By Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada and Khairunissa Dhala, Amnesty International’s South Sudan Researcher
For the past 10 months, some 20,000 refugees from Sudan’s conflict-ravaged Southern Kordofan State have fled across the increasingly volatile border to Yida, an isolated refugee camp just inside newly independent South Sudan.
They have escaped a terrifying campaign of aerial bombardments and ground attacks unleashed by the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), which has been fighting pitched battles since last June against the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army-North (SPLA-N) for control of Southern Kordofan.
We have been in Yida for several days and have heard many refugees describe the fear, violence and hardship that pushed them to leave their homes; to set off on foot for gruelling journeys lasting several days under eastern Africa’s harsh sun and unrelenting April heat.
And still they come.
In the past week, new arrivals at Yida have increased substantially. This morning we interviewed several refugees among a group of more than 200 who have come in the past two days alone. Most have fled with their entire families – babies and young children as well as the elderly. Some spoke of particular attacks in recent weeks that propelled them to make the final and very difficult decision to leave Southern Kordofan.
But more than anything, they all spoke of mounting hunger as the final straw. One man even said that he and his family had become used to running and hiding in caves in the mountains to flee the aerial bombardment. But as he said, “we can’t run away from hunger.”
Another man, aged 30, has just arrived here with his two wives and eight children, his sister and her five children, and his mother and elderly grandmother. All of the children are under the age of 14. He said that “the only place any of us want to be is home, but when your children are crying all of the time because there is nothing to eat – you have to go somewhere else.
The ongoing fighting has caused food supplies to dwindle and run out. We spoke with several farmers this morning who said that because of the constant bombing they have simply not been able to cultivate or harvest crops. And the Sudanese government has blocked international humanitarian assistance from reaching SPLA-N controlled areas of Southern Kordofan.
Desperation has led people to forage for tree bark, leaves and anything else edible to help them stay alive.
Their plight has become all the more desperate because the rainy season is approaching. Many areas will soon be submerged by the rains. Other areas will be cut-off and inaccessible.
If people are going to make it to Yida, they know that they have to come now. Refugees we spoke with told us many others will follow.
The situation has become increasingly desperate in recent weeks as the relationship between Sudan and South Sudan has deteriorated dramatically.
Disagreements over contested oil-rich areas along their troubled border have erupted into cross-border incursions, bombing sorties, occupations and inflammatory rhetoric that seem to have both governments set on full-out war.
It is just one more reason to try to reach a place of safety – before things spiral completely out of control.
Sudan: End bombings and allow humanitarian access into conflict regions (News story, 16 February 2012)
Sudan: Southern Kordofan Civilians Tell of Air Strike Horror (Public statement, 30 August 2011)