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Four Killed Over Nile Dam Project That Threatens Nubian Towns

Dan Morrison in Sebo, Sudan
for National Geographic News
June 15, 2007
 
A proposed dam project on the Nile River has escalated into bloody conflict between Sudan's government and ethnic minority Nubians who stand to lose the little that's left of their ancient homeland.

Four people were killed Wednesday near Sebo, in northern Sudan, and another 19 injured when riot police fired on villagers protesting the project, according to officials and witnesses.

"They were shot before my eyes." Osman Ibrahim Osman, a leader of a coalition of 26 villages that opposes the dam, told National Geographic News.

"I can't explain why they started firing. It was a peaceful demonstration."

Later, in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, police used tear gas to scatter hundreds of demonstrators outraged by the deaths and stirred by the bitter legacy of the Aswan High Dam. Dozens of Nubian villages were flooded by the dam's construction and tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated.

Despite the intense local opposition, Sudan's government is moving forward with preliminary work on the project, known as the Kijbar Dam.

The tensions over Kijbar echo a struggle hundreds of miles to the south, where members of a river tribe have refused to make way for the Chinese-built hydroelectric Merowe Dam, which is scheduled to begin operation in late 2008.

History Repeats Itself

For the Kijbar protestors, however, the true touchstone is the Nile's Aswan High Dam in neighboring Egypt (map of Egypt).

Egypt's construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s flooded Nubian villages on both sides of the Sudan-Egypt border and forced more than 90,000 people into new settlements—most of them in Sudan's eastern desert.

In Sudan the main Nubian city, Wadi Halfa, was submerged by the new Aswan reservoir, which the Egyptians call Lake Nasser and the Sudanese call Lake Nubia.

A military dictatorship forced 50,000 people to a new city, New Halfa, in the east, where many died of malaria and other diseases. The community splintered, and many families migrated to Khartoum and other cities.

Nubians on the Egyptian side of the border were relocated to Nile villages north of Aswan.

"You can't destroy a whole area in the name of development," said Sawi Bitek, a longtime advocate for the Nubian villages that remain on the Nile.

"We are river people. We need trees. You can't put us out in the desert."

The region of Nubia runs more than 435 miles (700 kilometers) along the Nile, from Aswan in Egypt past the town of Dongola in Sudan (Sudan map).

The people's history dates to at least 2300 B.C. They were at different times rivals, vassals, and conquerers of the ancient Egyptians, and the culture maintained its distinct languages and customs even as it adopted Christianity and later Islam. (Related: "Rare Nubian King Statues Uncovered in Sudan" [February 27, 2003].)

That cultural and geographic continuity suffered a severe blow with the raising of the Aswan High Dam.

Bitter Memories

More than 40 years later, the memory is still raw.

So when a crew of Chinese construction workers appeared just north of the hamlet of Sebo in January, a ripple of panic went through the villages that would likely be submerged by a new dam.

"After Halfa, the thought of another dam is miserable,'' said a local elder who requested anonymity because he feared government retaliation.

"The same thing will happen to us as happened to them. We expect nothing better."

On April 24 some 3,000 residents occupied and shut down the work site, where workers were drilling test holes to determine the composition of the bedrock beneath the region's date palm orchards and fields.

Police reinforcements sent from Dongola were trapped by a roadblock of boulders and palm trunks several miles south of the site, where the route is pinched by the Nile on one side and a steep stone embankment on the other.

Residents surrounded the dozens of police in a polite standoff, offering tea and water but keeping them away from the work site.

On Wednesday it was from that steep hill that members of Sudan's paramilitary Central Reserve Force fired on a large crowd that was marching to stop a renewed drilling and to halt the confiscation of locally owned plots, witnesses said.

Government officials said in a statement that police fired in self-defense after tear gas failed to disperse the crowd, the AFP news agency reported. The governor of Sudan's Northern State, Merghani Salah Sid Ahmed, couldn't be reached for comment.

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