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Blue Nile: The Next Imminent Crisis in Sudan’s War on Its Own People

In a matter of days, or hours, the northern Sudanese state of Blue Nile seems likely to be the scene of the most violent military confrontation in Sudan for almost a decade. The Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) released a highly alarming report on September 23, based on substantial satellite photography, indicating that armed forces of Khartoum’s National Islamic Front/National Congress Party (NIF/NCP) regime are mobilizing in a massive formation of armor, troops, and military aircraft: “heavily camouflaged, mechanized units comprising at least a brigade—3,000 troops or more. These forces appear to be equipped with heavy armor and artillery, supported by helicopter gunships.”

The apparent target of this huge assault is the town of Kurmuk—on the border with Ethiopia—which is the primary stronghold of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement-North (SPLA/M-N) in Blue Nile. These are the northern military units and political cadres of the broader movement known during the civil war (1983-2005) simply as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement; their homes and base of support, however, lie not within the newly formed South Sudan, but in the northern parts of the country still ruled by Khartoum. Following South Sudan’s declaration of independence, the increasingly militant Khartoum regime has felt obliged to respond with force to what threatens to become a “new South,” a source of resistance to the regime’s 22-year stranglehold on national wealth and power. Focusing first on the nearby states of Abyei and South Kordofan, Khartoum has now turned its destructive attention to the rebel strongholds in Blue Nile. In the absence of increased international pressure on the regime, a bloody and protracted military confrontation appears imminent.

MOST PEOPLE IN Sudan’s southern states of Abyei, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile feel that they were short-changed by the North/South Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, but they expected, at least, “popular consultations”—discussions promised by the CPA through which the people of these warn-torn areas would negotiate their relationship with the central government. Instead, Khartoum’s first act—even before Southern secession—was to rig the election of Ahmed Haroun as governor of South Kordofan (Haroun is under indictment for 42 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur). Then, on June 5, the regime launched a military campaign against both political and military elements of the SPLA/M-N in South Kordofan, an operation overseen by Haroun and the state military and intelligence leadership. Unspeakable atrocity crimes marked the military and security effort, which continues to this day in the form of a relentless bombing of the African peoples of the Nuba Mountains, a tribal group known collectively as the Nuba. Without humanitarian access, which Khartoum continues to deny, the threat to human life is enormous. Valerie Amos, the head of UN humanitarian operations, declared on August 30 that:

[M]ore than 200,000 people affected by the fighting in South Kordofan faced “potentially catastrophic levels of malnutrition and mortality” because of Khartoum denying access to aid agencies. Also this week, two leading human rights groups said that deadly air raids on civilians in rebel-held areas of the Nuba Mountains may amount to war crimes.

Like the military seizure of Abyei (May 20) and the assault on the Nuba and SPLA/M-N in South Kordofan (June 5), the current campaign in Blue Nile was well prepared for, with troops and armor poised to move quickly and decisively. The regime’s regular and militia forces moved preemptively, launching an attack on September 1 by bombing the home of the elected governor of Blue Nile, Malik Agar; Malik is also the political head of the SPLA/M-N. And as in South Kordofan, human displacement in Blue Nile has quickly become massive and suffering by civilians acute. More than 50,000 have been displaced since the beginning of Khartoum’s campaign on September 1, and25,000 have fled to Ethiopia. Khartoum is denying all humanitarian access, both to prevent foreign observers and as a savage weapon of war.

Even so, resistance by the SPLA-N has proven stiff. Khartoum controls Damazin, the capital of Blue Nile, and Rosaries to the north—but almost nothing else in the state beyond the vast corridor of men and armaments moving southeast to Kurmuk. The movement of Khartoum’s troops has already been halted once in fierce fighting, but many thousands of civilians in Kurmuk are deeply at risk. This is in large part because Khartoum has increasingly resorted to “stand-off” military tactics, using artillery, tanks, and aircraft to do the fighting that regular troops are increasingly resisting. Such tactics are inherently indiscriminate, and civilians, not soldiers, are more often the victims.

In addition, although military violence will likely capture whatever news attention the crises in Abyei, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile receive, the real story is in the dying that will come this fall. Normally, people in these regions would be looking forward to an October first harvest with the end of the rains. But this year vast tracts of land were too dangerous to cultivate in the Nuba Mountains, and starvation will begin soon without humanitarian access. In Blue Nile the UN’s World Food Program is desperate to get food supplies in to hundreds of thousands of people either displaced or food insecure. Khartoum’s denial has been adamant. Human mortality will soon skyrocket.

WHAT HAS PROMPTED such brutal actions by Khartoum? What is the thinking within the regime? Here it’s important to see, in the run-up to South Sudan’s secession, that the army has become increasingly assertive, and the civilian cabal that heads the NIF/NCP more yielding. President Omar Al Bashir accommodates the army out of necessity, since it is the one constituency he can’t afford to lose. But there are clear signs of discord within the cabal, as well as evidence of a creeping military coup. Julie Flint, an especially well-informed observer of Sudan, cites a source in Khartoum who makes clear that the “hour of the soldiers” has arrived. Her account is harrowing:

[A] well-informed source close to the National Congress Party reports that Sudan’s two most powerful generals went to [Sudanese President Omar Al] Bashir on May 5, five days after 11 soldiers were killed in an SPLA ambush in Abyei, on South Kordofan’s southwestern border, and demanded powers to act as they sought fit, without reference to the political leadership.
“They got it,” the source says. “It is the hour of the soldiers—a vengeful, bitter attitude of defending one’s interests no matter what; a punitive and emotional approach that goes beyond calculation of self-interest. The army was the first to accept that Sudan would be partitioned. But they also felt it as a humiliation, primarily because they were withdrawing from territory in which they had not been defeated. They were ready to go along with the politicians as long as the politicians were delivering—but they had come to the conclusion they weren’t. Ambushes in Abyei … interminable talks in Doha keeping Darfur as an open wound … Lack of agreement on oil revenues …”
“It has gone beyond politics,” says one of Bashir’s closest aides. “It is about dignity.”

In addition, Khartoum has been emboldened in these ruthless military campaigns by the lack of any effective response from the UN, the African Union, or international actors of consequence, including the United States and the EU. There have been no meaningful responses to authoritative reports of large-scale extrajudicial executions, to satellite photography of mass gravesites, or to eyewitness accounts (many from UN human rights investigators in June) of house-to-house searches and roadblocks set up to kill or capture Nuba. Indiscriminate aerial bombardment of civilians—including a growing use of inherently inaccurate night attacks—has been repeatedly and authoritatively chronicled, and photographed, by news organizations and relief workers who have chosen to remain despite the dangers. Estimates of the number of displaced range as high as 500,000; some 8,000 people have now fled to a remote region of South Sudan, and according to the most recent UN figures, approximately 500 new refugees are now arriving daily.

To be sure, there have been familiar and dutiful international demands for a thorough and independent investigation of atrocity crimes in South Kordofan, especially since a UN human rights report, with devastating findings, was leaked in early July; but nothing has happened, and nothing will. Demands for humanitarian access have been greeted by Khartoum with contempt, which declares that relief organizations, including those of the UN, “trade on human misery,” “win … financial support in favor of their vested interests,” and work on the basis of a “hidden agenda.” Instead, the regime touts its own humanitarian organizations, especially the Sudanese Red Crescent (SRC). It is worth recalling that SRC uniforms were worn by military intelligence personnel in South Kordofan when, on June 20, they forced some 7,000 civilians from UN protective custody. These civilians remain unaccounted for and the SRC denies any knowledge of the event.

Most of this goes unacknowledged by President Obama’s special envoy for Sudan, Princeton Lyman. Instead, Lyman indulges in a facile moral equivocation between Khartoum and its adversaries, including the SPLA/M-N, and declares there is nothing the Obama administration is prepared to do beyond facilitating talks and “promot[ing] negotiations.” Lyman has consistently been skeptical about the scale of atrocities committed by Khartoum’s regular and militia forces, about the existence of mass gravesites, and about the deliberation with which the regime attacked first Abyei (after months of conspicuous preparation) and then South Kordofan. He is again far behind the curve on Blue Nile.

Lyman’s moral and diplomatic agnosticism has two effects: It convinces the men in Khartoum that they will continue to suffer no consequences for their broadening military actions and continuing denial of relief to desperate civilians—and it convinces the SPLA/M-N that they are on their own, and that their only hope lies in military victory and regime change. A coalition involving rebel groups from Darfur, the SPLA/M-N, and forces in the restive eastern provinces seems increasingly likely; this would create a military front-line running from eastern Chad to the Ethiopian border and up to Sudan’s border with Eritrea. The potential for spillover violence is extremely high.

U.S. diplomacy needs more than Lyman’s chattering; it must be bolstered by clear threats against Khartoum’s military apparatus itself and, in particular, its air force. As a first step, the Obama administration should declare that all aircraft identified as targeting civilians will be destroyed on the ground by U.S. military assets. This minimizes the chance of collateral damage and would quickly get the attention of the military leaders presently so willing to lead Sudan into yet another war. It would serve, in short, to create a de facto “no-fly zone.”

The assault on Kurmuk is just beginning; it can be halted only if Khartoum quickly comes to understand that there will be significant consequences—from the U.S., from the EU, and from regional actors such as Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda. Given the tenor of Lyman’s recent comments, there is little reason to believe Khartoum has any fears on this score; Kurmuk could be a bloodbath.

Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College and author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.