customs channeled emergency food to residents via their local chiefs. Local chiefs tended to give lowest priority to feeding families displaced from other areas. Some relief food failed to reach needy beneficiaries because food was diverted by Sudan government authorities and SPLA officials, the study found.
USCR conducted four site visits to southern Sudan during the year to assess the effects of famine and ongoing population displacement. USCR observed many families in the famine zone camped without shelter under trees and eating tree bark and cowhide to survive.
USCR conducted extensive interviews with uprooted families; many had been displaced from their homes for years, or had fled their homes repeatedly over the years to stay alive. An estimated 80 percent of southern Sudan's 5 million people have been displaced at least once during the past 15 years of war.
USCR conducted public briefings on the situation in Sudan – including a nationally televised briefing in the U.S. Capitol – and provided regular updates and policy recommendations to alleviate the country's humanitarian and political problems. USCR facilitated U.S. media reporting on the famine.
Internal Displacement in Other Areas
Aid workers lacked detailed information about Sudan's overall internally displaced population because of the immense number of uprooted families and the long-term nature of Sudan's civil war.
"Greater clarity is needed to identify [displaced] communities, their location, and how their vulnerability compares to the population at large," a UN document stated in October. "For long-term developmental purposes, a much better profile needs to be obtained about those displaced communities who have taken other roads for survival, such as by working on agricultural schemes and farms, or living in urban squatter areas."
Up to 1.5 million people were internally displaced in the south, according to some estimates. As many as 1.8 million Sudanese – many of them southerners uprooted by the war during the 1980s – have migrated to Khartoum, the capital. Hundreds of thousands more were internally displaced in the Nuba Mountains region of central Sudan.
Fighting between pro-government armed factions in southern Sudan's Upper Nile Province during 1998 reportedly killed thousands of people and forced large numbers to flee the area. The clashes between the South Sudan Defense Force, led by Riek Machar, and the South Sudan United Army, commanded by Paulino Matip, destroyed entire villages and caused international aid workers to evacuate the area during the second half of the year.
In northeastern Sudan, near the Sudan-Eritrea border, fighting between government forces and NDA insurgents aligned with the SPLA left up to 60,000 people displaced during the year. Most of the uprooted families lived in six camps near Kassala town. ICRC provided blankets, soap, cooking utensils, and shelter materials. Government officials restricted aid efforts "for security reasons."
"International attention has been focused almost exclusively on the food crisis in southern Sudan, but we cannot overlook the precarious situation of these victims of conflict in the north," an ICRC official said. Many of the displaced families in northeastern Sudan "are now languishing in pitiful conditions, with little food and increasingly bad health," IFRC reported.
In central Sudan, fighting continued between government forces and the SPLA in the remote Nuba Mountains area. Some 200,000 ethnic Nuba occupied special government-controlled camps where they were subjected to forced labor and sexual abuse. International human rights workers have described the sites as "concentration camps"; Sudan government officials described them as "peace villages."
Some 60,000 Nuba people became newly displaced during 1997-98, according to one report. Sudanese authorities refused to allow UN workers to enter rebel-held areas of the Nuba Mountains to assess reports of serious humanitarian needs there, despite earlier government promises that it would allow access for such studies. Unidentified attackers ambushed and killed three local aid workers in central Sudan in June.
In western Sudan, ethnic strife reportedly killed nearly 200 people, burned scores of villages, and pushed tens of thousands from their homes. Some 5,000 to 20,000 people fled to neighboring Chad. Disputes over land rights reportedly sparked the violence. Some analysts blamed the conflict on Chadian rebels.
Internal Displacement in Khartoum
In the vicinity of Khartoum, an estimated 1.8 million internally displaced persons lived in more than a dozen dilapidated squatter neighborhoods, in government-designated camps, and in other areas of the sprawling capital. Khartoum's displaced people accounted for 40 percent of Khartoum's population, according to a UN estimate.
Since 1991, Sudanese officials have forcibly relocated hundreds of thousands of Khartoum's displaced people to alternative settlement sites in the Khartoum area. Officials have defended the relocations as necessary for urban renewal. Critics charged that the forced relocations constituted racial and political discrimination against black southerners.
Although the pace of demolitions and relocations slowed in 1998, approximately three-quarters of a million people were moved during the past decade, often at gunpoint. Thirty-nine people reportedly have been killed since 1990 in confrontations triggered by the government's relocation program.
Displaced families who managed to gain title to their own plots of land in government-designated resettlement areas faced difficulties. "Most plots of landare in peripheral areas with little prospect of providing real chances for sustainable living," a UN assessment concluded.
Most of Khartoum's displaced people, illiterate farmers from other regions of Sudan, struggled to support themselves without agricultural opportunities. Fewer than 10 percent held formal jobs, a UN study found. More than 90 percent of Khartoum's prison population were displaced women jailed for prostitution, selling beer, and other illegal livelihoods, according to the study.
Only one-third of displaced children in Khartoum attended school, according to an OLS survey. Many of Khartoum's 10,000 to 15,000 street children were from displaced families, the UN reported.
Repatriation of Sudanese Refugees
About 15,000 Sudanese refugees in neighboring Congo-Kinshasa suddenly returned to southern Sudan in October. Most had originally fled from Sudan more than five years earlier.
UNHCR charged that SPLA rebels entered Congo-Kinshasa and forced the refugees to repatriate. Other aid workers, however, reported that the refugees returned to Sudan voluntarily because civil war in Congo Kinshasa threatened their settlements there.
Most of the returnees quickly found lodging with friends and relatives in southern Sudan's border area and rapidly integrated into the local community.
Refugees from Eritrea
Most Eritrean refugees fled to Sudan in the 1980s or earlier to escape civil war and famine. Some have been in Sudan 30 years. Approximately 320,000 were living in Sudan at year's end.
Repatriation of Eritrean refugees has proceeded slowly, and remained stalled during 1998. About 130,000 Eritrean refugees are believed to have repatriated from Sudan since 1991, most with no international assistance. About 25,000 repatriated from Sudan with UNHCR assistance during 1994-95, as part of an experimental return program.
Several factors have impeded the repatriation of the remaining Eritrean refugee population: Eritrean authorities appeared to consider some refugees a destabilizing threat; diplomatic tensions between Sudan and Eritrea have been tense since 1995; landmines and a military offensive by Sudanese insurgents have caused insecurity along the Sudan Eritrea border; and the eruption of war between Eritrea and Ethiopia in mid-1998 posed an additional obstacle to repatriation.
UNHCR conducted an exercise at the request of the Eritrean government in April 1998 to count Eritrean refugees living in Sudan's camps and survey the refugees' attitudes. The exercise found that nearly 150,000 refugees lived in some 25 settlements in eastern Sudan. About 90 percent of the refugees surveyed in 1998 indicated a willingness to repatriate. About half of the refugees living near the Eritrea-Sudan border have visited Eritrea to assess conditions, according to a separate survey.
In addition to those living in special settlements, an estimated 170,000 Eritrean refugees lived in urban areas of Sudan.
Violence linked to Sudan's civil war struck a camp for Eritrean refugees located near the border between the two countries. An artillery shell fired near the camp killed at least three refugees and injured 15.
Refugees from Ethiopia
Most Ethiopian refugees fled to Sudan in the 1980s to escape civil war and human rights abuses in Ethiopia at that time.
The refugees have gradually repatriated to Ethiopia, including 8,000 who returned in 1998 with UNHCR assistance. About 72,000 have repatriated during the past six years. UNHCR's organized repatriation program from Sudan to Ethiopia ended in June.
The 30,000 refugees remaining in Sudan at year's end included about 12,000 in camps, plus others in urban areas. Families still living in camps at year's end awaited screening interviews to determine their refugee status.
Refugees from Other Countries
Nearly 5,000 Chadian refugees remained in western Sudan at the end of 1998. Integrated into the local community, they did not require UNHCR assistance. Local ethnic violence in western Sudan endangered some Chadian refugees during the year, UNHCR reported. Many have expressed a desire to repatriate.
An estimated 5,000 refugees from Congo-Kinshasa and Uganda lived in Sudan. Nearly two-thirds of the Congolese resided in Khartoum. Most of the estimated 2,000 Ugandan refugees have lived in southern Sudan for 20 years or more.