Military news from the Nuba Mountains, such as we have it, is grim and suggests that Kauda, the unofficial capital of the region, may soon fall into the hands of Khartoum’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF); they are energetically assisted by the brutal militias known as the Rapid Response Forces (RSF), which have been relentlessly recruited and heavily armed. On the other hand, there are also reports of decisive battlefield victories by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement-North, notably near Kadugli and Talodi. But Khartoum seems closer than ever to its goal of seizing Kauda and ultimately exterminating the remaining Nuba population in this area of South Kordofan. (A simple but clear map of South Kordofan is offered by Africa Confidential at | http://www.africa-confidential.com/uploads/content/10_s_kordofan_COL.jpg).
[Update, 19 January: a highly authoritative report today from the ground in the Nuba indicates that Kauda is not in imminent danger of falling; this may reflect a response by SAF and RSF forces to recent military losses, especially near Talodi—ER]
Human suffering and destruction are now in their fourth year, with aerial bombardment of civilians, civilian agriculture, and civilian villages a constant, indeed daily reality. Many tens of thousands have fled to South Sudan (tens of thousands have also fled from neighboring Blue Nile, which has experienced its own devastating assault on civilian life; these refugees are in South Sudan and Ethiopia). The UN figures representing humanitarian conditions in the Nuba Mountains are merely conservative estimates, and almost certainly understate the overall intensity of suffering and deprivation in the Nuba. But even recent UN figures indicate that hundreds of thousands have been displaced and hundreds of thousands more urgently need humanitarian assistance.
The primary need is food, since Khartoum has waged a relentless, deliberate, and highly effective war on Nuba agricultural production throughout the three and a half years of conflict. The UN estimates that 100,000 children under the age of five are part of a much larger Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) population. One spot survey indicates that the GAM rate among children under five in the Nuba is 30 percent, three times the emergency threshold in a war zone, and food insecurity will be a problem for years. A May 26 – June 1, 2014 report from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs but matters starkly:
[In] its latest report the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), a global food shortages and food insecurity watchdog, stated that the SPLM-N areas in South Kordofan are experiencing the highest (emergency) levels of food insecurity in Sudan. FEWS NET forecasts that in SPLM-N controlled areas of South Kordofan, Crisis and Emergency (IPC Phase 3 and 4) levels of food insecurity will persist among 40 percent of IDPs and host community households through September 2014.
And as Khartoum continues its brutal war on civilians and civilian agriculture and food supplies, this cycle will be repeated during the next “hunger gap” (the period between spring planting and fall harvest).
Khartoum has allowed no comprehensive humanitarian needs survey to be conducted by the UN since June of 2011. But other (very partial) surveys suggest a humanitarian crisis much greater than that represented by UN figures. A November 2014 study by the Enough Project (“Life under Siege: South Kordofan Needs Assessment,” http://www.enoughproject.org/files/LifeUnderSiege-Report-EnoughForum-Nov2014.pdf ) offers some terrifying findings:
- Security concerns are an increasing threat to the population, demonstrated by 92% of displaced households fleeing due to fighting, up from 66% a year ago…
- Displacement is a major problem with 30% of the total population currently displaced from their homes—9% within the last eight months.
- Malnutrition in the area is very high. Of note, there is a high prevalence of wasting indicated by a severe acute malnutrition (SAM) rate of 3.6% (2.8 – 4.6 95% confidence interval, C.I.), which is above the World Health Organization’s critical threshold level of 2%.
This last finding suggests that there is a very high mortality rate among children; outside a hospital or clinical setting, very few children suffering from SAM will survive. All the key findings from this important assessment may be found in Appendix One.
Even the UN provides a starkly vast figure in its May 19, 2014 “fact sheet” on the populations of South Kordofan:
The response to these humanitarian needs in the two states comes on top of some 2 million people both in Government and SPLM-N-controlled areas either internally displaced or severely affected by the conflict since 2011, and is hampered by access challenges, capacity limitations and funding shortfalls.
Although the UN does not highlight or even identify the “access challenges” it alludes to (in deference to Khartoum), and chooses to speak disingenuously of the humanitarian response as “hampered,” the reality is the total embargo on relief aid to rebel-held territories remains in place. Without full, unfettered humanitarian access this enormous population will continue to suffer massive morbidity and mortality—as they have for three and a half years. There is no meaningful international effort to negotiate or compel the lifting of this murderous embargo.
The People of the Nuba Speak for Themselves
Operation Broken Silence has provided a remarkable series of interviews with Nuba people who have fled to South Sudan, revealing in profoundly human terms the suffering and losses they have endured:
http://youtu.be/ntSLMNgSuIA?t=9m39s (the interviews begin halfway through the 24-minute documentary, which is where this particular clip begins)
The emphasis in the interviews falls clearly on the devastation caused by the bombing, the lack of food, and perhaps most decisively on the lack of education. Those few schools that remain open in the Nuba are barely functioning, and children in the vast Yida refugee camp (northern Unity State, South Sudan) are provided no educational resources by the UN, which claims the camp is too close to the border for such “non-essential” activities. The UN seems unwilling to accept the almost universal view of the people of Yida camp that they will not be moved further from the border—and their homeland. But life is certainly grim in Yida, and food is in short supply, as it is in most places in the northern parts of South Sudan. And Khartoum’s hostility toward the camp was demonstrated when it dropped four bombs on the location in November 2011, compelling even the feckless UN to respond. But it was yet more “condemnation without consequences,” a now highly refined international response. The statement by the UN High Commission for Refugees also noted at the time:
There are also reports this week of bombing in New Guffa village of South Sudan’s Upper Nile state resulting in civilian casualties. As many as 55,000 civilians originating from the Damazine and Kurmuk areas are said to be moving southwards in Sudan’s Blue Nile state. Some of these people are heading to Chali within Blue Nile state. (11 November 2011)
The attacks were later confirmed by humanitarian organizations on the ground.
Listening to the interviews of Nuba speaking to Operation Broken Silence, one can’t help but be struck by the truly desperate desire to provide and attain a substantial education on the part of all who speak of their future. They understand all too well what the consequences will be if an entire generation of Nuba children goes without schooling. The interviews were conducted in different locations in South Sudan, and one by electronic communication from the Nuba.
Notably the first interviewee describes what sounds very much like chemical weapons use, of a sort I warned of in November 2014 on the basis of a highly reliable source in the Nuba. Needless to say, with Khartoum imposing a total humanitarian embargo on all areas it does not decisively control, there will be no investigation of possible use of chemical weapons—something Secretary of State John Kerry waxed so passionately—and hypocritically—about when it occurred in Syria. In addition to possible chemical weapons use, there were highly authoritative reports of large fires burning sorghum fields before the harvest (which is now complete). The threat to burn what appeared to be a promising sorghum crop was made fully explicit in the August 31, 2014 minutes from a meeting in Khartoum of the regime’s most senior security and military officials. I described on October 7, 2014 these plans and the regime’s stated commitment to “starve” the people of the Nuba. Despite the overwhelming consensus about the authenticity of these minutes, no response from the international community has been in evidence—none.
The Military Situation
It is not possible to present a comprehensive account of current fighting and the tactical advantages that are accruing to each side in this ferocious violence. The threat to Kauda has been confirmed by several sources, but perhaps our most useful recent report comes from Nuba Reports and its January 10, 2015 update:
IN DECEMBER , NUBA REPORTS RECORDED MORE THAN 450 BOMBS, ROCKETS AND ARTILLERY SHELLS DROPPED ON CIVILIAN TARGETS – THE MOST IN A SINGLE MONTH SINCE THE WAR BEGAN. JANUARY SHOWS NO SIGN OF SLOWING DOWN.
In the first week of January there have been daily bombing runs around the towns of Mendi and Ngartu, just west of Talodi. Starting January 4, Nuba Reports journalists recorded three to four shells every five to ten minutes throughout the day. The attacks increased after Sudan launched a summer campaign to retake SPLA-North positions around Daloka, a strategic plateau overlooking the South Kordofan capital. The SPLA-North repulsed major attacks around the first week of December. Shortly after, bombing began across Buram, Heiban, Kadugli and Um Dorein, hitting hundreds of houses, farms and markets.
In the town of Katcha, on December 20, bombs hit a school as children were preparing for class. Ashia Tutu—a Katcha resident—nearly lost her son, Abu Tallib. “When the bomb hit I was at home,” she said. “When the MiG [jet] fired the rockets I started running toward the school to find my children.” But when she arrived, she couldn’t find Abu Tallib. “I ran down the mountain and that is when I found some people that told me that my son was wounded and that they carried him to the clinic.” She ran to the clinic as fast as she could. Twenty-seven bombs hit Katcha that day. Abu Tallib was one of three civilians wounded. Two other children—13-year-old Ezikiel Tia and eight-year-old Osama Sillimon—were killed. Another student, a pregnant woman and an SPLA soldier were also wounded.
Unlike the notorious Antonov cargo planes—retrofitted as slow, high-flying, and extremely inaccurate “bombers”—both the MiG-29s and Sukhoi-24s (both Russian-built, as is the Antonov) are highly advanced military aircraft. They fly so fast that it is often impossible for those on the ground to distinguish the two, although collectively the evidence suggests that Sukhoi-24s are the air-to-ground attack aircraft most often used in the Nuba. But what both jet aircraft have in common is very considerable precision, especially against such “soft” targets as schools and hospitals. This attack on the Katcha was fully deliberate, as were the attacks on the Mother of Mercy hospital in Gidel (near Kauda) and the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières hospital to the south in Frandala (see my account following the attack on Frandala).
Each such attack is a war crime; collectively the air assaults on the Nuba are nothing less than crimes against humanity, as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Part II, Article 7, “Crimes against humanity”; see pp. 19 – 20 in “The Bombed Everything that Moved”: Aerial Military Attacks on civilians and humanitarians in Sudan, 1999 – 2013 | www.sudanbombing.org).
The next day, on December 21, artillery shells from Kadugli hit Famma village. Twenty-seven-year old Hachim Kuwa and his 23-year-old wife Kaka Jihadia were both killed, and their two children were injured. The family’s home was also destroyed. Eight more bombs were dropped on Famma village five days later. No deaths, injuries or damages were reported from that assault. Across towns and villages in South Kordofan, many have similar stories from the past six weeks.
Nuba Reports also provides a more comprehensive overview of the Situation in South Kordofan and Blue Nile for November – December 2014 | https://gallery.mailchimp.com/8f4546a2fa9b0892261b50497/files/SitRep_Jan2015_V7_1_.pdf.
Highlights from this report include:
- 131,207 refugees, predominantly from Blue Nile, are in South Sudan’s Upper Nile camps of Doro, Yusuf Batil, Kaya, and Gendrassa—10,000 more than last year.
- 27,259 school-age children are living in Yida camp and not able to attend school. Education has not been supported in the camp since its creation in July 2011.
- 71,982 registered refugees total were in Yida refugee camp in South Sudan as of November 30, an increase of 2,000 from last year. The number of registered refugees does not reflect the total number in reality, however, since many remain unregistered and therefore unable to receive food rations.
In fact, the UN estimate for the total number of Sudanese refugees from Blue Nile and South Kordofan now in South Sudan is 224,000. The Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) total within the two areas is estimated to include 100,000 children under five. A million people are in urgent need of humanitarian relief. And these are conservative figures.
Sam Totten, who has just returned from the Nuba Mountains following a courageous effort to bring eight tons of food to these desperate people (primarily sorghum, but also lentils, sugar and cooking oil), reports both on malnutrition and the military situation as he saw it first hand. Excerpts from the report on his humanitarian trip may be found at: http://sudanreeves.org/2015/01/17/humanitarian-mission-to-the-nuba-mountains-by-sam-totten-15-january-2015/. It makes for painful reading and further emphasizes just how bad conditions are for many hundreds of thousands of human beings.
In October 2013 I asked what we knew of conditions in the Nuba Mountains since Khartoum initiated hostilities on June 5, 2011: http://sudanreeves.org/2013/10/11/genocide-in-the-nuba-mountains-a-retrospective-on-what-we-knew-june-2011-2013/. We knew then and know now what remains true, defining the lives of the people who remain in the Nuba: the destructiveness of daily bombings and atrocity crimes, the immense consequences of displacement, the terrible living conditions for those without access to food, and the malnutrition and disease that have been increasing for three and a half years. And yet Khartoum’s campaign of extermination proceeds apace. The regime refuses to negotiate a humanitarian corridor to the desperate populations in various parts of the Nuba, and is clearly determined to prevail over the SPLA-N, the only military opponent it currently shows signs of fearing in Sudan (rebel resistance in Darfur is being overwhelmed in the key Jebel Marra area, and much of North Darfur is experiencing the scorched-earth, ethnic destruction that marked the early years of the Darfur genocide).
It appears that no atrocities, no threats of mass human destruction from famine, no efforts to complete genocidal campaigns—whether in the Nuba, Blue Nile, or Darfur—are sufficient to fully engage the international community. The people of the Nuba and Blue Nile have been as completely abandoned as the people of Darfur. Again, we must understand that there are no meaningful international efforts to negotiate or compel Khartoum to lift its humanitarian embargo on rebel-held areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Women, children, the elderly and infirm—people who cannot flee to South Sudan for one reason or another, including geographic distance—have been left completely at the mercy of a regime that conducted an infamous genocidal campaign against the Nuba for most of the 1990s.
President Obama once spoke of the genocide in Darfur as a “stain on our souls.” His use of the first-person plural possessive now seems dismayingly self-serving. Obama and those who have determined his policies toward Sudan and South Sudan have souls that are not simply stained, but deeply corrupted by years of indifference, mendacity, and expediency. There could be no more glaring example than what has befallen the people of the Nuba Mountains.
“Life under Siege: South Kordofan Needs Assessment, “The Enough Project, November 2014 | http://www.enoughproject.org/files/LifeUnderSiege-Report-EnoughForum-Nov2014.pdf
(“Methodology” appears following the “key assessment findings”):
The key assessment findings are as follows:
- Security concerns are an increasing threat to the population, demonstrated by 92% of displaced households fleeing due to fighting, up from 66% a year ago; 29% of the population has a family member currently living in a refugee camp and 79% of households state they do not feel safe at home—12% more than last year’s findings of 67%. Women and girls in focus group discussions claim sexual violence and rape are now serious concerns in the region, as a result of encroaching frontlines and proximity to enemy soldiers.
- Displacement is a major problem with 30% of the total population currently displaced from their homes—9% within the last eight months.
- Food security is poor with 80% of non-displaced households and 77% of displaced households showing unacceptable (either poor or borderline) food consumption scores. Seventy percent of displaced households and 64% of non-displaced households are experiencing moderate to severe hunger. To survive the lean season, families have employed various coping strategies; 65% of households are restricting food consumption of adults to feed children; 81% of households are reducing the number of meals consumed each week; and, 73% of families have been limiting their portion size at meals. Food stocks are a problem with 90% of households not having enough food stocks to last one month and 49% not having enough even for one week. Future food shortages are a concern, as cultivated land has declined. This year, households estimated that they cultivated an average of 1.57 feddans compared to 1.75 feddans a year ago, marking a 10% decrease. Prior to the war, households stated they were cultivating an average of 7.75 feddans.
- Malnutrition in the area is very high. Of note, there is a high prevalence of wasting indicated by a severe acute malnutrition (SAM) rate of 3.6% (2.8 – 4.6 95% confidence interval, C.I.), which is above the World Health Organization’s critical threshold level of 2%, and a global acute malnutrition (GAM) rate of 10.3% (9.0 – 11.9 95% C.I.) in children 6-59 months of age.
- Food purchased and produced varied between displaced and non-displaced households. Displaced households spent more on food purchases, and non-displaced households consumed a larger portion of food from home production. While households experiencing longer displacement spent more on farm input and housing, those displaced for less than eight months spent more on fuel, health, and food purchases.
- Markets were discussed in focus group discussions (FGD) and it was found that the population has very low purchasing power and only limited access to any markets; 26% of households state they have to walk at least an hour to get to a market.
- Education has been seriously impacted by the conflict. Fifty-three percent of households state that their children do not attend school regularly due to lack of money to pay school fees (37%) and insecurity (27%).
- Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) indicators are very low. Less than half—45%—of households are using an improved water source as their primary source; 25% of households have soap in their home and an overwhelming 86% of households are practicing open defecation.
- Health statistics were concerning with 51% of households stating at least one child had diarrhea in the preceding two weeks and 66% stating at least one child had malaria in the preceding four weeks. The majority of households—59%—did not have any mosquito nets for malaria prevention in their home.
• Persistent insecurity has taken a heavy toll on the assessed population. Essential interventions are therefore required in food security, livelihoods, protection, health, and WASH.
[The] report documents findings from a holistic humanitarian needs assessment conducted in South Kordofan state in August 2014 by an international non-governmental organization (NGO). Due to security concerns, the organization wishes to remain anonymous, but requested that the Enough Project publish the report to make public existing evidence of the humanitarian disaster unfolding today in Sudan.
Given the lack of access to these rebel-held areas, there has been little information made public about the situation on the ground. This report strives to fill in some of these gaps. The international NGO surveyed 808 households using a cluster survey methodology. Researchers also facilitated focus-groups discussions amongst groups disaggregated by sex and age. The two-stage sampling scheme of “30×27” was used with a confidence interval (CI) of five percent. Thirty villages were randomly selected from 20 accessible payams, a local administrative division similar to a county. Then 27 households were interviewed in each of the 30 villages. Although the assessment survey was administered in every second or third house, the surveyors also went to every house between the first and last surveyed to gather nutritional data. Researchers conducted interviews using a structured questionnaire designed to capture key data on demographics, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), food security, livelihoods, markets, and health.
The Enough Project was solely responsible for the report’s final production and distribution but did not contribute to its findings. Steven Hansch, an expert in health assessments in humanitarian crises at Relief International, vetted the assessment and found its research and methodology to be sound and its findings to be credible.