Khartoum Dramatically Escalates War in Sudan

Violence, including ethnically-targeted destruction, has accelerated in South Kordofan over the past few days. Aerial attacks are reported throughout South Kordofan, especially in the Nuba Mountains; one report is of bombing attacks against the major base of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in Jau (Pariang County in oil-rich Unity State). A precipitous embargo on fuel and other goods moving from North to South Sudan is designed to create economic instability prior to the South’s independence in one month (July 9, 2011). Those in South Kordofan believed loyal to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) or opposed to the Khartoum regime are being hunted down in retribution; the destruction of churches and the targeting of Christians in and around Kadugli give anominous sense of what is to come.

By Eric Reeves

Highlights of reports, as of 7pm June 9:

June 9, 2011 (SSNA) — •As in Abyei, the military actions by Khartoum in South Kordofan were clearly premeditated. The potential for precisely the conflict we are seeing now has been repeatedly noted by several observers. And yet the international community has again been caught flat-footed, wholly reliant on the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS); this force has performed poorly, especially in Kadugli where it is widely perceived to have sided with Khartoum. Reports continue to stream in of more tanks moving south from el-Obeid, the main Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) military base outside Khartoum. Military air assets have been rapidly deployed in the conflict, for the Nuba Mountains—where the war will be concentrated—are within range of the jet fighter aircraft based in el-Obeid. Khartoum’s most brutal leaders, including President Omar al-Bashir and his chief advisor Nafi’e Ali Nafi’e, have publicly declared that the SAF has been given a "freehand" throughout South Kordofan, and that any southern troops in the North after June 1 would be "legitimate targets"—this despite the fact that tens of thousands of these troops consider South Kordofan and southern Blue Nile their home. Reprisals against civilians thought to be sympathetic to the SPLM/A have been brutal.

Khartoum has explicitly declared its intention to "spread its forces throughout [South Kordofan] state after in gained military control in Kadugli" (Sudan News Agency [SUNA/Khartoum], June 8, 2011). Given the central location of the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan, this is a declaration of all-out war. UNMIS has already reported that the SAF is "shelling SPLA positions in the mountains of South Kordofan."UNMIS also reports (June 9) that "fighting was ongoing and had spread across the state."

•As was true following the invasion of Abyei, Khartoum’s decision to resume war in South Kordofan has very quickly produced tens of thousands of displaced civilians, even as humanitarian organizations have halted operations or withdrawn. The humanitarian situation for the Nuba and non-Arab populations of South Kordofan has immediately become critical. The 10,000civilians who have sought security at the UNMIS base in Kadugli are desperately short of water and facing growing security risks. Many have already left Kadugli, and the town of Dilling to the north is reportedly deserted. One estimate from a Nuba source is that 75,000 people have already been displaced.

•On Sunday, June 5 senior leaders of the SPLM flew to Kadugli to arrange a cease-fire with Khartoum officials, and signed an agreement to this effect. In a signature move of bad faith, an hour after Yasir Arman (head of the SPLM in North Sudan) and Malik Agar (governor of Blue Nile and senior member of the SPLM) flew out of Kadugli, Khartoum’s SAF began an assault on the home of Abdel Aziz el-Hilu, SPLM candidate for governor of South Kordofan during the rigged elections of May and a true son of the Nuba. El-Hilu is widely popular among the people of the Nuba and a superb military leader. If he had in fact been killed in the SAF attack, the consequences would have been enormous; as one Nuba put it, "If Aziz goes down the entire Nuba Mountains will erupt." El-Hilu is now reported to be “fully in military uniform." That Khartoum was willing to take this risk indicates that the regime has already determined on a course of war.

Here, the consequences of the Carter Center’s poorly informed ratification of the South Kordofan gubernatorial election—in which indicted war criminal Ahmed Haroun defeated el-Hilu following a fraudulent vote count—continues to make themselves felt, and contribute to the climate of deep hostility and mistrust.

•The Sudan Tribune reports (June 9) that Antonov bombers attacked Jau in South Sudan (oil-rich Unity State); this attack on a major SPLA base of operations in the South represents a radical escalation in the war that is rapidly unfolding. Predictably, the long-range, high-altitude Antonovs (not "bombers,"but cargo planes from which crude barrel bombs are rolled without sighting mechanisms) dropped their bombs wide of the SPLA headquarters and hit civilian targets instead (see my report on Khartoum’s history of bombing civilian and humanitarian targets over the past twelve years: Three were reported killed, including a child.

The threat of much greater military incursion into South Sudan has been dismissed by many observers, but this seems unwise. Indeed, a SPLA spokesman Philip Aguer notes today, "The borders have not been demarcated and SAF plans to take some of these areas now. We have said this is part of a plan by SAF." And indeed, any inspection of a map of the oil concession areas reveals just how much is concentrated along the 1956 North/South border. In a January 2011report for Pax Christi, researcher Julie Flint writes in "The Nuba Mountains: Central to Sudan’s Security":

"Today senior SPLA officers in Southern Kordofan claim that SAF is ‘preparing for war all the way along the border.’ They claim SAF divisions recast as brigades in2009 remain at division strength; four separate brigades that arrived in2008-09 constitute another, unacknowledged division; and 40-barrel Katyusha rocket launchers, B-10 anti-tank guns and 120 mm mortars have been moved to the border area. Deputy governor al-Hilu says that despite agreement that SAF would move into 15 assembly points, it now has 55,000 troops in more than 100garrisons—‘more than needed to control Southern Kordofan; more even than at the height of the jihad.’"

•In South Kordofan SAF military aircraft and artillery reportedly attacked five villages south of Kadugli as well as Talodi, Heiban, Kauda, Abdel Aziz el-Hilu’s compound on the outskirts of Kadugli, and many other towns. Civilians are reportedly fleeing from many locations: Kadugli, Talodi, Dilling, Umm Dore in (again, Dilling is reportedly nearly deserted). The SAF spokesman, al-Swarmi Kahled, has refused to take calls from journalists. One source on the ground reports that there have been100 casualties in Heiban (Nuba Mountains). Khartoum shows no interest in the SPLM offer [June 8] of an immediate cease-fire.

•Civilians who fled from Khartoum’s brutal military seizure of Abyei are struggling, as humanitarian organizations increasingly find themselves short of supplies, most critically fuel by which to maintain mobility. The outlook is increasingly grim, according to a news dispatch from Turelei, South Sudan. These Dinka Ngok people are struggling simply to survive. At the same time it is clear that the original UN report on the Abyei invasion found sufficient evidence to claim that Khartoum’s "’attack and occupation’ of the disputed town of Abyei ‘is tantamount to ethnic cleansing.’" But in the final report—leaked to Associated Press on June 3—the language has been changed substantially by the UN bureaucracy: now the report claims only that "the ‘occupation’ of Abyei could lead to ethnic cleansing…." This revision was made with transparently political motives, as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and senior UN officials sought to mollify Khartoum. The spineless Ban declared flatly that it is "far too early to claim that ethnic cleansing is taking place."

•The origin of the fighting will be disputed in the absence of any neutral reporting presence; in this sense, it is like the military invasion of Abyei, which was precipitated by the disputed events of May 19—events that nonetheless served as a casus belli for Khartoum. One highly informed source reports that the initial shooting occurred at Umm Dora in when Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) attempted to disarm SPLA troops at the border stations that delineated the military boundary between the two sides during the civil war; this has been confirmed by a Western official who closely follows regional events. But Khartoum was clearly planning for this war in the Nuba and many tanks quickly appeared in Kadugli, along with a rapid deployment of other offensive military resources.

•Civilian reprisals are increasing, and are like to accelerate rapidly going forward. A reliable source reports that Khartoum’s fearsome Military Intelligence forced its way into UNMIS headquarters in Kadugli and took many suspected SPLM sympathizers. This source also reports that a "disabled man in a wheelchair was found killed outside the UNMIS compound after he sought protection [there]." This has had an understandably chilling effect on those looking to UNMIS for protection, and many who had originally gathered at the UNMIS base are melting away. A number of those caught and labeled "SPLM sympathizers" have almost certainly been executed.

Many within the SAF ranks are forced recruits from the South or the Nuba; many wish to join the SPLM and have started defecting. It is ironically appropriate that Khartoum yesterday [June 8] described the situation as a "mutiny":

"The National Congress Party [National Islamic Front] today declared that situation in South Kordofan is an ‘armed mutiny’ and a breach of the law by the SPLM supported by foreign powers and some internal opposition movements who are working to further ambitions of some SPLM figures."(Sudan Tribune translation of the Arabic)

This trend of defections from the SAF is likely to increase quickly, although for the moment it has created a highly dangerous situation in Kadugli. One report from the ground, confirmed by a US government source, puts the matter this way (lightly edited for clarity):

"There are many Nuba in the SAF and Kadugli police who are defecting to the SPLM/A, and at times unwittingly [complicating] the situation. For SAF troops and Popular Defense Forces have no qualms about killing and destroying the Nuba people or their homes and businesses, whereas the Nuba must show such restraint because it is their own people in the crossfire. This gives the SAF and PDF an advantage as well as ‘plausible deniability’ by deflecting responsibility to SPLA. In short, SAF soldiers may not only kill such ‘traitors,’ but easily accuse the SPLM/A of the attacks." (email received June 7, 2011)

•Economic warfare has begun in earnest, as Khartoum has virtually shut down the movement of all commercial and other goods to the South. This means that the South has run extremely short of fuel, and this is putting humanitarian organizations in a highly dangerous situation, one in which they have insufficient fuel to evacuate. Prices have skyrocketed, especially for fuel. Earlier this week Juba accused Khartoum of deliberately closing all commercial routes to the south. In the words of Stephen Dhieu Dau, minister of trade and industry in the Government of South Sudan:

"The government in Khartoum is not happy to see people of south Sudan living in peace. It says one thing and does another. It is not sleeping. It is working day and night to sabotage peace and development in the area. It has adopted detrimental policies."

UNIRIN today reported on the threats felt by Southerners living in the North following the secession of South Sudan in a month. They have good reason to fear, and this extends to the people of the Nuba:

"’If south Sudan secedes, we will change the constitution, and at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity … shari’a and Islam will be the main source for the constitution, Islam the official religion and Arabic the official language,'[al-Bashir said]." (The Guardian, January 8, 2011)

As one prescient military observer has put it,

"’The North will get away with horrors in Nuba again,’ a western military observer warned in Tchalian’stime [Karen Tchalian was first UNMIS head of security in Kadugli]. ‘The UN would probably be able to do little.”’ ( )

This was many months ago, and very little has changed.


•The spirit of the Nuba: In January 2003, while traveling in the Nuba Mountains, I was able to dispatch these words from Kauda (one of the sites that UNMIS today reports has been attacked); my effort was to reveal both the extraordinary determination I found among the people of the Nuba, and their supremely clear understanding of their own history since independence in 1956,particularly in light of the Machakos Protocol that had been signed in July2002, guaranteeing the right of a self-determination referendum to the South. I concluded at the time, and can only emphasize again, that these people will not surrender, they will not again be forced into "peace camps," and they will fight ferociously, realizing that if they should succumb militarily, their lives are over.

Kauda, Nuba Mountains
January13, 2003

"The Nuba Mountains Region: An Inescapable Issue at Machakos"

The Khartoum regime has delayed, and perhaps ultimately aborted its participation in the most recent round of the Machakos peace talks. It has done so because it refuses to accept a decision by the peace process mediators that geographical issues must have a place on the agenda if a true and just peace is to be realized. The Machakos mediators have rightly decided that there can be no meaningful agreement that ignores the historically marginalized areas of Abyei, Southern Blue Nile, and the Nuba Mountains. Twenty years of fighting cannot be ended by ignoring the fate of peoples who have allied themselves politically and militarily with South Sudan, and who feel themselves culturally at risk from the tyranny of Khartoum’s Islamicist project.

The Nuba people in particular have recently expressed their determination to be part of any peace agreement, and have designated the SPLM/A as their representatives at the Machakos talks (as have the people of Abyei and Southern Blue Nile). There should be no mistaking the passionate resolve of these people to live in dignity, to see their culture preserved, and to exercise the right of self-determination.

One reason that international optimism about Machakos has seemed excessive is that the difficulties of remaining issues, while recognized in general terms, have not been sufficiently appreciated in their particulars. Nowhere is this more the case than with the southern part of Blue Nile Province (Southern Blue Nile), as well as Abyei and the Nuba Mountains region of western and southern Kordofan Province. Though these areas have ended up in what was determined to be "northern Sudan" at the time of independence in 1956, this is little more than perverse historical accident, and fails utterly to take account of current political, ethnic, and cultural realities.

In the case of the Nuba Mountains, this history has been especially perverse. The people of the Nuba were not consulted during the process that led to Sudan’s independence from British and Egyptian condominium rule, and have never felt themselves represented by any of the governments that have come and gone since 1956. Though the Nuba people have made various political efforts to secure just representation, they have seen no success in these efforts. In the Addis Ababa agreement of 1972, the people of the Nuba were again without meaningful representation, and that deeply flawed peace agreement offered them nothing. War resumed all to predictably in 1983, in part because of Jafer Nimeiri’s imposition of the infamous "September shari’a laws" throughout Sudan, including the Nuba region (where Muslims and non-Muslims have historically coexisted peacefully). The people of the Nuba long ago decided to resist militarily the tyranny of Khartoum, joining cause with the SPLA in 1985. This resistance has only increased since the current regime—the National Islamic Front—came to power by military coup in June 1989.

The recent "All Nuba Conference" (December 2002) marked a consensus decision by the people of the Nuba to be represented by the SPLM/A at the Machakos peace talks. This sends a clear signal, and must not be ignored by those who understand the suffering that has defined so much of their recent history. Before the Nuba Mountains cease-fire was secured by the international community last year, the people of the region had been living under brutal humanitarian embargo for over a decade, denied all food and medical assistance, even by the UN’s Operation Lifeline Sudan. The most recent humanitarian assessment conducted before the cease-fire was negotiated revealed that Khartoum had brought many tens of thousands of people to the brink of starvation. This followed years of driving Nuba people from the fertile valleys to much more difficult and less productive mountainous areas.

Peace that excludes the voices of the people of the Nuba, and a recognition of their suffering at the hands of successive regimes in Khartoum, cannot be a just peace. It is thus difficult to imagine that the present Nuba Mountains cease-fire will survive in the wake of merely partial peace, one that leaves the essential geographical issues unresolved and ignores the voices of the Nuba. I recently had the privilege of hearing many of these voices during a lengthy discussion with regional leaders at Lwere, near Kauda. I was struck both by the passion and unanimity in what I heard—from Commander Ismail Khamis (acting governor of the SPLM/A-controlled region of the Nuba), Abais Ibrahim (Food Security Coordinator for the Nuba Relief, Rehabilitation, and Development Organization [NRRDO]), Mariam Yuhana (regional chair of the Nuba Women’s Association), Simon Kalo (regional director of education), Sodi Ibrahim(SPLM/A secretary for Rashad County), Mosa Abdualbagi (regional director of health care), Tia Tutu Tutu (assistant coordinator for NRRDO food security program), and Alamin DaHalla (secretary in the regional political office).

Again and again I heard the same words: to be consigned to a forced integration with Khartoum’s Islamicism and Arabism was death—and that resistance would continue if the international community attempted to foist such a resolution upon them. "Khartoum does not consider us to be human beings," was a steady refrain amidst the anger and bewilderment over what is felt to be an all too obviously intolerable state of affairs. No Nuba has forgotten the deliberate denial of humanitarian access by Khartoum for over a decade, or the steady denial of agricultural land—efforts that marked a destruction that has widely been described as genocidal.

"We have no way out," I was told. There is neither a political nor a geographical exit for the people of the Nuba unless it is achieved at Machakos. For as all those present in our discussion recognized, Machakos is a singular opportunity—as singular for them as for other parts of Sudan. If they area abandoned, or made part of an expedient compromise with Khartoum, they will have no recourse, no choice in their minds but to fight on for their own right to self-determination. They can no more concede this right than can the people of South Sudan.

"The 1956 boundaries have become irrelevant," Commander Ismail told me. The historical vagaries that left this distinctive region of southern Kordofan as part of "northern Sudan" have long since ceased to have any relevance, culturally or politically. The deep resentment of a viciously tyrannical Islamicism and Arabism was never far from the surface in our discussion. Notably, in a comment that suggested to me that there is finally no parochialism in the Nuba point of view, Commander Ismail (representing Abdul Aziz el-Hilu, Governor of the Nuba region) said, "people should not talk in terms of geography, but in terms of politics." By this he meant that it is not geography per se that is, or should be, the issue at Machakos; rather, the essential issue is the political and cultural realities of the people who are geographically located within the Nuba Mountains regions.

"The problem at Machakos is not the problem of Southern Sudan," or the problem of the Nuba or other marginalized areas—"the problem is Sudan," he continued. By which Commander Ismail meant that the essential problem is the National Islamic Front regime, which rules Sudan without support from any region of Sudan outside Khartoum. And of course there is resistance to the NIF’s tyranny even in Khartoum, though it continues to be harshly repressed.

The case of the people of the Nuba Mountains may be special in a sense, but it all too aptly crystallizes the essential challenge of Machakos. Either Khartoum is confronted forcefully, consistently, and with the sharpest moral focus, or the regime will delay, obfuscate, promise and renege, and delay further—continuing negotiations only in bad faith, calculating merely what best serves their survivalist desires. And if military victory should seem within reach—if resistance in the Nuba Mountains, Southern Sudan and other marginalized areas comes to be regarded as militarily vulnerable—then Machakos may overnight become irrelevant. The massive redeployments of offensive military power that have marked Khartoum’s activities since the cease-fire was agreed to on October 15, 2002 are a clear sign of this possibility.

But whatever the chances that remain for Machakos, what is represented by the people of the Nuba Mountains cannot be forgotten. To lose sight of their suffering will be an ominous portent of a much greater moral blindness.

[Too little has change in the past eight years—June 9, 2011]

Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College and author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide (2007).

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