For four years, the Sudanese military has waged a terrifying war against its own people, in the besieged state of South Kordofan. As the fourth anniversary of this disgraceful human rights crisis approaches next month; it is long past time for the world to finally do something about it.
Canada, home to a large Sudanese and South Sudanese community and once upon a time a key player in efforts to bring peace to Sudan, should put diplomatic, financial and humanitarian assets on the table to make sure that happens.
I have just wrapped up an Amnesty International mission that has been able to cross into the remote Nuba Mountain areas of South Kordofan that are controlled by the Sudan People's Liberation Army - North opposition.
The SPLA-N is fighting for greater autonomy for the state. The Sudanese military have responded by cutting opposition controlled areas off from outside access and launching an unrelenting campaign of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and ground shelling that has killed, maimed, starved, terrorized and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
Wherever we went, there was an attack to document.
Nowhere near legitimate military targets, we recorded the devastating impact on civilians -- from the very young to the very old - of bombs pushed out of lumbering Antonovs, missiles unleashed from streaking MiG and Sokhoi fighters and long-range rockets fired by distant ground forces.
Heading into remote villages and sites where internally displaced people have fled for safety we found unexploded rockets, cluster munitions, bomb craters, shrapnel fragments and destroyed or damaged property everywhere. And everywhere means hospital grounds, medical clinics, roofs of primary schools, family shelters, mills for grinding sorghum, adjacent to secondary schools, food stores and fields, the middle of a football pitch and the compounds of local relief agencies. Antonov bombs even fell on a prisoner of war camp last month, killing two captured Sudanese soldiers and injuring four others.
By any measure it adds up to 48 months of crimes against humanity and war crimes. And a massive displacement crisis for an area home to about 1.2 million people.
Close to 100,000 people have fled across the border into South Sudan -- itself wracked by civil war for the past 18 months. Hundreds of thousands more remain trapped and displaced within either the military or opposition controlled areas of South Kordofan. And with a humanitarian blockade enforced by the Sudanese government in Khartoum, that means food relief, essential medicines and school resources are not getting through.
After four years it was not at all surprising, but still heartbreaking, to see how the violence has struck individuals, families and communities, not once, but repeatedly.
Alfadil, a teacher living in an IDP site, told us of the death in February of his wife, Nahid, who was eight months pregnant at the time. She heard the ominous droning of an Antonov and ran to ensure children in the vicinity -- including her own young son -- made it to safety.
Nahid was struck down by shrapnel and killed immediately. But her baby was still alive. With only one surgical hospital still operating (days away by foot), and other hospitals and clinics closed or scaled back after being bombed, sometimes repeatedly, there was nowhere to turn for medical attention to save the baby's life.
Two months later the Antonovs returned. Alfadil's two-year-old son was hiding in the family's shelter, along with his grandmother. That shelter was completely destroyed in the bombing, but fortunately the boy and his grandmother were not killed.
Alfadil then made arrangements to send his son to be with family in a refugee camp in neighbouring South Sudan. As he told us, "they killed my wife, they killed our baby, they almost killed our son. I cannot keep losing my family."
Alfadil, however, has remained behind with the IDP's because it is so important to him that he go on teaching in the makeshift school that is providing primary education for approximately 700 students, with classes as large as 150. All the teachers, only some of whom are trained, work as volunteers. And there is hardly an exercise book or piece of chalk to be had. But as he sees it, "only through education will we defend our freedom."
Understandably, Alfadil had strong words for the international community. He noted that the people of the Nuba Mountains have told the world, repeatedly, what is happening. Yet nothing happens. So he asks: is that because we do not matter?
The UN and the African Union must step up. There was minimal Security Council attention a couple of years back, which led to nothing and has faded away. African Union sponsored peace talks collapsed late last year and have not been restarted.
Both of those bodies, along with individual governments including Canada, must now exert forceful pressure on the Sudanese government to do three things: stop the bombing, allow humanitarian access and protect human rights in Southern Kordofan.
Because the people of the Nuba Mountains do matter; and this crisis must come to an end.
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“I left Malakal because of the fighting, we were chased from there - they wanted to kill us. We walked here and the children were really suffering because we had nothing to eat on the way. Now we’re here, there still nothing to eat but leaves and my daughter is sick and malnourished. "Since the conflict started, life has become very difficult and we’re suffering every day. I would like to go home to Malakal where our lives were easier if there is peace, but I don't know what can stop this fighting. "It is good that South Sudan got its independence and we have our freedom, but it has not put an end to these wars. That is what I need for my children to have a better life, is an end to conflict.”
“It is good that we separated ourselves from Sudan because back when we were one country, we didn't have freedom. Now we are happy that we're with our own people, looking after our own affairs. "I wouldn't say I'm disappointed by the conflict which has broken out now, because I believe everything is in God's hands. But our lives were already hard, and this war has made everything more difficult. "I walked for ten days with my three children and mother to get here to Akobo, after the fighting broke out in Malakal and my husband got sick and died. My two daughters used to go to school, but now they have to go out to the forest with me to get leaves and berries for us to eat, or firewood for us to sell. [The leaves} are not enough and they’re getting sick from eating them all the time. "I hope there will be peace so that our situation can improve and we can go back to our home. But you know, there is always war here in South Sudan."
“This war has affected children in many ways. Some children have lost their parents; all of the houses have been burnt down and all of the food in the stocks has been looted or burnt. "During Independence, I thought we would be very happy because we had our freedom. When we were getting Independence and I gave birth to Nyabol I had hope. I said to myself when I gave birth ‘I won’t have to carry this child and flee the way we had to flee. This child will stay without any problems and when it grows big it will go to school’. "What I felt at the time of the war? I felt like it was taking us to zero level, we had to start again. Now I’m praying to God for peace Then our brothers who have run to other countries like Kenya and Uganda will be able to come back and build our country again, because at the moment it is completely destroyed. "My message to the world is South Sudan is one country and these are the same people who are killing themselves. They’re the ones that are looking for power. I hope the world can help bring peace and reconciliation to South Sudan so all of the South Sudanese people can be reconciled.”
“I was 16 years old when I got married. I did not go to school because there was no education when I was young. "My three eldest children now go to school. Their education has been interrupted because sometimes we don’t have the money to pay the school fees, and also because of insecurity. "We are always scared because when South Sudan got independence, it did not become a peaceful country. The armed groups stopped that – they were abducting children and killing people and now the fighting has started again so we don’t enjoy a peaceful country. "I hope South Sudan will be peaceful in the future with no fighting. I don’t feel good now because people are killing each other, they are killing themselves since they are the same people from the same country. We’re still running like we have been for 21 years.”
"My youngest son was one week old when the conflict started. I carried him wrapped tightly in a towel. I felt that if I would fall down I would drop him because we were running. "My husband left us here in the UNMISS camp and went to fight. [In April], attackers came around all sides of the camp. With the first shot they fired my child [William] was shot. I thought he was dead so I put him down and picked up my other child and ran. "William was found by an organisation who took him to Juba. After three or four days they brought a photo of him. I had lost hope he was alive, but when I saw the photo and I was shocked and happy to realise he was still alive. "I’d tell people outside of South Sudan – we’re dying here, there is a lot of sickness. We are scared of how long we will be here [in the camp]. All of us will die here. "We feel the children are not getting everything they need. William has problems – he does not eat. I want the international community to stop the war so we can live in peace and everyone can help themselves. "
“I grew up here in Akobo until I was 16, when I went to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya to get an education and to escape the conflict. There was a lot of bombing in this area, even our church was bombed in 1999 and 2001. "When South Sudan became independent, I was really happy. I feel proud to be South Sudanese. We are black in colour and our culture is strong, and so is our faith. Under Sudan we were forced to be something we are not, but now we are independent everyone in the country should be free to choose their religion, culture, whatever they want. "For my son’s future, I really want him to study. But this conflict has made it difficult for him to begin his education. In truth, I’m very disappointed by the conflict. I feel like if this war goes on, my son won’t have the life I want him to.”
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