Reports: Peoples

The Uduk

The central section of the Sudan-Ethiopian borderland (from the Blue Nile to the Baro) saw a series of dramatic military and political events from 1987 onwards. These were caused by the locally rising and falling fortunes of armed opposition movements in both countries; national attention from Khartoum and from Addis Ababa was focussed on this region at different times, and international attention was also drawn in, mainly because of massive population movements to and fro across the border.

The consequences for local civilian communities were devastating: there have been patterns of multiple displacement, high levels of suffering and death because of the erosion of local economies, and the regrouping of populations under the patronage of either government garrisons, guerrilla movements and warlords, or the UN and other aid agencies.

No area of this region remains unchanged by these processes; because it is a frontier zone between north and south of the Sudan, and between Sudan and Ethiopia, choices faced by the local civilians have been particularly stark - whether to seek security and protection from one party or another in the Sudanese war, or whether to cross the border - a movement which for many has had to be reversed, in some cases more than once.

These circumstances have helped to sharpen up 'ethnic' lines and to give visibility to some particular groups, who are 'listed' from time to time by the relief agencies in one place or another. We do not know how many have managed to survive quietly in the hills and valleys, seeking out local networks of assistance and patronage without becoming 'visible' to the agencies, nor, perhaps, to the various political and military interests.

What follows is a brief case study: the story of the multiple displacements of the Uduk speaking people from the southern part of the Blue Nile Province of the northern Sudan. The major part of this population, some fourteen thousand people now constituting a 'visible ethnic group', were allocated a resettlement site by the Ethiopian government and UNHCR in early 1993 at Khor Bonga, upstream of Gambela in Ethiopia.

Other Uduk speaking communities, at the same date, were still stranded in the southern Sudan under SPLA-Nasir control; a handful had made a dangerous trek back to their home country in the Blue Nile under the Sudan Government; a string of communities were living in towns of the northern Sudan, including Khartoum/Omdurman, having fled the war; and a number of men were serving or had recently served with either the Sudan government forces and with the SPLA (in roughly equal numbers).

Some refugees had been carried far to the south, caught up with the military or civilian-educational activities of the SPLA, and obliged to retreat with them in the face of the 1992 Sudan government offensive (which passed into Pochalla from the Gambela region of Ethiopia); among those Uduk who were separated very far to the south were women married to SPLA soldiers. There was even a group of Uduk among the 'Triple A' camp populations (Ame, Atepi and Aswa) in eastern Equatoria; and another group in Kakuma in Kenya.

It is not clear how many Uduk speaking people there were before 1987; but the number (in thousands) is likely to have been in the mid-twenties. There were exaggerations in some of the later refugee camp figures, possibly because other minority peoples took shelter under the 'Uduk' umbrella (there never used to be clear social or cultural boundaries in the southern Blue Nile and adjacent areas and there always was a good deal of intermixture and bilingualism). While it would be unreasonable to portray the situation as one of a people 'dying out', it is true that a great many people have been lost, and the people feel themselves as a whole to be facing death.

Up to 1994 only a small number of deaths were directly caused by military or other direct violence, but a large number had resulted from illness or malnutrition. Because of political complications, relief aid has reached them only intermittently. At no point in the period from 1987 up to 1993 and the Bonga resettlement scheme, were the people given permission to cultivate on a scale really sufficient to help them feed themselves, although this is precisely what they have begged to be allowed to do. The difficulty arises of course partly from national and local political argument, especially about rights in land for or on behalf of the displaced, whether in a foreign country or in their own, but a contributing difficulty has also been the sharp line maintained internationally between emergency relief and development aid.

In 1986-87 the SPLA advanced northwards into the Blue Nile, provoking the Sudan government to take reprisals against the local civilians. By March-May 1987, under SPLA encouragement, the population of the Uduk villages fled en masse to Ethiopia, and a new UNHCR camp was established for them and others of the district at Tsore, near Assosa. The SPLA took the (northern) town of Kurmuk near the end of 1987, and held it for a month. After a national campaign to raise money, and the securing of help from other Arab countries, it was retaken by Sudanese forces. These events caused further refugee influxes to Tsore.

The refugee relief programme at Tsore operated well right through 1988. The UNHCR was very pleased with the cooperation of the people in the relief programme; the Uduk in particular acquired the reputation of being "model refugees", as they had maintained their family groups and their patterns of leadership, had brought tools and equipment with them, and had known how to grow a few vegetables and put the forest and bush to productive use. They joined committee structures and built up their Christian activities.

By 1989 there was heightened tension on both sides of the international border. A refugee camp mainly for Oromo on the Sudan side in the Yabus valley was overrun by the SPLA in the middle of the year. The SPLA advanced northwards again an towards the end of the year took Kurmuk for the second time. But, as before, it was retaken very quickly. Following the recovery of Kurmuk, military activity gathered pace on both the Sudanese and the Ethiopian sides. As the Sudanese army pursued the SPLA southwards from the Kurmuk area in January 1990, forces opposed to the then government of Ethiopia overran Assosa, and in their approach from the north-west destroyed the UNHCR camp at Tsore.

The majority of the Uduk fled south-eastwards, away from Kurmuk, then back through the hills and west towards the Yabus valley. On the way they were ambushed in a ravine by local elements supporting the OLF, while the Ethiopian government forces moved to retake Assosa. The Tsore camp survivors emerged into the Sudan at Yabus Bridge, where they faced bombing by the Sudanese air force. The main body of the people moved further west into Meban country to seek help from the SPLA, but were strongly advised to move right down south to Itang, back in Ethiopia.

The first half of 1990 was an extremely difficult time for the refugees as they were not in receipt of any relief aid at all. The UNHCR in Addis Ababa had lost contact with them, and no UN or other agency operating on the Sudan side took up their plight. By July, apart from a few groups who settled independently in hills near the border, the survivors had shown up in Itang, constituting the "ex-Assosa" community - which was as a whole in what is officially termed "poor condition". The "ex-Assosa" people did not improve as much as the UNHCR and agencies had expected, and concern was officially expressed in early 1991. Their sojourn however came to an early end: with several hundred thousand other Sudanese refugees they evacuated the Gambela region in late May / early June 1991. The returnee relief programme run by Operation Lifeline Sudan (Southern sector) out of Nairobi had just begun in Nasir. On the way, many of the Uduk endured another bombing attack by Sudanese government planes - the second time they had been welcomed back into their own country in this way.

The Blue Nile refugees were allocated a site on the south side of the Sobat opposite Nasir. Nature and politics combined to hamper the effective delivery of relief. 1991 was a year of high flood levels, and within a few weeks most of the relief distribution centres were partially washed out. There was continuing disagreement about the level of need, which contributed to the inadequacy of the relief programme as a whole. The main responsibility for this, however, beyond the UN's lack of political muscle, must lie with the Khartoum regime: UN "development" aid was completely banned in the SPLA areas, and emergency relief was restricted in kind. It was also subject to delays, cancellation and interference. Khartoum permitted nothing but grain to be delivered as food relief, and flight permission to specified places and for specific amounts had to be renewed each month with the Sudan government.

By late September/October, the first split in the SPLA, made known at the end of August in the bid for leadership of the movement by Riek Machar and other Nasir-based commanders, began to complicate further the politics of aid in the region. The Nasir leadership made what political capital it could out of the presence of many stranded and needy returnees, including the Uduk. After a very difficult year, they were allowed to leave the vicinity of Nasir town for a more hospitable woodland area upstream; but the early rains failed, security was collapsing, and the majority left in a body for Ethiopia for a third time in June 1992.

It seems that the Uduk decision to move out of the Sudan and seek help in Ethiopia, where so many in distress had been helped before, was looked on with sympathy by the SPLA-Nasir leadership. Perhaps it was though that these supposed "favourites" of the relief agencies, now really on the edge of survival, would kick-start the relief operations again on the Ethiopian side. The UNHCR had closed its office in Gambela earlier in the year.

Unfortunately there was violence in Itang in July, shortly after most of the Uduk had arrived there; along with many others they scattered and made for the town of Gambela. Initially squatting in the vicinity of the UNHCR compound, they were eventually transferred to a transit site and then in early 1993 to the resettlement scheme at Khor Bonga. The stream of Sudanese multiple refugees seeking asylum again in Ethiopia continued in the wake of the Uduk influx, and by 1994 there were some twenty thousand back in the newly-reopened camp at Fugnido, as well as a smaller number in Dima.

There are many ironies to the political aspect of the Uduk saga. Originally perceived as SPLA supporters, they later found the SPLA in Nasir an unsupportive and to some degree a threatening patron. On the Ethiopian side, where they had been welcomed in Assosa as SPLA proteges during the Mengistu regime, the new local authorities in Gambela in 1992 were willing to take on the role of protector towards them as they could be represented as a group leaving the domination of the SPLA.

On the international level, it must be admitted that the attitude of donors and governments in the region also affected the story. Even the UN is drawn into politically structured situations locally and internationally which constrain the form its actual activities can take. The humblest people themselves know this to some extent. A few lines from an Uduk song capture the memory of the sufferings in the Sudan and the prevarications of the UN in Nasir:

My feet are bruised
We're on the long bitter road
With the children too
Oh, UN, Oh!
I've been strung along by the white people
Riek Machar's behind it somewhere
He calls himself the Captain
But my feet are hurting me
Oh, UN, Oh!
Oh, UN! Why don't you take us to Nairobi!
(Sung by Weila Ragab, recorded by Granada TV / "Disappearing World: Orphans of Passage", January 1993)

By 1993-94 the Sudan government was endeavouring to encourage displaced people from the war zones to resettle in their home areas, areas in which there was a shortage of labour for new agricultural schemes. A substantial number were drawn back to the northerly region of Upper Nile and the southern Blue Nile.

The Uduk in Ethiopia were approached both informally (which was illegal) and formally (in the presence of a UN observer) by representatives of the Sudan embassy in Addis Ababa, with the suggestion that they return home; a request they politely declined on the grounds that the war was not over.

Given their increased commitment to the Christian faith it is difficult to see what reasonable future they could look forward to under the current regime in Khartoum, if they were to return to their home in the (northern) Sudan. Even if there were specific minority safeguards, this would only entrench their identity as a conspicuous and troublesome anomaly there, and leave the question of long-term security problematic.

Unless there is to be a complete change of regime in Khartoum and a return to secular democracy, a redrawing of boundaries to include the southern Blue Nile (and its culturally heterogeneous population) in a southern based province might be a more acceptable prospect.

Wendy James