Two church leaders from Southern Kordofan state, in the Sudan, accused Omar Al Bashir’s regime of nurturing a cleansing plan for the region. From our correspondent.
In March, two pastors in Juba reported on the humanitarian situation in Southern Kordofan caused by the war between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-North (SPLM/A-N) and the Government of Khartoum, which started in June 2011 after contested local elections. They accused the IGAD, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the UN, and the international community of ignoring the suffering of the people in the state.
The two churchmen presented a very grim picture with the signs of a humanitarian catastrophe in the making. They said that white unmarked Government Antonovs – small Russian cargo planes – are engaged in extensive and indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets (markets, villages, farms). They spread terror, famine, and insecurity among the population that seeks refuge in caves or on mountaintops and, according to the UN, survives on roots and leaves.
The Government of Khartoum does not allow humanitarian agencies to operate in the area controlled by the rebels despite the two agreements signed between the warring parties on humanitarian assistance to the Nuba Mountains. ‘Enough’, a project of the Centre for American Progress, conducted a survey among 2,467 children living in SPLM/A-N controlled areas in the Nuba Mountains and found that 14.9 percent suffered from severe malnutrition and 81.5 percent had only one meal a day.
In a letter written to the international community in November 2012, nine leaders of the Nuba people wrote: “We do not have access to food, medicine, healthcare, and other basic necessities. We look around at what is left of our homes, and see our family and friends weak from hunger and disease. Everywhere we look, we see children, the elderly, and other vulnerable people lying on the ground helpless. It is very hard for us to explain to our children what is happening when they ask us, ‘Does anyone in the world know what we are going through? Why is it that no one cares about us?’”.
The dramatic SOS was heeded by 98 lawmakers from the U.S., England, and Australia. They wrote a joint letter to their foreign ministers and to the UN Security Council members at the end of February, demanding an end to the aerial bombing against civilians in Southern Kordofan and in the Blue Nile region. They also called for an urgent address of the humanitarian situation and an end to Sudan’s conflicts, including the Darfur.
The war in Southern Kordofan has affected more than 700 thousand people in the area and displaced 436 thousand. Another 71 thousand took refuge in three camps of Unity State in South Sudan, where they were exposed to measles and Hepatitis E. Every week 430 people enter Yida Refugee Camp, home to almost 69 thousand people and too dangerously close to the border in a remote and difficult environment. The UNHCR is trying to convince the refugees to move further South to a new settlement in Ajuong, but they want to remain as close as they can to the borders. Although there is no data, it is possible that thousands of civilians died during the last eighteen months from shrapnel, famine, and diseases – all related to the ongoing conflict.
The war in the Nuba Mountains is also affecting the relationship between the Governments of Juba and Khartoum. At the end of last September, Sudan and South Sudan signed nine cooperation agreements but Khartoum put their implementation on hold until South Sudan stops supporting the rebels in the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile region and disarms them.
The agreements meant to resume crude oil production in South Sudan, legalize the situation of Southerners living in the Sudan, reopen the borders to business, strengthen security, and demarcate the borders.
Khartoum accuses Juba of supporting their former allies in Southern Kordofan, the Blue Nile area, and some factions in Darfur with weapons and advice. South Sudan denies the charges.
The International Crisis Group wrote in its report “Sudan’s Spreading Conflict (I): War in South Kordofan”, issued in February 2013, that the war had reached a deadlock and that no side was strong enough to win. It reported that the SPLM/A-N has some 30 thousand well-trained and armed fighters with a large stockpile of weapons, while the Government stationed in Southern Kordofan has between 40 and 70 thousand soldiers with some sophisticated hardware. Political negotiation is the only way out for the standoff in Southern Kordofan, although in December the rebels scored an important victory in Daldoko, a few kilometres from Kadugli, the state capital. They captured four tanks, one armoured personnel carrier, anti-aircraft guns, anti-tank guided missiles, and a great number of assorted ammunitions according to a report from Small Arms Survey.
SPLM/A-N secretary general Yasir Arman announced a new round of talks with the Government in March in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, under the mediation of the African Union High Implementation Panel (AUHIP). Some sources say controversial Governor Ahmed Haroun of Southern Kordofan will lead the Government’s delegation. Mr Haroun, together with President Al-Bashir and another five Sudanese top officials and rebel leaders, were charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur and the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants against them.
On the other hand, observers say Khartoum learned a lesson with the peace process in South Sudan and does not want to engage in a negotiation of which it may lose control.
I asked the SPLM/A-N spokesperson, Arnu Ngutulu Lodi, what conditions the rebels had set for resuming negotiations to settle the conflict both in Southern Kordofan and in the Blue Nile states. He said the movement was committed to UN Security Council Resolution 2046 but that first it wanted to address the humanitarian situation followed by “a holist approach to political issues.” He did not elaborate.
The Resolution, passed in May 2012, urged the warring parties to cooperate fully with the AUHIP and the Chair of IGAD, and to reach a negotiated settlement. It strongly urged them to accept the tripartite proposal submitted by the African Union, the United Nations, and the League of Arab States, which would permit humanitarian access to the affected population in the two areas.
Churches are some of the few institutions offering some relief to the victims of the eighteen-month old conflict. Bishop Macram Max of El Obeid is one of the voices advocating on behalf of the Nuba people in many decision-making centres in Europe and the USA. He also collects funds to help people with food, medicines, and other life saving aid.
A Catholic official working in the Nuba Mountains told me the Church is the only hope of the people. Pastoral workers decided to stay put – sharing the fate of local communities and thus giving them hope.
Although the war brought education almost to a standstill, the Catholic Church runs a hospital with 250 beds and surgery services, and a radio station that broadcasts twelve hours per day. When the Antonovs end their threatening raids people gather around radios to overcome fear and get the latest news or to socialize.
The Catholic official is convinced that what Khartoum wants is to expel the Nuba people from the area and take possession of the land and its resources. She says what is going on is ethnic cleansing. Otherwise, why would Government warplanes keep on bombing farms, villages, markets, schools and other civilian targets?