On Jun. 19, Angelo al-Sir, a subsistence farmer from a small village east of Kadugli, capital of the oil-rich South Kordofan state in Northern Sudan, saw his pregnant wife, two of his 10 children, his nephew and another relative killed in an Arab airstrike in broad daylight.
Al-Sir later told international researchers that his wife had been planting crops in the family’s field when an Antonov airplane was heard circling overhead.
Moments later bombs rained down around al-Sir’s simple home, its fragments decapitating his wife and piercing the skulls of his children who were cooking together in the kitchen.
The 40-year-old farmer and his family had done nothing to warrant such brutality. His only crime was to be a dweller of the Nuba Mountains, a region rife with supporters of the Southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) which is currently weathering a ferocious attack launched by Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), the military wing of the Arab-minority government in Khartoum.
Concluding weeks of investigations and interviews with civilians in the region, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released a report Tuesday documenting irrefutable evidence of indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas by the SAF, prevention of food delivery and other humanitarian aid, and an ethnically-targeted offensive that is driving scores of unarmed civilians deeper into the mountains.
“The relentless bombing campaign is killing and maiming civilian men, women, and children, displacing tens of thousands, putting them in desperate need of aid, and preventing entire communities from planting crops and feeding their children,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, in a press release Tuesday.
Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior crisis response advisor, added, “The Sudanese government is literally getting away with murder and trying to keep the outside world from finding out. The international community, and particularly the U.N. Security Council, must stop looking the other way and act to address the situation.”
While rights organisations and independent researchers have been unearthing evidence of ethnic cleansing in South Kordofan since early June, the North’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) continues to vehemently deny reports of illegal actions, claiming that the offensive against the peoples of South Kordofan is necessary in order to eliminate the lingering threat of armed rebels.
But U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said Tuesday that, “The United States is deeply concerned about reports of continued Sudanese air force bombings of civilian areas in Southern Kordofan.”
“She added, “The United States calls upon the government of Sudan to adhere to its commitments [and] further call on both sides to allow unfettered humanitarian access to affected populations in the state.”
Slow international reaction
Since Jul. 9, the media has largely carried celebratory reports of the long-awaited independence of South Sudan following more than a quarter century of bloody civil war that left over two million dead from fighting and famine.
But even as the world watched the hoisting of a new flag in Africa’s 54th state and saluted a “peaceful partition”, a battle was raging in the Northern border-state of South Kordofan, whose indigenous population has long sympathised with the political and economic aspirations of the Southern rebels, fighting alongside them against Omar al-Bashir’s Northern forces during the civil war.
When the secession of South Sudan – home to three-quarters of the country’s oil fields – became imminent earlier this year, the NCP ordered the peoples of South Kordofan to disarm.
But according to independent researcher Eric Reeves – one of the first and only commentators to extensively document the facts of ethnic cleansing and civilian attacks – “The Nuba people have never been treated like human beings by Khartoum.”
“When I [visited] the Nuba Mountains… I spoke to a number of senior military officials and civil society leaders,” Reeves said in June. “And they made very clear to me that they have no exit, and no option but to fight, and fight to the death.”
Civilians in the crossfire
Now, Amnesty and HRW’s findings say categorically that the NCP can no longer hide behind proclamations of innocence and must allow an independent investigation and face the likelihood of war crimes charges.
The ongoing aerial bombardment has already devastated huge swathes of the civilian population; 150,000 people – “possibly more” – have fled their homes, taken refuge with neighbours, or constructed makeshift shelters from scant supplies.
None of the researchers found any evident of military targets close to air strike locations, and countless witnesses claimed that the high-speed fighter jets continuously bombed open fields, schools and other non-military targets.
Weapons experts have ascertained that the munitions have been unguided and rolled out manually from cargo planes in a way that does not allow for accurate delivery.
“Use of weapons in a civilian area that cannot accurately be directed at a military objective makes such strikes inherently indiscriminate, in violation of international humanitarian law,” the rights groups said Tuesday.
The displaced also lack basic medicine, sanitation, and shelter from heavy rains. Many of those interviewed were on the verge of starvation and had resorted to feeding their children berries and leaves in the absence of food.
Valerie Amos, U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, issued an emergency statement Tuesday saying, “The crisis in South Kordofan has reached a critical point. The Government of Sudan has denied permission to international aid agencies to replenish stocks and deploy personnel for six weeks.”
She added, “Essential supplies have been completely depleted in many parts of South Kordofan, leaving many people in a life-threatening situation without any prospect of relief.”
“Unless there is an immediate stop to the fighting, and humanitarian organizations are granted immediate and unhindered independent access throughout South Kordofan, people in many parts of the State face… catastrophic levels of malnutrition and mortality.”
The watchdogs’ report also documented evidence of sexual abuse, forced returns to Kadugli, violence and intimidation of civilians at the hands of armed forces, and assassinations of people attempting to flee – all violations of the laws of war and armed conflict as specified by the United Nations.