When war broke out in Sudan's Blue Nile state in September 2011, waves of refugees numbering in the tens of thousands poured out of the southern half of the state, fleeing indiscriminate aerial bombings and deliberate ground attacks by Sudanese military forces. Now, nearly two years later, some 150,000 people from Blue Nile state languish in a string of refugee camps in neighboring Ethiopia and South Sudan, and tens of thousands more have been forcibly displaced within Sudan. And although the frequency of armed clashes between Sudanese government and rebel forces has diminished, violence against civilians continues.
"I lost my daughter last month when an Antonov bombed us," a father who recently arrived in a refugee camp in South Sudan told Amnesty International in April, referring to the heavy, Russian-made transport planes that the Sudanese military uses to carry out its bombing runs. "When I heard the sound of the Antonov I yelled to my children to lie down on the ground. It dropped a bomb, and I heard my wife cry out, 'my child, my child, my child'. . . . She was eight years old."
Not just one but three children were killed in that attack, one of several 2013 attacks on civilian areas in Blue Nile state that Amnesty International has documented. While the Sudanese government says that it is fighting an armed rebellion by the Sudan People's Liberation Army-North (SPLA-N), civilians in SPLA-N-held areas of the state are bearing the brunt of the violence. In what appears to be a concerted attempt to clear the civilian population out of SPLA-N-held areas, and to punish the residents of these areas for their perceived support of the SLPA-N, the Sudanese government has both attacked civilians and denied UN agencies and humanitarian groups access to assist them.
Indiscriminate bombing has been the Sudanese government's signature tactic in Blue Nile state, to devastating effect. Bombs have injured and killed civilians, and damaged and destroyed civilian infrastructure, including homes, schools, health clinics and farmland. Sudanese forces have also employed indiscriminate shelling, deliberate ground assaults on civilian villages, and abusive proxy forces. These actions constitute war crimes-which, given their apparent widespread, as well as systematic, nature-may amount to crimes against humanity.
The Ingessana Hills, the birthplace of rebel leader Malik Agar, have been particularly hard hit. During the first half of 2012, the Sudanese government carried out a deliberate scorched earth campaign of shelling, bombing, and burning down civilian villages in the area, and forcibly displacing many thousands of people. Some civilians who were unable to escape were burned alive in their homes; others were reportedly shot dead. The wide scale of the attacks was confirmed by satellite images obtained by Amnesty International, which show village after village in which nearly all of the homes were destroyed by fire, as were mosques, schools and other structures. Now, the only signs of life in these villages are Sudanese military positions.
Many civilians in SPLA-N-held areas of Blue Nile state abandoned their villages early on in the conflict, and have spent many months living in makeshift, temporary shelters in the bush, often moving from one temporary shelter to the next to escape bombing or shelling. Because of this forced displacement, vast areas of the state have been depopulated, and many villages in SPLA-N-held areas in the south and west of Blue Nile state are either empty or sparsely inhabited.
The humanitarian situation for people who remain in SPLA-N-held areas is dire. Unable to tend their crops because of the fear of being bombed, many people-particularly those living in remote parts of the state-face food shortages and other hardships. With the Sudanese government barring humanitarian access to SPLA-N-held areas, food supplies are scarce; shelter is precarious, and even the most basic medical care is non-existent.
These deprivations disproportionately affect the very old, the very young, and the disabled. Numerous refugees told Amnesty International about the plight of elderly and disabled people who-because they were physically unable to make the long trek to the refugee camps in South Sudan-were left behind. Some people were forced to choose between carrying their children to safety or carrying their elderly parents. Others described how children died during the journey, victims of malnourishment, untreated diseases, and exhaustion.
Sayub Ahmed Ule, age 67, was one of the lucky ones; he walked for three days from the village of Wadega to reach the border of South Sudan. But several of his friends were too old and frail for the journey. "My friend Hussain is almost 80," Ule said, describing a friend who was left behind, "he can't walk at all."
Amnesty International found that refugees from Blue Nile state face additional challenges even upon reaching safety in South Sudan, including the threat of coercive recruitment by the SPLA-N. The SPLA-N's active presence within the camps undermines the camps' civilian and humanitarian character, diverts scarce resources, and detracts from the credibility of the humanitarian effort.
Prospects for both refugees and people remaining in war-ravaged areas of Blue Nile state are dim. While the refugee outflow from Blue Nile state triggered a humanitarian response from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and aid organizations, the conflict has otherwise received scant international attention. Preoccupied by relations between Sudan and South Sudan, the UN Security Council and the African Union have failed to take real action to address the violent abuses, or to address the need for urgent and impartial humanitarian assistance in Blue Nile state or in nearby Southern Kordofan state, where a closely related armed conflict is taking place. The possibility of a long-term stalemate and protracted forced displacement is extremely worrying.
Much of what is now happening in Blue Nile state and Southern Kordofan follows a pattern that is familiar from Darfur, and, indeed, from Sudan's decades-long war in southern Sudan, now South Sudan. Although Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir and several other high government officials remain under indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the grave human rights crimes they allegedly committed in Darfur, the pursuit of justice has lagged. Neither the UN Security Council nor influential states have shown any great eagerness to press Sudan to cooperate with the court's investigation, and President Bashir continues to travel to an array of African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries without hindrance. With no accountability for past crimes, there is little deterrence for those of the present.