x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Civilians are targets in Sudan's new civil war

Fighting resumes in newly divided nation's southern states after talks break down.

Hawa Jundi and her children are among the people who fled their villages in Blue Nile state after strikes by government bombers.
Hawa Jundi and her children are among the people who fled their villages in Blue Nile state after strikes by government bombers.

KURMUK, SUDAN // Anyone who assumed the birth of an independent South Sudan would end the cycle of violence that has plagued Sudan since its inception needs only to venture into the frontier that now divides what was once Africa's largest nation.

In Blue Nile state, just north of the border, the south's secession has spawned a new conflict that threatens to plunge the north into another long and bitter civil war.

In Blue Nile, desperate villagers have fled their cone-shaped huts of mud and thatch to escape almost daily air raids by Antonov bombers.

Accuracy is not a strong point of these aircraft, built by the Soviets 40 years ago. But the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) says physical destruction is only one purpose of these raids. They are also meant to sow terror among civilians.

"The main strategy of Khartoum to bomb the civil population is to break the will of the combatants," said Malik Agar, the leader of the SPLM-N and a former Blue Nile governor. "These are the relatives of the combatants - fathers, mothers, wives, children - so they think this will break the will of the fighters."

Mr Agar fought for decades alongside the SPLM, which eventually won independence for South Sudan. When the south became the world's newest nation on July 9, the SPLM on the opposite side of the new border tagged "North" to its name and declared itself a separate political movement.

While southerners voted for independence in a referendum, a separate consultative process had been set up to determine the fate of Blue Nile and neighbouring South Kordofan state. But the process fell apart, and fighting erupted first in South Kordofan and then in Blue Nile where, on September 2, Khartoum sent in tanks and soldiers to depose Mr Agar, the elected governor.

After a five-year hiatus from war, the ageing guerrilla fighter is back in the bush. He says he is talking with rebel groups from the western state of Darfur, as well as those in the east. They are planning to coordinate military operations to topple Sudan's Omar Al Bashir and set up what Mr Agar says will be a democratic, secular state that recognises Sudan's ethnic and religious diversity.

At his bush-camp headquarters, Mr Agar said he was still open to negotiations with Mr Al Bashir about reforming the government, but only if a third party was involved.

Officials in Khartoum have rejected involving outsiders, calling the conflict an internal matter.

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, recently said hardliners within Mr Al Bashir's ruling National Congress Party wanted a military solution rather than negotiations.

"This, however, is pushing Sudan's disparate rebel movements and opposition forces together and could trigger a civil war for control of the country," it said.

Regardless of the goals of either side, Mr Agar said civilians should not be caught in the middle. He called on the international community to push Mr Al Bashir's administration to allow humanitarian aid into rebel-occupied territory.

Near the rebel stronghold of Kurmuk, Hawa Jundi sits on the ground next to a makeshift shelter of blue tarpaulin stretched over a frame of sticks. She holds a baby in her lap, while two small children in ragged clothing peer out from behind her. Her family manages to scrounge together one meal a day by foraging for wild plants and sorghum from abandoned farms.

They fled their village of Sally after a bombing raid. But even in this temporary camp she has not found safety.

"I don't know why the Antonov came and bombed us, but we left our village and came here," she said. "And after we came here, we found that the Antonov is coming also to this place."

Earlier that day, she narrowly escaped being hit by shrapnel from a bomb dropped in a river bed where villagers were searching for scraps of gold to sell for food.

When the bombs hit their target, the results are deadly.

A crater in the ground was all that was left of one family's hut in Maiyes village, about 20 kilometres from the front line. Household possessions, including a child's shoe, were scattered around. Relatives and neighbours held up twisted pieces of shrapnel, which they said had ripped apart the family of six.

"One of them was pregnant and it cut her stomach," said Heder Abusita, the village chief. "Rueana Murdis also was killed here with her small kid. And also there is Bushara. He died here in this house. His feet were cut, and his stomach also was cut."

Government officials deny they are targeting civilians, saying attacks are aimed only at military targets.

The SPLM-N says as many as 600,000 people are now displaced in Blue Nile. The actual number is impossible to verify independently.

Mr Agar said 74 civilians had been killed and more than 100 injured since the bombing began. He warned the crisis would only get worse unless the government created a "humanitarian corridor" for international organisations to bring food and medicine.

As the homeless forage for food, they keep their ears trained to the sky.

"We hear the voice of the Antonov and we know it well," said Ms Jundi. "When I hear the Antonov coming I am really very scared. So I look for my kids and we just run to the river to hide."