In Crisis and Invisible: Ongoing Atrocities in Southern Sudan

“We have been telling the world for four years about what is happening to us. The facts are well known. But nothing changes. Is it because we do not matter to the world?”—Alfadil Khalifa Mohamed, school teacher, Tunguli IDP site, South Kordofan

Nicholas Kristof has called it “The Worst Atrocity You ve Never Heard Of.” In the last two decades, the world has wrestled with when and how to use the word “genocide”; we’ve ultimately come to realize that uniform condemnation of profound crimes is an imperative. Even so, comfortable ignorance and a shallow media gaze have allowed gross human rights violations to continue, undefined and overlooked.

In 2011, the world cheered the independence of South Sudan, unchained from its abusive other half. But the abuser was not punished. The regime in Khartoum did not change. Post-partition, Southern Sudan remains a war zone. It is not only a place forgotten by the West, but a place where the Nuba people – the religiously diverse ethnic group comprising the southern population – are subjected daily to the genocidal intent of their government.

Sudan was wracked with horrific widespread and episodic civil war from 1983 to 2005. Its southern tribal areas, primarily Christian and Animist, were neglected by the Islamic government in Khartoum, which not only sought to implement Sharia law throughout the enormously diverse country, but also consistently extracted Southern oil and kept the financial rewards for itself. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement” was signed by both the government of Omar al-Bashir and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in 2005. It was meant to end active fighting, determine oil-sharing guidelines and set a prospective date for a referendum giving (what is now) South Sudan a chance to vote on independence. The referendum in 2011 passed with a 99 percent majority.

Excluding a few days of cathartic celebration, however, that split has done little to usher in peace for either country. Three border regions South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Abyeiwere left in Sudan when the new maps were drawn, despite their emphatic support of the SPLM and their loyalties to the South. In 2011, a power-sharing agreement between Khartoum and the leftover elements of the independence movement (SPLA-N) would have provided the border regions some degree of distinct autonomy and resource control, but was rejected at the last minute by al-Bashir and his hard line supporters. Fighting broke out amid cries of neglect and subjugation among the minority populations. It has consumed the Southern and Western regions of the state ever since.

Al-Bashir’s campaign against the rebel South is less a war than an asymmetrical bombardment. It is a grossly one-sided campaign of ethnic cleansing couched in the rhetoric of self-defense. Khartoum has recruited, trained and given cart-blanche freedom to former Janjaweed militia troops, notorious for executing civilians, raping women and burning villages in the Darfur region. This hybrid security apparatus is known as the Rapid Support Force, and has been engaged in what Sudan’s president calls “Decisive Summer Campaigns, utilizing scorched earth tactics to indiscriminately rid the region of both rebels and civilians.

Sudan is the only country in the world where the sitting president has been indicted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Al-Bashir, who has held power since 1989, oversaw the persecution and displacement of millions in Sudan’s Darfur region in 2003, ultimately facilitating the slaughter of 400,000 people.

Having learned in Darfur that refugee camps could both internationalize the conflict and provide a haven for opposition groups, the regime has refused humanitarian aid to the entire region. The regime convinced the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) peacekeeping mission to downsize dramatically, despite evidence of instability and immediate danger to civilians. The downsized mission was renewed through 2016, but faces sharp criticism for its purely observational role. Regime pressure shut down the UNAMID human rights office in Khartoum following the mission’s allegations of mass rape by Rapid Support Forces (RSF) officers in Tambit. Government forces continue to block UNAMID peacekeepers from moving freely or fulfilling their mandate. Civilian movement is further restricted by land mines planted on the outskirts of villages and along the roads that might otherwise connect them.

Tom Catena, a Catholic missionary doctor from upstate New York, is the only trained surgeon in the rebel-held part of the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, population approximately 750,000. He defies the ban on humanitarian aid and works without modern medical technology or even running water. Sudan’s government, said Catena, “wants us to go away. They want to kill everybody here. They want to demoralize the people. They want to treat everybody like animals.”

Government troops in retrofitted Russian cargo planes engage in daily, indiscriminate aerial bombings – deploying long-range shells, incendiary bombs and cluster bombs haphazardly on villages throughout the region. Already scarce and struggling schools and health clinics have been hit so repeatedly that it seems clear they are intentionally targeted.

Only two hospitals in the rebel-held areas remain functional. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) pulled out in January, citing multiple deliberate bombings and the noncooperation of authorities in Khartoum. Basic medical care has become impossible; massive outbreaks of measles are ravaging the region. Only three of the six secondary schools in the SPLA-N controlled areas remain operational. Only 20 percent of children attend. Churches and fields of livestock have been burned.

Sudan uses unguided munitions, often manually rolling bombs out of Antonov cargo planes. Such inherently indiscriminate tactics are in direct violation of international humanitarian law. This unpredictability has created an atmosphere of terror that pervades all aspects of life in the regions. The Nuba people are reliant on subsistence farming and water sources that are some distance away on foot. The fear of bombings is powerful enough to keep the Nuba people from traveling, or even tending to their own fields. What sorghum villagers are able to cultivate is often burned up by bombs or militiamen. A report compiled by the Enough Project found that 70 percent of displaced households are consistently experiencing moderate or severe hunger. Over half the region’s population reports being at crisis levels of food insecurity.

Al-Bashir’s regime is using famine as a weapon of war. The explicit commitment to starvation warfare can be witnessed in the leaked minutes of an August 2014 meeting between senior military and security officials: “We must not allow them to harvest these crops …We must starve them.”

The only places people feel safe are in the mountains’ natural caves, where they flee every time an aircraft is within earshot – caves where many have begun living full time. Not the caves or the foxholes some villagers have dug near their homes can protect them though. The havens themselves become death traps when fire from the blasts gets inside.

The unconscionable standard of living the Nuba people experience as a result of the calculated counterinsurgency strategies of Omar al-Bashir’s government amount to grave war crimes. They are indefensible and ongoing. As the world grapples with waves of refugees from protracted but properly publicized war zones, let us not forget about the people who can’t flee, the people who can only hide. It’s the least we can do to ensure that their plight does not remain hidden, too.