First Person

Hopes and fears in South Kordofan, Sudan

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The stories, said Ismail, are in their eyes.

Ismail Abdalla Algazouli is an Oxfam colleague in Khartoum, Sudan, who spoke to me recently when he returned from a trip to the war-torn state of South Kordofan. He is a security officer whose job is to ensure the safety of our staff, partners, and programs, and in South Kordofan—where  there is fighting between the government and rebels, between nomadic herders and Nuban farmers, and between Sudan and its new neighbor, the nation of South Sudan—his role is crucial.

In Sudan and South Sudan, gathering leaves and unripe fruit from the laloba tree is a desperate measure for people who have little else to feed their families. Photo: Alun McDonald/Oxfam

No bullets were flying where he visited—the  eastern part of the state, where an Oxfam partner is  launching a program to aid families that have fled the violence. But from the looks in their eyes, he said, he could see that people were suffering. Many were afraid to talk about what they’d seen and what they’d lost, because the communities are fractured and unstable: they fear that whatever they say could make them a target of one side today or the other tomorrow.

 What’s more, erratic rains and the disruptions of armed conflict have resulted in poor harvests, so for those who don’t have the means to pay for it, there is little food available. Ismail watched as people gathered unripe fruits of the laloba tree—inedible unless you boil them well—and the wild um medeako—a grape-sized fruit so sour you don’t eat it unless you have to.  Ismail tried, but as he said, “I could not eat even one.”

 But he found signs of hope in unexpected places. The official who, while standing for policies that sharply curtail our movements, privately encouraged us to help those whom we could reach. And the herders who rejected the notion that nomadic herders and Nuban farmers are natural enemies. “We cannot live without the Nuba, and vice versa,” said one. The relationship is symbiotic, he explained, with farmers producing grains that nomads need to live, and nomads providing farmers with cash. “The Nuba are poor and have nothing to be attacked for,” he said. “If they flee, we have to follow.”

Despite the constraints of war, Oxfam and our local partner have a chance to help. The work must move quickly to ease the suffering (already we have distributed seeds in time for planting), but gaining people’s confidence will take time.

What we need to do, said Ismail, is listen. “Sit longer, dig deeper, and build relationships of trust.” Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+