Like the people of Darfur, the Beja are non-Arab Muslims. Like Darfurians, they have been systematically marginalised, their grazing lands taken by outsiders and their plight ignored by the international community.
The Beja, the Cushitic original inhabitants of eastern Sudan, are a traditionally nomadic group with some three million members living in southern Egypt, northeastern Sudan and northern Eritrea. Believed to be the first to domesticate the camel, the Beja live in a harsh and arid semi-desert, their survival dependent on unpredictable annual rainfall. Beja ethnic identity is on the rise as the urban population has grown as a result of conflict, marginalisation and drought.
Although a significant proportion of Sudan’s population, the Beja have few representatives in the central government. They have been impoverished by State policies. Exclusion from power dates from Turkish and British colonialism and has been significantly worsened by the in-movement of riverain Sudanese, employed by post-independence governments as civil servants, soldiers and police. Loans from state banks have allowed riverain Sudanese to take over Beja land. Beja pastoralists have lost the goats and camels upon which they depend.
On all aspects of human development the Beja suffer more than the south, yet their needs are ignored by the UN and Western governments. The region has the highest rate of infant mortality in Sudan. Less than 10% of Beja children attend school. Malnutrition is chronic. Tuberculosis is widespread and left untreated.
Conditions are dire for the 160,000 people living in the area near the Eritrean border liberated by the Beja Congress in the late 1990s. In an attempt to starve the area into submission Khartoum has blocked medical supplies and food. People cure whooping cough by crow soup or donkey urine in the third millennium! Anaemic women die during pregnancy. There is a chronic shortage of food and medicines, doctors, nurses, schools or hospitals. People live in misery, illiteracy and disease in a land full of landmines. The International Rescue Committee is one of only two NGOs able to access the area. “It is the most under-served, most remote area that I have ever worked in, with huge humanitarian needs,” says Fergus Thomas, IRC programme coordinator for northeast Sudan.
The Beja region has been devastated by spillover effects from the North-South conflict and the presence of refugees from Eritrea and Ethiopia. Over a quarter of a million southerners moved into the area to escape fighting, cutting down trees and over-exploiting water resources. When the SPLM opened a second front against the Khartoum regime in eastern Sudan, over 300,000 Beja were displaced as fighting flared and now live in urban shanties in Port Sudan and Kassala.
In January 2005 Beja demonstrators in Port Sudan presented the governor of Red Sea State with a list of demands for an equal share of power, wealth and resources. Their protest was met with brutal force and 40 demonstrators were killed. The Sudanese government justified the killings by falsely claiming that the Beja were threatening oil exports. Amnesty International’s calls for the government to set up an independent commission of inquiry and to release Beja Congress representatives have gone unheeded. While the UN investigates atrocities in Darfur and the death of Lebanon’s president, they do nothing to bring perpetrators of anti-Beja violence to justice.
The Beja have suffered from the simplistic depiction of Sudan’s problem as one of northern Arab Muslims versus southern Christians and pagans and were denied a role in the peace talks in Kenya. At the Oslo donors’ conference nobody mentioned the half a million Beja displaced by conflict. The UN has provided facilities to Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees in our region but ignored our plight. We need urgent medical assistance, mobile schools and veterinary services. Our culture is threatened with extinction and we require help to preserve and develop our language.
The Beja have been the victims of decades of racist and discriminatory policies. Ongoing human rights violations by the Sudanese authorities in eastern Sudan are fuelling tensions and discontent. If the parties to the so-called Comprehensive Peace Agreement really want to build a nation in which indigenous groups are not marginalised then the Beja Congress must be recognised as a peace partner and our grievances addressed. It is time that we shared in decision making, instead of just having to put up with the consequences of bad decisions made about us.
Suliman Salih Dirar is director of the Beja Educational & Cultural Trust. Email: [email protected] For further information, see