By Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Crisis Researcher & Khairunissa Dhala, Amnesty International’s Campaigner for Sudan & South Sudan
The Sudanese government is keeping Blue Nile State closed off to human rights NGOs and aid agencies, including the UN.
The closest we could get to Blue Nile State was New Guffa, a village in South Sudan, near the Sudanese border. Air strikes by the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) around the village have displaced hundreds of residents.
On the outskirts of New Guffa, we found the small hamlet of Yafta completely deserted. Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers reportedly lived in Yafta with their families, and fighters and refugees from across the border had stopped in the village after crossing over into South Sudan.Outside the village we found one family still living there. Elia Omar, a father of four, told us that he and his family would run to hide in the bush whenever they hear the noise of the SAF Antonov aircrafts circling in the sky – a regular occurrence he said.
He showed us the location of an air strike near his home – one of several cross-border strikes launched by the SAF into South Sudan between late September and mid-November this year.
Twenty minutes’ walk towards the border we saw the locations of other air strikes. At each site we saw a large hole, pieces of shrapnel, and trees all around lacerated by shrapnel. We saw fresh graves nearby.
We were told that several people had been killed in recent strikes. Some were residents of the village, others were refugees, and some were SPLM-N fighters who had come across the border with the refugees. A refugee couple and their young child from Kurmuk, in Sudan’s Blue Nile State, were reportedly killed in an air strike in the afternoon of 27 October. Three SPLM-N fighters were also reportedly killed by another strike in the morning of 9 November. It was after this strike that the villagers fled.
Around New Guffa hundreds of refugees from across the border in Sudan’s Blue Nile State are now sleeping out in the open. Some are resting before resuming the long walk of several days to reach the refugee camp at Dorro, just outside the small town of Bunj. Others, mostly the elderly or disabled, are waiting in the hope that someone will send a vehicle to fetch them.
Hangouk Hooba, a man in his sixties from Kolnugra village near the town of Ura in Sudan had arrived at the Dorro camp with his family two weeks ago. They carried whatever food they had at home and took their goats with them. It had taken them three weeks to reach the camp.
He told us that he had been cultivating his crops in the fields when he heard an Antonov fly overhead and drop four bombs. When he got home the village was in chaos with people running in all directions in fear. Three bombs had dropped on the outskirts of the village, and one lay unexploded near the bridge.
The villagers decided that it was no longer safe to stay in the village. They hid in the bush outside the village and that night they went home, packed whatever they could carry and left.
Litia Shabe, a 40 year old woman at Dorro camp said that she fled Sudan for the South because she didn’t want to die. She is from Jindi, a village south of Kurmuk, the former SPLA-N stronghold in Blue Nile State. She said that she had been hearing bombings around the village and was afraid. In mid-November on a Friday afternoon, her fears came true. Two bombs fell in Jindi village causing hundreds to flee, including Litia, her husband and their seven children. They walked for days to reach the refugee camp in South Sudan.
Fayza Rubat, a 29-year-old mother of four also from Jindi, told us that her husband, a fighter in the SPLA-N, was killed in the fighting three months ago. Six weeks later, as the fighting and the bombing intensified around Jindi, she decided to leave for the South, taking nothing with her as she had to carry her young children.
At the refugee camp registration point we met 32-year-old Jubara Atum, who had just arrived from Mayek, a village west of Kurmuk in Sudan. He said that two weeks earlier, as an Antonov plane was circling over Mayek, he ran to the bush to seek shelter with his family. He heard the bombs falling nearby and decided to stay in the bush for the next 14 days. Since the situation continued to deteriorate, he decided not to return to Mayek and crossed the border to the refugee camp, leaving all his possessions behind.
In Dorro camp many refugees have received some humanitarian assistance, and some food distribution has begun in the last few days. However, while waiting for food aid to arrive, some refugees told me they had been selling some of the aid items they received such as buckets and soap, to raise money to buy food.
Sanitary conditions are dire; there are few latrines or water points, and women –are queuing for hours for water. Some refugees have put up flimsy shelters made of straw, cloth or plastic sheets (the latter provided by UN aid agencies), and others are sheltering under the trees.
For now everything about this new refugee camp is temporary, but some humanitarian organizations here are preparing for the long haul. They may be right. Most of those displaced by the various conflicts in Sudan in recent years are still living in camps in neighbouring countries or in Sudan itself.