Sudan’s separation was meant to end decades of civil war. Instead it has created two weak states and more conflict
High in the Nuba Mountains in central Sudan lies a green valley of guava, mango and custard-apple trees where the people live in conical grass-roofed huts, tending goats and raising maize and sorghum on steep stone terraces. For the past month the focus of valley life has been its hospital, overflowing with child amputees, old women with shrapnel wounds and young men who arrived carrying their guts. Among them is Morcilla Dimas, 8. Her uncle, Haitar Solomon, recounts how on June 26, after hiding all day in the hills above their village of Kurchi, the family ventured home, and Morcilla took her sisters Maklena, 6, and Priska, 4, to fetch water from the village pump. A Sudanese air force Antonov plane chose that moment to launch five 45-gal. (170 L) barrels of oil attached to explosives. Twelve people, including Maklena and Priska, were killed. Morcilla suffered burns and lacerations to her feet and arms. Dr. Tom Catena, 47, a surgeon from upstate New York who works in the hospital, says even if Kurchi were a military target, “rolling bombs out the back at 20,000 feet” over a village can only be described as “premeditated civilian bombing.”
Births should be joyous, but in Sudan, new life can seem merely one more opportunity for death. On July 9, two new nations will come into being when Africa’s largest country splits into two: a smaller, mostly Arab and Muslim Sudan ruled from the old capital, Khartoum, and a mainly black African and Christian South Sudan with its capital in Juba. The road to separation was long and bloody: 2 million people died in two civil wars — 1955 to 1972 and 1983 to 2005 — between the northern government and southern rebels. But rather than heralding peace, the split is creating two weak and unstable countries and yet more conflicts.
The deadliest is the month-old war between the regime in Khartoum and the rebels of the Nuba Mountains. Though the Nuba, ethnic black Africans, fought alongside the south at a cost of 200,000 lives, their state of South Kordofan ended up inside the new north along with Darfur to the west and a third restive state, Blue Nile, to the east. Last December, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir proclaimed that the new northern Sudan would be a monolithic Islamic Arab state. “We will change the constitution, and at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity,” he declared. “Shari’a [law] and Islam will be the main source for the constitution, Islam the official religion and Arabic the official language.” Further upping the stakes, on June 1, though stalling on other elements of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the north-south war, al-Bashir’s government announced it would implement the part about disarming rebels, starting with Nuba fighters.
War erupted in days. Aid workers fled. Khartoum sealed the roads and banned flights. A handful of journalists managed to reach the mountains, however, including a small team from TIME. And from 30 interviews in three days with rebel leaders, soldiers, civilians, refugees, the wounded and medical personnel, a consistent picture emerges. Human-rights investigators will ultimately judge whether what is happening in the Nuba Mountains is classified as ethnic cleansing or genocide. What is clear is that by launching a campaign of terror against unarmed villagers, al-Bashir’s soldiers are committing crimes against humanity (defined as “a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population” in Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court), and by targeting civilians they are guilty of war crimes (defined in Article 8 as “intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population”). Bolstering this case, as International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo notes, are the charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity already facing al-Bashir and his South Kordofan governor, Ahmed Haroun, over similar atrocities in Darfur. Al-Bashir responded to the new accusations on July 1, saying he had ordered his soldiers to “continue their operations in South Kordofan until they clean the state of rebels.” Jehanne Henry, Sudan specialist at Human Rights Watch, says, “It certainly appears war crimes are being committed. The government is not discriminating at all between military and civilian. It seems to have decided to take them all out.”
Sudan’s main rebel group for the past three decades has been the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). It has 150,000 to 200,000 men under arms, spread across Sudan — north and south — and a large political wing, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). The rebels in the north will technically become a separate group on July 9. In early June, days after Khartoum announced its intention to disarm the rebels, its security forces in and around Kadugli, the capital of South Kordofan, were handed lists of SPLA and SPLM members. On June 5, according to eyewitnesses, they began going house to house with the lists, shouting, “Now is the time to shoot” and “Allahu akbar [God is great].” Hundreds of rebels and opposition members fled. Many who did not were dragged from their houses and shot or butchered in the street. Simultaneously, the SPLA, reinforced by tens of thousands of Nuba fighters from bases in South Sudan, made a lightning advance, briefly capturing parts of Kadugli. There, a crowd of thousands of Nuba refugees gathered outside a base manned by peacekeepers belonging to the U.N. mission in Sudan. The peacekeepers refused to let the refugees enter. Northern soldiers encircled the crowd and began identifying rebel supporters. Witnesses say at least six were marched off and shot.
With the SPLA fighters advancing once more on Kadugli and thousands of Nuba civilians fleeing the town — and a total of 73,000 on the move across South Kordofan, according to the U.N. — what the north began as a targeted elimination of political and military opponents soon deteriorated into an onslaught against all Nuba and other black Africans. Antonovs, MiG-27s and helicopter gunships were dispatched to bomb SPLA forces, refugees and mountain villages. Juma Fadul, a 25-year-old taxi driver, was in church in the village of al-Hamra on July 2 when a gunship made a sustained half-hour assault with missiles and machine guns. Five villagers died; Fadul took a piece of shrapnel to his forehead as he tried to run away. He and Khalid Somi, sprayed with shrapnel up the right side of his body during a helicopter attack near Kadugli the same day, estimate 100 civilians died. “I saw the bodies scattered on the ground,” says Somi. Juma Abdulaziz, 31, wounded in an Antonov strike outside Kadugli on June 15, says 50 friends and neighbors were executed in the town. “When I was brought here, I left my wife and two children there,” Fadul says. “For sure, they are all dead.”
Of the 161 patients Catena received from June 5 to July 3, about half were civilians, half SPLA soldiers. The surgeon has no doubts about the north’s intent. “The idea is to scare the crap out of people, to terrorize them and force them out of their homes and their land.”
A History of Failure
Sudan is where Arabia meets Africa, a geography enshrined in the place’s name: Bilad al-Sudan is Arabic for “land of the blacks.” An explanation for Khartoum’s repression of the country’s regions can be found in the centuries-old aspiration of Arabs to bring Islamic advancement to heathen Africans — which, as with Christian colonialists from Europe in other parts of Africa, followed earlier centuries of slave raiding. Khartoum’s tyranny went hand in hand with economic marginalization.
The capital’s dominance backfired. The south rebelled even before independence in 1956. In the 1980s and ’90s, it was joined by fighters from the Nuba Mountains, Darfur and Blue Nile. Ethnic Beja fighters in the east also took up arms. Even the far north has a self-determination movement. And despite superior armor, Khartoum was unable to beat its opponents militarily. The conflict cost it dearly, in money for weapons and soldiers and lost economic development: there is little economy to speak of outside the capital and certainly nothing on which to base hopes of clearing $38 billion in foreign debt. Today, weakened by the departure of the south, which holds most of Sudan’s oil, the Bashir regime is fighting to prevent further splintering of the north.
The future is hardly rosier in the south. So far, independence has meant the freedom to kill one another. More than 1,800 people have died in the six months since Jan. 9, when, in a referendum mandated by the CPA, the south voted for secession, with 99% in favor. Most of the dead were civilians caught in cross fire between the SPLA and renegade militias. The militias claim the SPLA and SPLM — and by extension the new government — are unfairly dominated by the south’s largest ethnic group, the Dinkas. The militias are concentrated in the states of Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile — not coincidentally also areas of plentiful oil. Another flash point is Abyei, an oil-rich border region claimed by north and south and annexed by the north in May. More uncertainty looms in a failure to agree on how the two sides might split what this year is set to be $6 billion in revenue from oil that is located in the south but piped out through the north. “All the fighting is about resources, about who gets what,” says a Western diplomat in Juba.
And if the north is ruled by a self-seeking autocracy, the south shows every sign of aping it. A draft transitional constitution drawn up by President Salva Kiir Mayardit “contains a number of provisions that appear likely to concentrate power in the central government,” warns the report of an observer mission from the Carter Center, headed by the former U.S. President. The Juba diplomat estimates that $3 billion of the $12 billion the southern government has earned from oil since 2005 is missing. Another Western observer says that between salaries, businesses it owns and corruption, the SPLA controls 40% to 60% of the southern economy. The fledgling state would also benefit from a more competent government. Positions are handed out on the basis of patronage.
On paper, the south’s 8 million to 10 million people are rich: as well as oil, their new country is blessed with millions of hectares of fertile land around the vast Sudd swamp, while cows — worth $250 to $400 a head — outnumber people. In reality, health, education and poverty indicators are among the worst in the world. Illiteracy and innumeracy are rife, and many development workers label South Sudan a “pre-failed state.”
Can Diplomacy Help?
Could the world have done more to prevent this dual disaster? There have been missed opportunities. A $526 million international development effort in the south has been slow, and change is largely confined to Juba. The U.S. has dangled incentives before Khartoum — like an offer to remove it from its list of state sponsors of terrorism if it allowed a peaceful referendum — only to fail to deliver. The world also finds Sudan’s complexity a challenge: campaigns such as Save Darfur and the Enough Project, featuring celebrities like George Clooney and Mia Farrow, bring welcome attention, but they oversimplify the issues. The U.N. peace mission is often impotent, as in Kadugli, where civilians were executed within sight of peacekeepers.
But some diplomatic initiatives have worked in Sudan. The U.S., Europe, Africa and China unified to persuade the north to allow January’s referendum. Sudan is also where the African Union (A.U.) is making good on a vow for Africans to take charge of African problems. In June, Ethiopia stepped up to provide 4,200 troops to demilitarize Abyei, a mission an A.U. official says will likely extend to the entire north-south border. Former South African President Thabo Mbeki has also proved a dogged and occasionally successful mediator. Not in Kordofan, however. A framework deal for talks he brokered last month in Addis Ababa meant little on the ground. The north kept bombing, and the Nuba, who were not at the negotiations, rejected the agreement.
To be fair, however, assistance requires a desire to be helped. “If you’re trying to get peace, it’s generally an advantage to have two sides who want it,” remarked an exhausted-looking A.U. official at the Addis Ababa talks. Many diplomats privately admit to wondering whether they are wasting time and money in the two Sudans. What stops them from quitting is Kordofan — and Darfur and Jonglei and Unity and Upper Nile — where what happens when Sudanese try to sort things out themselves is on gory display.
For now, more war and many more deaths seem inevitable. In South Kordofan, the Nuba are readying for a long fight. “The only good thing about peace was that it gave us time to prepare for more war,” says Montasir Kalo, 33, from a Nuba aid group in Kauda. “Our vision remains the same: tearing down the regime and empire of the north and claiming our rights as ordinary Sudanese. So far the result of all our fighting is that we are still fighting. We have this one choice: to be or not to be.”