From the Field: Researchers Reveal Human Rights Crisis Behind Political Spat in South Sudan

April 22, 2012

Refugees in South Sudan worry they will be forgotten amid sabre-rattling between Sudan and South Sudan © Pete Muller

Amnesty International is currently on a research mission in Sudan. This post is part of a series.

Juba, South Sudan

“Have they forgotten about us?”
–    Sudanese refugee, Yida Refugee Camp, South Sudan

The spectre of war between Sudan and South Sudan has loomed large during our time at the Yida refugee camp over the past week.

Along the increasingly tense border, the mounting conflict between the two countries has loomed in the background as both a distant spectacle and a sinister threat.

But many refugees are concerned that amidst the spiraling possibility of war, they feel increasingly forgotten.

Each day has brought fresh reports of the deterioration in the relationship between the two countries, dimming the hopes for peace after South Sudan’s independence in July 2011 ended a protracted civil war and mass human rights violations.

South Sudan has occupied Sudan’s Heglig oil fields, though has today ordered its troops to withdraw. Bombs have rained down from Sudanese Antonovs and MiG fighter jets which streak through the skies above South Sudan’s northernmost regions. The rhetoric in the two capitals, Juba and Khartoum, is full of defiance and warmongering.

The international community has certainly taken notice. Numerous world leaders, the UN Secretary-General and Security Council, and the African Union have all gone on the record, calling on the two governments to pull back from the brink of war and to recommit to the peaceful resolution of outstanding disputes related to finalizing their new border and divvying up lucrative oil revenues.

What seems lost in the march to war is that for hundreds of thousands of civilians living along this troubled border – particularly in Sudan’s restive Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states – insecurity, fear and massive human rights violations have already been their reality for 10 long months.

The Sudanese government’s heavy-handed response to the armed campaign mounted by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army – North in the area has been marked by indiscriminate aerial and ground attacks.

With countless deaths and injuries and hundreds of thousands of people forced to flee, Amnesty International has repeatedly documented this appalling human rights and humanitarian crisis.

In Yida and other refugee camps in South Sudan we have seen and heard first-hand the many ways in which this crisis has not abated.

Certainly, abuses and suffering continue across the border in Sudan.

An 18-year-old girl told us how she watched on as a shrapnel fragment from an aerial bomb killed her 3-year-old sister. As she described it, “one moment we were running for safety and then suddenly she was dead.”

A 38-year-old man described to us how his brother, father and uncle were all shot dead by Sudanese troops at the front door of their family home.

There are many other tragic stories of death and destruction.

New refugee arrivals, desperate to reach Yida before the impending rainy season makes passage impossible, are streaming in at a rate of some 200 per day.

All talk of their fear of the continuing attacks and of the widespread hunger because it is impossible to plant crops in these conditions. The Sudanese government meanwhile blocks humanitarian aid to the area.

Life is not easy in South Sudan’s refugee camps either.

They are isolated and difficult to reach, and providing a regular supply of water and food is a great challenge.

A disagreement between refugee leaders and UN agencies about whether Yida should be recognized as a permanent camp or a transit centre en route to locations further inside South Sudan, has meant that essential supplies –  such as tarpaulins to protect shelters from the rains – have not yet been distributed.

A small number of international organizations are doing important work against great odds at Yida, but UN organizations such as the refugee agency UNHCR and UNICEF are – to date – virtually absent.

Refugee children are particularly vulnerable. A staggering 6,200 children – one-third of the camp’s population – are attending primary school at Yida. But there is no funding for their education. They are being taught by the camp’s 136 volunteer teachers.

Among the students are hundreds of unaccompanied refugee girls, several of whom have spoken to us of the terrible insecurity they face living in the camp.

And with the area’s infamous rainy season deluge only three weeks away, all of this is only going to get worse.

That’s unless there is urgent and concerted action taken on both sides of the border and by the international community to bring this human rights crisis to an end.

Human rights violations – particularly indiscriminate military attacks – must stop, immediately, in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. And the Sudanese government must allow unhindered humanitarian assistance throughout the area.

The UN for its part should spearhead an all-out effort to ensure the wide-ranging and pressing needs of Yida’s refugee population (which could increase by many thousands over the coming weeks) are met, before rains put them largely beyond reach.

The prospect of a war between Sudan and South Sudan should clearly be a pressing concern for the international community. But the human rights crisis that already exists must not be forgotten.

Alex Neve is Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada and Khairunissa Dhala is South Sudan Researcher, Amnesty International