Juba, South Sudan
Hopes that last week’s South Sudanese decision to withdraw forces from the Heglig oil fields in Sudan would reduce the tension between the two countries seem to have been dashed.
Sudan had responded to seizure of Heglig by South Sudanese forces with a significant increase in sorties and bombing raids by Antonov and MiG aircraft across northern South Sudan.
Immediately after South Sudan’s forces pulled back, the raids eased. But on Monday bombs rained down once again.
It has been difficult to ascertain over the past 10 days just what the exact targets of these Sudanese aerial attacks have been.
Some – but not all – do appear to have been near South Sudanese military or police sites.
It appears that one target was a strategic bridge that links Unity state’s capital , Bentiu to areas northwards towards the border –including Yida, Pariang and Nyeel refugee camps which we visited.
Many different localities and regions have been hit.
In Unity State alone there was bombardment in Bentiu, Mayom, Abiemnhom and Manga.
A UN peacekeeping mission premises in Mayom town was hit by two bombs and damaged on 15 April. There were no casualties in that attack; but there are unclear and conflicting reports about numbers of casualties in other attacks, including how many civilians have been injured and killed.
What has become desperately clear to us is these attacks are having a destabilizing and potentially debilitating impact on important humanitarian operations.
They are also putting human rights protection at risk in a much wider sense.
The fear of attacks is palpable everywhere, especially for the refugees from Southern Kordofan who fled indiscriminate bombings and food shortages to seek a safe refuge in South Sudan.
We were present in both Yida and Nyeel camps when Antonovs and MiGs flew past on various occasions.
Everyone, from refugee children through to international humanitarian staff, paused and looked up with obvious consternation, wondering whether bombs were about to drop.
No one feels confident the Sudanese military pilots will zero in on military targets with any precision, even if that is their intention. Everyone feels at risk. And with good reason. Back in November 2011, for instance, bombs fell directly on Yida camp including one on a school which fortunately did not explode.
And now, amid reports of renewed aerial attacks in Bentiu and Abiemnhom on Monday, there is understandably talk of UN agencies and some humanitarian organizations pulling staff and operations back from Bentiu.
Bentiu is a crucial staging and logistics point for the essential work that has to be done to ensure that Unity State’s refugee camps are readied to withstand the impending rains, and that urgent work to improve infrastructure for schools and other pressing projects in the various camps can go ahead.
Insecurity of this sort inevitably means that crucial humanitarian activity slows and even grinds to a halt. Supplies can’t make it through if trucks are confined to towns. Construction does not proceed if crews are unable or not permitted to come to refugee camps to work.
With so little time before the rains, there is no room for delay.
The international community spoke out forcefully about South Sudan’s control of Heglig. Those same voices must make it very clear to the Sudanese government that indiscriminate bombings in South Sudan are unlawful.
Indiscriminate bombings risk civilian casualties, sow fear and impede crucial humanitarian efforts – all of which imperils human rights protection.
The indiscriminate bombings must stop now.
Alex Neve is Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada and Khairunissa Dhala is South Sudan Researcher, Amnesty International