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How Many People Are Surviving on Leaves in the Nuba Mountains?

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof Tweeted that 800,000 people in Sudan's South Kordofan state are surviving by 'eating just leaves.' When does overestimation do harm to a just cause?

By Tom MurphyGuest blogger / June 6, 2012

Children stand outside a cave shelter in Tess village in the rebel-held territory of the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan, May 2. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof Tweeted that 800,000 people in Sudan's South Kordofan state are surviving by 'eating just leaves.'

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

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•  A version of this post appeared on the blog "A View From the Cave." The views expressed are the author's own.

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To promote his Sunday column, Nick Kristof tweeted the following:

@NickKristof Help spread the word about Sudan starving its people in Nuba Mtains, w/800,000 eating just leaves nyti.ms/L9ayBA

The tweet raises the question: Are 800,000 people eating just leaves* in the Nuba Mountain? Kristof writes:

Ryan Boyette, an American aid worker who stayed behind when foreigners were ordered to evacuate, estimates that 800,000 Nuba have run out of food in South Kordofan, the state encompassing the Nuba Mountains. Boyette has created a local reporting network called Eyes and Ears Nuba, and the Sudanese government showed what it thinks of him when it tried to drop six bombs on his house last month. The notoriously inaccurate bombs missed, and he escaped unhurt in his foxhole.Boyette has done remarkable work by providing on-the-ground reports from the Nuba Mountains. The network that he has created is doing some impressive work documenting the atrocities committed in the region. As far as I can tell, nobody is doing nearly as good of a job as Boyette when it comes to gathering information related to the consequences of the aggression by the Sudanese government.

According to the Sudanese government, just under 1.1 million people live in South Kordofan state, where the Nuba Mountains are located. If Boyette's estimates are correct, that means three quarters of the people living in the region are have run out of food. A Reuters article from mid-May puts the number much lower:

Civil society leaders in the Nuba Mountains, a jigsaw of communities mixing Muslims, Christians and others practising traditional African beliefs, estimate that out of the 350,000 displaced by the fighting as many as 100,000 are hiding in caves, eating tree leaves, sap and wild fruits. They say some are starting to die from hunger.

It seems that 100,000 seems to be a more appropriate estimate which also closely mirrors the 10% severe malnutrition rate that Kristof reports as having been recorded at the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan. The latest estimates from the Famine Early Warning System network estimates food insecurity in the region as follows:

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