Sudan aid agreement threatens mountain life

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The Independent Online

A group of men with guns watch as 50 girls in brightly patterned dresses walk in single file up a track in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan's South Kordofan region, heavy boxes of medical supplies balanced on their heads.

A group of men with guns watch as 50 girls in brightly patterned dresses walk in single file up a track in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan's South Kordofan region, heavy boxes of medical supplies balanced on their heads.

Another spectator is Henrik Sauer of German Emergency Doctors, the only aid agency bringing outside help to this part of Africa. After a five-hour walk in the searing heat, the girls will leave their supplies at a rudimentary health post, out of sight of Government of Sudan forces among the boulders, where local people have been trained to help the sick.

Mr Sauer, a former motor mechanic from Bonn, says: "It's small things that can make a big difference here, so we bring in soap for people to wash themselves, and iodised salt to prevent goitre. It is important people should be able to carry on when we have gone."

This is aid at its most basic. While the UN and international NGOs have brought millions of pounds worth of aid to the south of the country through Operation Lifeline Sudan, the Nuba Mountains have been denied humanitarian assistance. The Islamic Government in Khartoum has banned access while it fights the Sudan People's Liberation Army and other rebel forces for control. Farmers driven off their fertile land in the plains are forced to scratch a living in stony ground, with no roads, schools, or running water.

Now the UN is pressing for access and after 10 years of isolation the Nuba people are preparing for an influx of aid with hope and concern. The Operation Lifeline Sudan base in Lokichoggio on the Kenyan border, represents aid on a grand scale. Thousands of expatriates from the world's biggest NGOs, including Oxfam, the World Food Programme, and Unicef, live in comfort behind wire fences, visiting each other's compounds in four-wheel-drive vehicles and relaxing after work at the bar or swimming pool. They have £80m to spend.

Father Kizito, an Italian priest based in Nairobi, is having second thoughts, after urging the UN to bring relief to the people of Nuba. He fears aid may do more harm than good. "The Nuba people are too friendly," he says. "They run the risk of being overwhelmed by the presence of big NGOs, who create dependency."

One of the first things the international community will want to bring is food, which accounts for more than half the aid sent to Sudan. But Yaoub Osman Kaluka, of the Nuba Rehabilitation, Relief and Development Organisation, says: "Our people need to be taught how to get food from the soil and how to fish, not to be given food." He believes they must find a way of controlling the aid, a suggestion that will horrify NGOs. They have been criticised for prolonging conflict in countries such as Rwanda and Ethiopia by sending in aid that went to soldiers rather than the starving.

An American author and former aid worker, Michael Marin, says the Nuba should look to their neighbours. "I first came to Africa 23 years ago and every African country I'm familiar with is now in poorer shape." Any benefits, he believes, have been to those who are already powerful. "If most of the aid organisations were to go out of business tomorrow, the lives of people in the third world would remain essentially unchanged."

Jenny Cuffe reports from Sudan in "The Aid Business" on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm tomorrow

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