Silence over Sudan’s bombing of civilians

Mark Kerrison/Demotix. All rights reserved.

The recent
elections in Sudan call into question the legitimacy of the government soon to
be re-elected. Even if the elections had been free and fair (which they have
not), the government’s legitimacy would be challenged unequivocally by the fact
that it is authorising the continual and systematic bombardment of civilians
who are technically part of its polity.

On average, the Sudanese
government has dropped three bombs a day on rebel-held territory in its Southern
Kordofan and Blue Nile States since April 2012. The impact of this bombing
campaign on those living in the area has been devastating. Not only do the
bombs often kill or maim civilians, but they also coincide disproportionately with
planting and harvesting cycles, as well as market days, suggesting a deliberate
strategy to decimate livelihoods. Yet despite the disruption to the local economy,
the government of Sudan refuses to allow humanitarian access to these areas,
citing fears that aid would be used to support rebel fighters.

As a result, 1.7
million people—roughly half the population of the two states—have been
displaced. Those who have remained live with a chronic lack of food and
medicine as well as the daily threat of aerial bombardment, and of government
land forces breaking through the frontline of the rebel Sudan Peoples’
Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N).

A report
released today highlights the voices of civilians living in the midst of this
conflict. It emphasises the devastating impact of the conflict on every aspect
of people’s lives. But it also talks of the resilience and resistance of those
who are living through it. Despite unrelenting attacks against them, local
organisations and activists have taken it upon themselves to educate the population
about the means of surviving Antonov* attacks, in particular by digging foxholes
and learning when and where to take cover.

This resilience,
in many respects, is fuelled by defiance: many people have remained in Southern
Kordofan not only because the alternatives are bleak (most of those who have
been displaced have fled to South Sudan, itself in civil conflict), but because
they see their on-going presence as a form of resistance to a state they
believe is trying to destroy them. As a result, many aspects of day-to-day life
continue in rebel held areas of Southern Kordofan, as evidenced by children
going to school and markets functioning (albeit under the daily threat of
bombing and with chronic shortages.)

Furthermore, the
extent to which the current government of Sudan is seen as lacking any form of
legitimacy is reflected in civilians putting their faith in alternative structures
of government. The rebels have recently set up a civilian administration in
conjunction with the military structures that already exist, which the findings
in the report demonstrate are broadly accepted by the civilian population. Civilians
hope that this administration will eventually create an alternative, inclusive form
of governance—in contrast to that of the Sudanese state, which they see as
highly exclusionary.

However, it is
important not to over-romanticise this resilience, which unsurprisingly is
being severely depleted. While the population’s efforts have certainly helped
to minimise civilian casualties, allowing many people to remain in Southern Kordofan
despite the substantial impact of the conflict, inevitably their ability to
survive is being worn away by the continuing onslaught.

While primary
responsibility for what is taking place lies with the government of Sudan, it
seems unlikely that they will end their military campaign in the foreseeable
future—certainly not without considerable coercion from the international
community (or at least some of it). But the international community has
remained, for the most part, silent.

Courageous local
organisations and citizen journalists have been reporting on the intolerable circumstances
in which civilians live in Southern Kordofan. Yet these organisations remain
limited in their reach. Indeed, civilians caught up in
this conflict are struggling to have their voices heard—or rather, heeded. With
the government of Sudan blocking independent media and international
organisations from the field in a deliberate effort to cover up the
consequences of the violence, there is both insufficient awareness at the
international level about what is taking place, and a failure to mobilise
around what information is available, with reports from NGOs regularly being dismissed
as biased.

One of the
strongest messages that came through the research was that those living in Southern
Kordofan do not want pity: they want solidarity. They want the international
community to acknowledge what is taking place and work with them to end the
conflict. Their resilience is not being matched by support from the international
community, which appears caught between denial and helplessness. The consequent
lack of decisive action is proving disastrous, and the disconnect between the standards
of international humanitarian and human rights law and their (lack of) enforcement
could not be more stark.

It is hard to see a
military victory for either side any time soon. Furthermore, as long as the
government fails to implement reforms that have been demanded for decades by
those on the peripheries, there will be a reason for people to fight. In this
context, a stalemate is unacceptable—a stalemate that is taking an intolerable
toll on a civilian population that has been depleted of most of its reserves.

So what can the
international community do? Obviously, there are no easy answers. It has
already tried to call the president of Sudan to account over Darfur, with an
arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court. This strategy has so
far failed to reap any direct benefits for those in Darfur, let alone those in Southern
Kordofan and Blue Nile.

One recommendation that
the report makes is for the United Nations or the African Union to conduct an
independent inquiry into what is taking place. Once such an “official” body has
documented the situation for themselves, key members of the international
community will find it harder to dismiss the evidence of massive attacks on civilians.
Maybe this will lead to action, or maybe not. But for now it might be a step in
the right direction. At the very least it would send a powerful message to the
people of Southern Kordofan that the international community are aware of their
plight, and it would shed some light on an increasingly dark chapter of Sudan’s
already shady recent history.


*Antonovs are
cargo aircraft designed in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Because they are
cargo planes, they lack any sort of guidance system and bombs are simply rolled
out of the cargo hold, and are therefore inherently indiscriminate.

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