Sudan’s hidden victims: an international test

A neglected humanitarian disaster is unfolding in the Sudanese border region of Southern Kordofan. The tens of thousands bombed, displaced, blockaded and starved need the world’s attention, says Gerry Simpson.

“Look out! Antonov! Antonov!” The family I am interviewing scatters at the sound of the aircraft and races for the nearby caves, at the same time beckoning me to join them. Moments later, the huge, lumbering monster passes across the deep blue sky. As the roar recedes, my heartbeat slows down. We all sigh with relief. No bombs this time.   

The frightened children re-emerge from the caves into the late-afternoon heat. Their father continues with the family’s all-too-typical story: “The Antonovs dropped bombs in our village and fields two months ago and killed some of our neighbours. We all fled to these caves to protect our children. But even here they drop bombs, and now we have no food and there is no help.” He shows me the leaves they use to make soup and the wild berries his children, who are afflicted with malaria and diarrhoea, eat. He asks why no one has come to help.

A brutal assault

The location is Southern Kordofan, an oil-rich region of Sudan whose mainly Nuba population have long opposed the overlordship of Khartoum in the country’s long north-south struggle. The region is now on the border between Sudan and South Sudan, following the latter’s independence and accession to the United Nations on 9 July 2011. But the aerial assaults had begun over a month earlier, on 5 June, amid rising tensions between the respective authorities in the northern and southern Sudans - the National Congress Party (NCP) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).

The trigger for conflict was the election to the governorship of Southern Kordofan, held on 2-4 May. The result gave Ahmed Haroun - a former official in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, now wanted by the International Criminal Court over serious crimes committed in Darfur - a narrow and disputed victory. There has been continued violence involving Sudan’s military forces and local groups resisting them, with hundreds of rebels reported killed around the town of Teludi.

Sudan’s military attacks include indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas from high altitudes using unguided bombs that are simply rolled out of the back of the aircraft. Many civilians are killed and maimed as a result. Overall, at least 200,000 people living in areas controlled by forces opposed to the Sudanese government have fled from attacks by Khartoum-organised militias.

Many of these “internally displaced persons” (IDPs, in United Nations shorthand) are seeking shelter in the only place they think they might be safe from the bombs: caves in the Nuba mountains. Representatives of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International interviewed over a hundred of these petrified and desperate people in August, a small portion of the tens of thousands stranded there.

Sudan’s government announced on 9 June that it was refusing authorisation of UN flights from Khartoum to Southern Kordofan, except those evacuating staff and assets of the UN Mission in Sudan (Unmis)  in preparation for its closure (which happened on 9 July). The United States’s UN ambassador Susan Rice, told the UN Security Council on 20 June that the Sudanese authorities had “threatened to shoot down” UN planes.

A tale of inaction

Since then, the government has effectively imposed a blockade on food and other humanitarian assistance to those parts of Southern Kordofan held by opposition forces; international famine monitors say the situation has reached “crisis level”. The intense bombing has prevented many civilians from cultivating their fields, which means the November harvest will be poor. The current food shortages will worsen and displaced people, currently dependent on any charity they can get from local residents, will suffer even more.

Several organisations - the United Nations, concerned governments, Human Rights Watch and other groups - have repeatedly called on Sudan’s authorities to permit aid agencies (including the UN) to gain access to these desperate people. The government in Khartoum has so far refused - even though all parties to a conflict are obliged, under international humanitarian law, to allow impartial humanitarian agencies to deliver aid to civilians in need and may not arbitrarily deny them access.

There appears to be no sense of urgency at the UN about this appalling situation. The UN Security Council, the African Union, the UN Human Rights Council (though it adopted resolutions on "technical assistance" to Sudan and Sudan at its eighteenth session in Geneva in September 2011) have done nothing.

Their responsibilities, nonetheless, are clear. They should condemn Sudan’s unlawful bombings of populated areas, demand that it ends, request unfettered access for humanitarian agencies to all affected areas, and urge the immediate deployment of an independent human-rights monitoring presence throughout Southern Kordofan.

When this happens, and the UN and the African Union do act, at last Southern Kordofan’s displaced families can stop asking why the world has abandoned them.

About the author

Gerry Simpson is senior researcher and advocate on refugees with Human Rights Watch

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Gerry Simpson is senior researcher and advocate on refugees with Human Rights Watch