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Sudan's Deadly Stalemate

A new Human Rights Watch report offers a rare glimpse into one of the least-accessible conflict zones on earth.

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A SPLA-N fighter sits with an anti-aircraft weapon near Jebel Kwo village in the rebel-held territory of the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan on May 2, 2012. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

The conflict that broke out in Sudan's Southern Kordofan in August of 2011, as well as in neighboring Blue Nile state, hasn't been totally ignored in western press. The war has been the subject of columns from the New York Times' Nick Kristof; most famously, it was the ostensible cause of George Clooney's arrest outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington, D.C. in March. Yet media reports on the conflict between the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement-North and the government of the Republic of Sudan, which began when an allegedly stolen gubernatorial election in Southern Kordofan state inflamed existing tensions between the region's Arab government and its largely non-Arab population, have been relatively scarce. The battlefield is hard to access, and the issues involved seem obscure and local -- even if they've resulted in a conflict that has impacted nearly a million people.

The few systematic studies of the humanitarian situation that have been conducted since hostilities broke out in August 2011 paint an unmistakably bleak picture, and create a striking dissonance between the apparently dire conditions on the ground -- largely the result of a brutal government bombing campaign -- and the near-total absence of coverage in most western media. The lack of attention is hardly inexplicable: it is impossible to enter rebel-held territory from the north, thanks to the Khartoum government's currently-strict control over the area and its long-standing suspicion towards most foreign media. Luckily, Human Rights Watch, the respected New York City-based human rights research and advocacy organization, is undeterred by such challenges. Under Siege, a report which was published on December 11, is the most thorough record of the conflict to date, the result of over a year of research conducted in the rebel-held areas of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile.

Simply reaching these areas can be incredibly trying. In a strategy that the HRW report characterizes as a "blockade," the Khartoum government ensures that no one is allowed in to SPLM-N territory from the north: not journalists, or human rights workers, or even teachers and doctors.

And it is comparably difficult to enter the conflict zone from South Sudan. The battlefield lies in a remote area along the countries' disputed border. There are almost no all-weather roads in the rugged Nuba Mountains region; neither are there fully-stocked hospitals, reliable airstrips, or any easy means of reaching the conflict's front lines, something that not even Human Rights Watch's investigators were able to do. Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan comprise one of the most remote and inhospitable war zones on earth, which helps explains why, before the HRW report, so much of the available information on the conflict came from a combination of Nuba citizen journalists and satellite imagery that is collected and analyzed in the United States.

The conditions that have starved, displaced and killed nearly the entire population in rebel-held areas makes reporting on the conditions in those areas all the more difficult. Jehanne Henry, the lead researcher on the HRW report, admits that the challenging environment placed several limitations on her team, which was not allowed to enter government-held areas and could not access all of the territory held by the rebels. "Not being able to get to the frontlines...was a real detriment because we can't see how the parties are observing the laws of war," she said. But it is extraordinary enough that HRW was able to get teams of researchers into the conflict areas over the past year, and their efforts have paid off.

Investigators were able to obtain several accounts of specific atrocities, and the report links them to broader human rights abuses the researchers observed in the rebel-held areas. Its findings are startling, both in terms of specific incidents, like this one:

On February 18, 2012, bombs were dropped on Angolo, in El Buram locality, injuring Halima Tiya Turkan, age 35, while she and her daughter were hiding in a cave to escape an approaching airplane.  "My brother was hit by an Antonov [bomb-loaded Sudanese cargo plane] on Friday and on Saturday we were going to his funeral. We saw an Antonov and ran into the caves. A bomb dropped near the opening of the cave where I was with my daughter and shrapnel entered inside," she told Human Rights Watch. "The shrapnel hit me on the side, until my intestines came out."

In one of the most lethal strikes, 13 civilians were killed while fetching water and shopping at the market at Kurchi, in Um Durein locality on June 26, 2011. Explosions from several bombs killed five children and three women. Bomb fragments maimed and injured more than 20 others, paralyzing an eight-year old girl from the waist down.

...and general trends, which suggest diminishing supplies of food, and a near-total absence of healthcare or education infrastructure.

Nuba communities rely on their own agricultural production for food, but were largely unable to cultivate in 2011 due to insecurity and indiscriminate bombing...

Staple foods like sorghum are either unavailable at markets or simply too expensive for most of the local population. Many people survived on leaves, nuts, wild fruits, and hunting, preferring to stay in Nuba eking out enough to survive than attempt the long journey to Yida refugee camp in South Sudan.

The Korongu mek [traditional leader] told Human Rights Watch in October 2012 that 18 people in his area had died of hunger since July, while in April the deputy commissioner of Um Sirdiba reported 14 had died in Abu Hashim village...

A household survey conducted in rebel-held parts of Southern Kordofan in August found that the food situation had further deteriorated with 81.5% of families living on one meal per day and serious malnutrition among children.

... Many teachers, like doctors and other civil servants, are not able to leave Kadugli [the capital of Southern Korodfan state] or other government towns to report for work in rebel-controlled areas.  Their absence is a pressing concern for many parents who see little choice but to send children walking, sometimes for days, to Yida camp for rudimentary schooling.

The report is largely anecdotal in its content -- under the current conditions, it is impossible to stage the kind of wide-scale demographic study needed to quantify the conflict's impact. The few rudimentary studies that have been conducted, with the aid of humanitarian organizations that have been allowed to operate in the government-occupied areas of the two states, are sobering. In November, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that a total of 908,000 people had been "displaced or severely affected" by the conflict --  that's nearly a million people that have been forced to flee their homes, or who have seen their access to food, water or medical care jeopardized by the fighting.

Henry explained that the conflict has had a devastating impact on everyone in the rebel-controlled territories. "Most of the people in the rebel-held areas of both states are facing famine conditions," she told me. "Everybody in rebel held areas are conflict-affected. Very few communities have not been uprooted." A July bulletin from UNOCHA placed the number of "conflict-affected" in the rebel areas alone at over 660,000.

Refugee outflows to neighboring countries offer another glimpse into the conflict's severity. Henry says that the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan, which is just 11 kilometers south of the disputed border town of Gao -- perilously close to the conflict zone -- is now home to 65,000 people who have fled the fighting to the north. When I visited Yida in March, the camp, which had formed on a dust-swept and previously uninhabited plane dotted with termite mounds, was two-thirds smaller than it is now. The environment was showing clear signs of strain: most of the trees along the perimeter of the already-sprawling camp had been harvested for building material and fire-wood. Refugees complained to me about the inadequacy of World Food Program rations -- because of the camp's proximity to the border, and because of the presence of SPLM-N and Darfuri militants in the area, U.N. staff were prohibited from spending the night at the camp, creating a deficit of humanitarian capacity relative to the camp's needs. The camp had also been bombed by the Sudanese air force a couple months earlier, causing some NGOs to temporarily pull out of the area. Even in March, both the local environment and the existing infrastructure were barely adequate.

Now, Yida is three times larger, as increasing numbers of Nuba civilians are convinced that they have no choice but to flee their homes. Jonathan Hutson of the Satellite Sentinel Project, a D.C.-based organization that uses a combination of on-the-ground citizen journalism and satellite imagery to track human rights abuses in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, says that this is the direct result of the Khartoum governments' strategy, which has included the shelling and aerial bombardment of civilian areas. "If you drop a bomb that kills six little girls in a marketplace, that's only six who died. But it may cause thousands to flee the village...The bombardment is depriving people of the necessary conditions for life."

And for Khartoum, it's managed to keep the conflict as contained as possible. Both Hutson and Henry say that, aside from a few strategic towns or roadways changing hands, the military balance has remained relatively unchanged for the past several months. The rebels hold areas where the Khartoum government never had much of a presence to begin with, while Khartoum's overwhelming advantage in hardware and manpower prevents the rebels from advancing past territory they already control. "The rebels seemingly cannot defeat government troops in head-to-head conventional warfare because they're outnumbered and outgunned," says Hutson. "On the other hand, the rebels are ineradicable by reason of motivation and battle-hardening and owning difficult terrain." Khartoum boasts an air force, heavy artillery, and tanks -- although, Hutson says, the rebels were able to capture "six of seven tanks" after a recent shootout with the Sudanese military.

There are conceivable political solutions to the current fighting -- ones that American diplomacy could help realize. It is probable that the government of the South Sudan continues to support the rebels in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, both as a means of aiding their former comrades (the SLPM-N fought with the South during Sudan's decades-long civil war), and of maintaining some degree of leverage over the government in Khartoum, which is embroiled in a number of ongoing political and economic disputes with its southern neighbor. And it's possible that there are elements of the despotic northern Sudanese government that are ready for a broad-based rapprochement with the west, a package of foreign policy reforms that would include a break with Iran and Hamas, and added deference to human rights issues within Sudan's borders.

Although the recent history of U.S.-Sudanese relations isn't encouraging, the U.S. could still be in a position to broker a deal that allows for humanitarian access to rebel-held areas in exchange for upgraded ties, in addition to assurances that the Southern government won't inflame the conflict for political or strategic reasons. Such an agreement would be hugely problematic: the Sudanese government has hardly proven itself trustworthy over the years. This latest conflict resulted from Khartoum potentially rigging a local election and reneging on several elements of a 2005 peace agreement, including the integration of former rebels into the regional power structure. Khartoum is still prosecuting a scorched-earth campaign in Darfur, in western Sudan. But this kind of unsavory solution could be the only one currently attainable. After over 16 months of fighting, and a burgeoning humanitarian catastrophe, there is no military endgame in sight.