Blue Nile


Refugees who fled conflict in the state of Blue Nile, are now returning to mine gold and harvest gum arabic in their resource-rich but dangerous homeland.

Story and photographs by

Ashley Hamer




AWADIA ASAID CROUCHES in darkness at the bottom of a narrow five metre deep pit.

She scrapes stones and soil into a bucket before scrambling up the shaft barefoot, hauling out the rubble as she goes. Then she starts panning for golden specks in a shallow pool she made with water from a nearby well.

The last time she found gold - a nugget scarcely larger than a grain of sand - was two days ago.

Men and women, young and old, work in the mines. On average, people find gold dust and sometimes tiny nuggets a couple of times a week.

She sold it to a local trader for 60 Ethiopian birr (about $3), which bought her 8kg of sorghum seed to grind and cook. She works at the mine each day and expects to find gold dust a couple of times a week.

Across this wide area of cleared bush, scores of holes pock the rocky red earth, each a metre wide and gouged by hand. On a day in mid-March, at least 100 people, old and young, were mining on this informal site.

“This is dangerous [work],” Asaid says, explaining that sometimes the holes collapse. There are other threats, too. “The Antonov never bombed inside the mine site but it has dropped very close.”

At the artisanal mines, a small group of wealthier traders rent diggers and gold detection equipment.

Asaid knows the Antonov as a heavy cargo aircraft laden with explosives, which for the past four and a half years has relentlessly bombed signs of civilian life across her homeland.

Asaid and her family are refugees from Blue Nile, a resource-rich but neglected state the size of Sicily, located in the southeastern corner of Sudan.

Since 2011, grinding conflict between the regime in Khartoum and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army-North (SPLM/A-North) has eviscerated swaths of Blue Nile. The rebel group claims it is fighting for greater representation in the central government and improved rights for the state’s indigenous people.

The mine site where Asaid works is called Abangaro. It lies just inside southern Blue Nile, close to the border with South Sudan and within territory controlled by SPLM/A-North.


Despite the conflict, there are informal gold mines scattered
across Blue Nile.

Asaid is a single mother of five. Her two youngest children - one she still breastfeeds - live with her in a makeshift settlement close to the mine. Her two older children live in a sprawling refugee camp one day's walk across the border in neighbouring South Sudan.

Her fifth child, a five-year-old girl, died in a refugee camp clinic in 2011 from an illness Asaid links to the family's weeks-long escape after war broke out in their area.

Asaid has been travelling back and forth from South Sudan into Blue Nile for a year to look for gold. She spends weeks at a time at the mine before returning to her children at the camp.

A man pans for gold in the informal mine site called Abangaro which lies in a rebel-held part of Blue Nile.

“We left in 2011 because of the Antonov and shelling, but the last two years the situation for refugees in the camps [in South Sudan] has become even worse. Our lives are at risk and I cannot afford enough food for the children,” she says.

Despite the conflict, there are informal gold mines scattered across Blue Nile. In 2014, Sudan became the third-largest gold-producing nation in Africa, according to statements from the ministry of minerals.

Along with gold, some refugees are also returning to harvest gum arabic in Blue Nile's depopulated savannah.

Sudan is the world's main producer of this natural emulsifier, which is coveted by international food, cosmetics and pharmaceutical manufacturers.

THE PEOPLE OF THIS peripheral state are among the most marginalised in Sudan. Since the country’s independence from the British in 1956, they have lacked representation in the central government and been subject to oppressive policies. Such policies have included land grabbing and mineral exploitation by the Arab elite which have provoked widespread involuntary displacement of Blue Nile’s indigenous communities.

“Since the 1960s, it has been a divide-and-rule policy by the government to keep control of the land in Blue Nile …  and push civilians out of rebel areas,” says Ibrahim Yassin Mohamed, a former fighter turned local humanitarian coordinator, who works to bring some limited aid assistance from international organisations from South Sudan into rebel-held Blue Nile.

The SPLA-North continues to recruit troops into its ranks, mostly young adults and teenagers from the refugee camps.

He says the government in Khartoum has long aimed to eliminate local support for SPLM/A-North and to secure access to the area’s natural resources.

“We [the SPLM/A] fought to change those policies and improve the rights of our people.”

The current conflict tore into Blue Nile in 2011, the same year that South Sudan gained its independence from the north, dividing Africa's largest country in two.

Sudanese government forces (SAF) were sent by President Omar al-Bashir to crush a perceived insurrection by SPLA-North in two strategic states - South Kordofan and Blue Nile - which had become the disputed frontier as north and south separated.

Sometimes referred to as the “Two Areas”, South Kordofan and Blue Nile were historically aligned with southern Sudan and fought as a united SPLM/A force in the decades-long liberation struggle leading up to the south's secession.



The Blue Nile


“We [the SPLM/A] fought to change those policies and improve the rights of our people.”

But when the new border was drawn, South Kordofan and Blue Nile were left within northern Sudan, severed from their former southern allies and at odds with the national government.







South Sudan










SAF launched aerial bombardments and shelling of villages, towns and farmland, which forced hundreds of thousands of civilians out of rebel-held Blue Nile.

Many of the displaced fled to Ethiopia but most - like Asaid's family - escaped to Maban County, in eastern South Sudan.

Before the conflict, up to 800,000 lived across Blue Nile. Today, an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 live in what is left of rebel-controlled areas.

SPLA-North training is ad hoc and the group severely lacks equipment. Many new recruits are deployed into battle without guns and are expected to scavenge from the enemy.

“The air bombings by the government have continued for five years ... They have brought the people into poverty and scattered and terrorised them,” says Yusuf al Hadi, minister for local governance with the SPLM/A-North at their southern Blue Nile base of Yabus.

“The Antonov planes bomb our farms and limit our ability to cultivate. This is resulting in great food insecurity and the people cannot earn a living.”

The Sudanese government forbids journalists and all humanitarian aid from entering the southern area of Blue Nile that remains under SPLM/A-North control, leaving the region forsaken during a four-year-long blockade.



TODAY, MORE THAN 133,000 refugees from Blue Nile live in limbo across a string of displacement camps in Maban County, in South Sudan’s Upper Nile state.

The majority arrived in 2011 and rapidly outnumbered the Mabanese host community who were not entitled to the support the refugees received from international aid organisations and the United Nations.

In December 2013, less than two years after independence, South Sudan erupted into its own civil war and consequent humanitarian crisis. Maban County militarised and armed groups with shifting allegiances multiplied.

In November last year, the UN’s World Food Programme cut its rations to Blue Nile refugees by 30 percent. This was due to a lack of funds and South Sudan's competing internal emergency, according to Adan Ilmi, head of office for the UN's refugee agency in Maban.

“The refugees don't have enough food here now and there is competition for land with the host community. They are having to steal crops or chop down trees belonging to the host community. This is creating an impossible situation,” Ilmi says.

An estimated 40,000 to 60,000 live in what is left of rebel-controlled areas in the Blue Nile.


At least 90 people have been killed in altercations between the two communities since 2011.

Awadia Asaid, like most of the refugees interviewed at Abangaro mine, can no longer support her family in the Maban camps and fears for her safety. With few alternatives, she chooses to return to Blue Nile to search for gold.

The majority is extracted informally, and in war zones like Blue Nile, it is unregulated and driven by desperation.

The government and central bank control the purchase, processing and export of Sudan's gold, making it impossible to trace how much originates in the conflict states and to know the conditions under which it was mined.




It is into this state that the Blue Nile river enters Sudan from the Ethiopian highlands. The vast Roseires dam, built in the 1960s near the state capital Damazin, provides crucial hydroelectric power to large parts of the country, including the capital Khartoum.

“We have minerals like gold and fertile soil for farming, forestry and water,” says Mohamed, the humanitarian coordinator.

“The government would like to sweep these resources and their revenue to the north, to Khartoum. The indigenous people do not benefit.”

With South Sudan's secession, the north lost three-quarters of its oil reserves and more than 50 percent of the oil revenue on which the country's economy depended.

The government identified gold production as a way to prevent economic disaster and the past four years have seen a nationwide rush.

Sudan has produced an average yearly output of 50 tonnes since 2012, with close to 80 tonnes in 2015, according to figures from the ministry of minerals.

Only 15 percent of this gold is extracted by industrial-scale mines, mostly in the country's stable northeast.

Falata Jor, a father of seven, works in an informal gold mine in a rebel-held part of Blue Nile. He says he’d like to cultivate farmland but the “tension” in refugee camps precludes him from doing so in South Sudan and he fears Antonov bombardments on Blue Nile land.


HALF A DAY'S DRIVE north from the goldfields of Abangaro towards the SPLA-North front line lies Chali.

Before the conflict, Chali had a thriving market and a small airport. Today, the remains of this rebel-held town are almost deserted.

Mosques, schools and even a USAID-supported clinic are gutted and overgrown, with roofs torn by shells and walls blown out by shrapnel.

Trader Mustafa Nimir was separated from his family at the start of the conflict. He found himself on the rebel side while his wife and children remained in the government-controlled state capital, Damazin. They have not seen each other since 2011.

Nimir, who thinks he is in his 50s, wears oil-stained overalls and has a shy smile.

Children play inside the ruined remains of the Chali hospital where graffiti on the walls is a sombre indication of what people have witnessed here.

He owns a battered four-wheel drive held together with rope. It is one of the only trucks moving between Blue Nile and the crowded camps on the South Sudan side - roads are few and the Antonovs can follow moving vehicles to civilian enclaves.

A few dozen families have returned to Chali in recent years and Nimir insists that he is the only person bringing basic supplies such as salt, sugar, tea and soap to this area from South Sudan.


Trading gold


“I can make 1,200 South Sudanese pounds (about $40 in mid-March at the volatile black market rate) for a 50kg sack.”

Residents say the last time they saw the Antonov circling above was five days before. They took shelter behind rocky outcrops and disused pit latrines, but the aircraft didn't bomb. It usually attacks during the day, and while there is almost no electricity in the state, sometimes nighttime cooking fires are targeted.

Despite the dangers, Nimir says: “So many people want to leave the refugee camps and come back to Blue Nile because the situation there is unsafe and there are no opportunities.”

Here, he says, Antonov bombardment is a threat but there is gold and gum arabic to be found.

Nimir trades both for the small supplies he brings into Chali. He sells the gold to Ethiopian merchants and the gum arabic in South Sudan, where it makes its way - often smuggled to avoid taxation - across the northern border of Upper Nile state and back into Sudan.

“Gum arabic grows easily here and is very valuable. I can make 1,200 South Sudanese pounds (about $40 at South Sudan's volatile black market exchange rate) for a 50kg sack,” Nimir says.

Sudan accounts for at least 50 percent of the world's total gum arabic output.

It is one of several varieties of sap harvested from the sliced bark of scrubby acacia senegal and seyal trees. It is a vital ingredient in soft drinks such as Coca Cola, sweets and marshmallows, glue, shoe polish, cough medicine and paints.

The majority grows in the “gum belt”, which is concentrated in Sudan and stretches across the country's main conflict states, including Blue Nile.

Gum arabic was the only Sudanese agricultural commodity exempt from United States trade sanctions imposed on the country in 1997. In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration expanded its permitted use in US-made products.

Sudan is the world’s main producer of gum arabic, which is exported throughout the world to food, cosmetics and pharmaceutical manufacturers.



ALMERDI BADI, who is in his late 40s, is a soldier with the rebels. He is based at the movement's military headquarters in Funj, a scorching garrison close to the border with South Sudan behind Blue Nile's western front.

A cheerful man, he is currently off-duty and dressed in a football shirt and faded army pants. He and several workfellows are harvesting gum arabic in the forest.

Outside a grass hut, a pile of 50kg sacks are stuffed full. A small tractor is parked nearby, out of use for lack of fuel.

Badi picks his way up into a yellow acacia, inch-long thorns clawing at his shirt and skin. He pulls off chunks of soft amber sap from chips in the bark.

“My family live in refugee camps in Ethiopia and South Sudan. Because I am a soldier with the SPLA-North I do not earn a salary and I cannot live in the camp,” Badi says.

He explains that many of his comrades scratch a living harvesting gum arabic in Blue Nile during the wet season when heavy rains paralyse military movement. “We have no other source of income.”

Almerdi Badi, a soldier with the rebels, harvests gum arabic close to the front line in Blue Nile. The rebel troops do not earn a salary and Badi must make money to support his family living in refugee camps across the border.


Meanwhile, Antonov planes from Khartoum are a continuous presence in the skies above Blue Nile.

Both Badi and Nimir say the rebel administration takes 10 percent tax from the few wealthier enterprisers organising small groups to harvest gum arabic or gold mining using diggers.

Behind Blue Nile's active front lines, in the areas accessed by this journalist, SPLA-North appear as a ragtag guerrilla force short on heavy weapons.

They feed their ranks by recruiting largely from the refugee camps, and send ill-equipped and unpaid young fighters to defend desolate ground.

Casualties are reported on both sides but the front lines have changed little in four years. Political negotiations are at an impasse.

Meanwhile, Antonov planes from Khartoum are a continuous presence in the skies above Blue Nile, bombing indiscriminately and obstructing people's efforts to safely return to their land to resettle, repopulate and recover.

Rebel fighters from Sudan People's Liberation Army-North at their military headquarters in Funj, which lies close to the South Sudan border and behind the Blue Nile western front.



Blue Nile


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Story and photographs

Ashley Hamer



Annette Ekin