People in Sudan’s Blue Nile State face a stark choice: remain at home, suffering terrifying routine aerial bombardment and brutal counter-insurgency tactics or flee to the safety of camps in neighbouring countries, enduring miserable living conditions with limited humanitarian assistance.
Recent refugee flows from Sudan into South Sudan indicate the crisis caused by internal conflict remains acute. As a part of its continuing military campaign in Blue Nile state, the Sudanese government has cut off the majority of the population from humanitarian assistance and the basics of life. The conflict may seem a sideshow to the better-known fighting in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan state or in Darfur, but civilians in Blue Nile are suffering similar and related brutality.
“We are fighting here in Blue Nile like in Nuba Mountains because we are suffering,” a rebel fighter told me recently as we stood in a deserted bombed-out village.
Attempting to uncover information about this situation, my colleague Viktor Pesenti and I ventured into rebel-controlled territory during November and December of 2012. We were asked to document the sufferings of the people inside Blue Nile and in neighbouring refugee camps through film, photography, and oral testimony, and to do our best to build understanding of what was happening to the people of Blue Nile. It wasn’t our first time working in this conflict-scarred region. I have been researching and working in South Sudan since 2004. Viktor has worked with me there on documentary films for nearly two years.
Nevertheless, what we saw in Blue Nile was shocking and deeply compelling.
We found an almost deserted landscape: people had fled or were hiding from the terror of Antonov bombers. Maintaining terror by consistent aerial bombardment was the centerpiece of a strategy to subdue the people of Blue Nile. Why? Because, we were told, they hold fast to the vision of a plural, democratic, and inclusively run Sudanese state.
The Antonov bomber is a Russian and Ukrainian-made cargo or transport aircraft. Antonovs create a distinct, almost haunting sound, a sort of WHAT, due to peculiarities of their design. They are widely used in the transport industry but the Sudanese air force has turned these workhorses into aerial bombers on the cheap. Rudimentary bombs are rolled out the back of the aircraft. The bombs are essentially barrels that are loaded with basic explosives, and then packed with lead, metal shards, and anything that makes for good shrapnel. Their inaccuracy makes them of little use in a real military engagement; their primary value comes from the fear they inspire in civilian populations.
Once in rebel-held territory we encountered a group of several thousand refugees. They told us they were fleeing the Ingessena Hills due to major fighting and targeting by the government. They had tried three times in the last few months to cross the battle lines to safety. Salah, an elder in the community, explained, “the government was attacking us where we live so we had to run.” This first batch of a larger group finally arrived in the overflowing camps in South Sudan’s Maban County in the second week of December.
When we encountered them just inside rebel-held territory, they had been walking for more than ten days with little food and next to no water. Several of them told us about their harrowing journey. In a weakened voice a young girl carrying a sick child told us, “many children were lost and we are suffering very much.” Tragically, only a fraction of the group numbering approximately 15,000 found sanctuary; most are still behind the battle lines inside Blue Nile, where they remain in danger.
Many were killed by military attacks; some died of thirst; almost all suffered from hunger and hunger-related illness. The people’s privations were exacerbated because of the trauma of having to leave so many of their community behind. Shockingly, we were told of how children were lost as they fled Antonov bombers – their mothers were unable to find them and had to keep moving to elude pursuing government forces.
The refugees told us their main reasons for fleeing: the consistent aerial bombardments by the Sudanese military, but many were unsure and confused as to why they were being targeted by their own government. One man repeatedly asked us, “Why do they attack us; why do the Antonovs come?”
One community leader said he suspected it was because they were simply not the kind of people Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, wants in the country — that is, people of deeply African character. Although many share the Islamic faith with those ruling in Khartoum, the people in Blue Nile are considered a thorn in the repressive regime’s side because of their historic support for an open, secular, democratic Sudan. Added to this was their support of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which fought Khartoum in the last civil war.
When we met with several rebel commanders and fighters, the story was explained quite consistently. “We tried to peacefully work with the government and they rejected us and then targeted our leaders and our families, so we had no choice but to fight,” one officer recounted. We heard similar stories in various areas of Blue Nile.
At one of the rebel forces’ forward-operating bases, perched on a hill above the front lines, the Brigadier General Shaban, a senior rebel commander, explained the story as he saw it.
As part of the peace agreement, which ended Sudan’s second civil war (1983-2005), the people in Blue Nile were assured a degree of political autonomy and influence within Sudan. In the past two years, the elected governor Malik Agar and most officials not loyal to the President Omar Hassan Bashir and his ruling National Congress Party were unceremoniously removed. This made up the majority of those representing Blue Nile in the government. Bashir’s forces even bombed the home of the Governor Agar directly. “It was then we truly knew we were at war again … maybe it had not ended at all in 2005, maybe we never had real peace”, the commander reflected.
The commander’s medical officer Hassan interjected to clarify the story with more detail. He wanted us to appreciate fully that they had not wanted war and they sincerely had tried to make the political situation work. “The government not only targeted leaders and officials, but also began to target its opponents by targeting their families’ communities.” He noted it was this that sent most people “back to the bush to fight.”
The next day the commander insisted on bringing us to find where civilians were hiding from government forces. We were approaching one sanctuary when suddenly, the commander and his men pointed to the sky, yelling, “Antonov, Antonov.”
We tracked the small speck in the sky as it flew past us, much like watching a highflying bird. It dropped its deadly cargo and turned back in our direction. The Antonov had, it seemed, hit a village some distance from us. We poised to take cover in a dry riverbed as the bomber passed over us, and then continued to a wooded and rocky area where people were hiding. We found children reeling in fear from the mere over-flight of the bomber; some still hiding in holes or cowering in the distance.
A broader explanation of this conflict is that when the southern portion of Sudan voted to, and did, secede in 2011, the political situation changed; the government in Khartoum moved to cement its control of what was left as Sudan. In Blue Nile, as in other regions of Sudan, the security services and their proxy forces implemented a terrorise-and-rule campaign. The Blue Nile rebels, now calling themselves the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North and part of the Sudan Revolutionary Forces alliance with other Sudanese opposition groups, have taken to guerrilla tactics. The result – the civilian community has become the focus of the government’s counter-insurgency machinery and the civilians suffer. The civilian population is an easy target and fear is a powerful weapon.
The story of the group of refugees arriving from Ingessena Hills in early December 2012 is thus an indicator of the continuing crisis in Sudan. One of the civilian community leaders explained that the first two times they tried to escape, military forces prevented their exodus. The rebel officers present, later commented that, more recently, they decided to fight through stalemated front lines to clear an escape corridor for the refugees. “We had to help our people who were trapped and suffering,” one officer noted.
One of the group of rebels who had been escorting the refugees, himself injured in the fighting, insisted on escorting the people all the way to the safety of the border with South Sudan. They thought they had secured a safe path, but when the first displaced people neared the rebel-controlled areas, hundreds – maybe thousands – “were caught in an ambush by government forces,” the determined fighter explained. Fighting ensued between the rebels and the Sudanese military. The refugees, largely women and children, were caught in the middle and bore the brunt of the attack. Another officer told us: “They kept attacking the people and not us. We tried to force them away from the people but it was very confusing and the fighting lasted a long time.”
“Then the Antonovs came,” exclaimed one of the refugees.
Air force bombers had hit areas where the refugees were moving both before and after the ground fighting. The bombing, and even just the constant circling of the aircraft with their distinct sound, scattered the people. The displaced people believe the Sudanese military had targeted them and, for the most part, clearly saw the rebels as their protectors.
“So many of our people had to run and were lost” one officer noted. Rebel soldiers were visibly troubled by their inability to bring all displaced civilians to safety. Later, a community leader sadly told us that “now they are very weak like us, many even worse. They are going to suffer even more trapped in government territory. We have no way to contact them to know…we pray they will survive.”
This story is all too common in the history of Sudanese military tactics. The focus has long been on controlling the population and its movement: sometimes by creating the conditions of famine; sometimes by forcing people to flee; and most insidiously, by encircling them to prevent them from moving into rebel-controlled areas or escaping to neighbouring countries offering sanctuary. The result has been immense suffering and slow death. These tactics, particularly the inducement of hunger and starvation, and the targeting of civilians with modern weapons, are precisely those for which President Omar Hassan Bashir and his cabal are wanted by the International Criminal Court.
The Sudanese security services’ duplicitous use of extortion to purchase the ‘loyalty’ of people from within targeted communities – compelling them to betray family and friends – is even more disgusting. We were told of people from Blue Nile whose families were held hostage while security services forced them to spy on comrades, relatives, and friends. The rebels indicated these spies were typically looking for the hiding locations of the few civilians remaining inside rebel-controlled areas, effectively scouting targets for future Antonov terror raids.
Used in combination, regular aerial bombardment, repressive control in the major government-controlled cities, and frequent harassment by patrolling security forces, maintain a state of terror in Blue Nile. Such consistent disruption prevents anything other than the most basic of survival activity. Worse, it causes a cumulative trauma that will persist a lifetime with the survivors who don’t become direct casualties of the bombers or military raids. The terror is more than sufficient to shatter lives and leave entire communities in tatters.
The bombers have a cruel regularity and punctuality, as if they follow a precise routine. One Sunday evening as we sat in Yabus, one of the towns often frequented by Antonov attacks, our guide, translator and by that time our good friend, Mohammed told us that “you can almost set your watch to Antonov visits.” The logic, he explained, is to attack on market days, “targeting those gathered to buy food and other goods.” Mohammed elaborated, “And these are civilians, not military.”
Sure enough, the next morning as we prepared to head out to another location, with the frightening regularity Mohammed had described, the Antonov visited us again, this time dropping its deadly cargo much closer than before. We came to understand, if only in a small way, the terror of the Antonov and how effective this tactic could be.
After returning to the safety of South Sudan, we interviewed many people in the massive refugee camp who had fled the communities we just visited. One community leader commented that many of the places we had just visited were sanctuaries where his ancestors had hid from slavers in the past. Some key archeological sites in Blue Nile include the remnants of slave forts where raids had been launched into the nearby hills, the very hills and forests in which people were now seeking refuge from the terror of the Antonovs. I could not help but reflect on this macabre replay of history: people are today hiding in many of the same hills and remote areas where their ancestors had sought refuge from marauding slave-raiders.
Wounded, thirsty, and hungry, the people in this most recent exodus from Sudan’s Blue Nile arrived in camps in poor physical condition, exhausted by their ordeal. One aid worker spoke to us about the general situation, noting that the conditions of these refugees were “some of the worst we have seen since last year when the fighting began.”
But the conditions in the camps are equally heart wrenching. Refugees are confronted daily with the overcrowding, sanitation issues, and hunger common in camps of such size. And, there’s little help to speak of; the South Sudanese government, the host community, UN agencies, and various NGOs struggle to cope.
UNHCR, the UN’s largest agency working in the camps, cannot cross the international borders to help people inside Blue Nile, so they wait for the suffering to slowly find their way to the camps. Almost no international humanitarian organizations will cross inside as the Sudanese government has banned their entry. Humanitarian organizations are reluctant to engage, due to the insidious politics that undermines humanitarian efforts from reaching those in greatest need. Without support from governments, humanitarians will continue to struggle to access those in need. The politics of abiding by international lines has also precluded the UN and other actors from bearing witness to the atrocities inside Blue Nile. Consequently, the government in Khartoum is held to little account for the crimes it continues to commit upon its own citizens.
There are significant regional implications to this situation as well, and not just due to the refugee crisis. Blue Nile’s southern reaches are in a panhandle approximately 25 kilometres wide. Some of the main targets, such as Yabus or Mguff, are only kilometres from the Ethiopian border. When circling above these areas, looking for targets and conducting multiple bombing runs, the Sudanese Air Force uses Ethiopian, and maybe South Sudanese, airspace. Given that Antonov bombers continue to attack areas along the border between Sudan and South Sudan, often attacking inside South Sudan, the threat posed is made much more real.
The mere sound of the planes terrorises the masses of refugees trying to survive just inside South Sudan and Ethiopia. Whether South Sudan and Ethiopia are unwilling or unable to prevent the Sudanese military’s violation of sovereign airspace, clearly this conflict has wider regional implications that demand significant international political engagement. Frustration with both the government’s and the UN’s failure to address the terror of the Antonovs is palpable among the camps’ residents and the displaced inside Blue Nile. As we traveled, Viktor and I were continually asked how the Antonovs could be stopped and why no one was stopping them. Many people have a tragic belief, even faith, that the UN or the ‘international community’ will do something to bring reprieve from the suffering.
Tragically, the maintenance of terror is a very effective tactic. It divides suffering communities, making it difficult for people to organise resistance. It precludes the basic daily activities of life. The terror, then, contributes to perpetuating regional crisis. And there is little international actors seem able or willing to do in response.
The situation in Blue Nile, just as in many areas in Sudan, is governance through cruelty and terror. It’s a simple politics: power and greed drive government at the cost of people, who suffer in obscurity, out of the reach of help from even the most daring of humanitarians.
In the months to come, refugee flows are expected to increase. The muddy and impassable roads of the wet season have prevented government forces from moving deeper into the remote areas of Blue Nile. The dry season will allow increased movement. The terror campaign of the Antonovs may have been merely a prelude to the much more vicious ground campaign many believe will be unleashed as the roads dry up with the aim of finishing-off the resistance in Blue Nile.
With the situation already dire, increased military activity will undoubtedly cause increased humanitarian catastrophe. A larger humanitarian effort coupled with increased political courage on the part of governments, is required to respond to the needs of these innocent victims. The blatant flouting of norms and ethics of warfare, and of the most basic principles of humanity, should not be trumped by the callous expedience of international relations, international business, or international concerns over oil-flows.
World-wide, there has been far too little attention paid to the civil war in Sudan’s frontier states and its impact on the region’s politics. Unfortunately, the situation in Blue Nile remains a sideshow. It is not, and needs to be treated with equal concern and outrage as the other atrocities being committed across Sudan. The Blue Nile situation is similarly problematic in contributing to a continuing intractable regional crisis and possesses the potential for even larger refugee and displaced populations, and is, quite simply, desperate.