WASHINGTON - The executive director of the United Nations' World Food Program has wrapped up a visit to Sudan after helicoptering into the volatile South Kordofan region to assess humanitarian needs.
David Beasley told VOA's South Sudan in Focus that the trip came about after he recently sat down with the leaders of Sudan, the rebel SPLM-North and South Sudan and received commitments to allow humanitarian workers unfettered access to the region, a development he called “quite extraordinary.”
“We’ve seen people coming together, political enemies coming together from Sudan government as well as South Sudan government to allow us access to areas that had been denied for literally eight years,” Beasley said Friday.
Last week, Beasley said, the WFP was able to send the first barge from Kusti, Sudan into Renk, the northernmost town in South Sudan. The barge arrived in Renk on Friday.
Beasley said using a barge lets the WFP save a significant amount of money “and allows us to access the people that we’ve not been able to access.”
Getting to this point was not easy. Rebels in Sudan's Blue Nile and South Kordofan regions have battled the government for years, and Sudan's government blocked acccess to the areas, located in Sudan's Nuba Mountains, along the South Sudan border.
However, the political climate changed this year with the overthrow of longtime president Omar al-Bashir and the installation of a joint military-civilian government.
“I sat down with the Prime Minister (Abdalla) Hamdok (of Sudan) and Hemeti (Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan), whom you know are very powerful leaders inside Sudan, and I sat down with each one of these leaders individually for several hours in discussing why this is important, why this is a signal to the world of a new dawn and a new day," Beasley said.
When asked how he got beyond the mistrust of the political leaders, Beasley said it was as though he were witnessing a new “spirit” among Sudanese leaders.
“Because Hamdok had told me when I met him during the U.N. [General Assembly] in New York that he wanted to prove his extensive desire to open up humanitarian access anywhere we wanted to go in Sudan was real," Beasley said.
Beasley said he put Hamdok to the test by saying, “I’m going to come to Sudan within a month a two.”
Beasley noted he not only had to get permission from Sudan's military and intelligence leaders but from rebel leaders who controlled the Nuba Mountains, including Abdulaziz al-Hilu, the leader of the SPLM-North.
“I had a long, extensive conversation with Abdulaziz as well as [South Sudan President] Salva Kiir as well as [South Sudanese opposition leader] Riek Machar explaining how critical this was, we must show cooperation for all the people,” Beasley told South Sudan in Focus.
There were bureaucrats “down below who fought it,” according to Beasley, but he warned the leaders that he would hold them accountable for the impediments down below you.”
He told them they had to truly change the system “all the way down to the ground, the grassroots level and they did, they made it happen, they worked together,” Beasley told VOA.
He cautioned that this “is not the end of the story, we got a lot more work to do but this is an extraordinary beginning of what appears to be a new day.”
Beasley said he was moved by the spirit and resilience of the people he met in Kauda, despite having no humanitarian assistance for years.
“They could not believe that I was there from the United Nations and our team so you could see the excitement that maybe this is the beginning of a new day,” said Beasley.
Serious humanitarian needs that include health care, education and food security remain in the Nuba Mountains, according to Beasley, even though the near daily bombing campaigns ordered by former President Omar Al Bashir ended years ago in the region.