Among the many dimensions to the grave human rights and humanitarian crisis in Sudan’s Southern Kordofan state that have stuck with me is the multitude of ways that people hide from the unrelenting Antonov bombers that prowl the skies.
It has been non-stop for 20 months. Lumbering Antonovs fly high overhead. Sometimes they are clearly heading somewhere else. Sometimes they circle and then move on. But sometimes they unleash their deadly, wholly indiscriminate bombs – maybe only one or two, but sometimes as many as 20 and even more.
Some of the bombs land in scrub brush, explode and do relatively little damage. Others land in fields, destroying crops and preventing people from growing much-needed food. Worse still, others land in residential compounds, often killing and injuring several members of the same family.
What makes it so terrifying is how entirely unpredictable it is. Will the Antonovs come today? Will they drop a bomb? Where will it land, and who will be killed or maimed?
It comes as no surprise, then, that hiding from the Antonovs has become absolutely central to survival in Southern Kordofan. And there are many ways to hide.
That certainly includes, as one might expect, foxholes. It was staggering to see how many foxholes have been dug throughout this region – and the infinite variety of shapes, sizes and designs. They are virtually everywhere. Some, dug deep, verge on being underground forts. Others are only deep enough to provide cover to one person, lying face-down. Some are covered with branches, grass, rocks or sheeting; others are open to the air. Some are deep and narrow while others are shallow and long. And some would not hold more than one or two people, while others could easily shelter an entire family.
The tragedy, though, is how many accounts I heard of people being killed or injured even though they had made it to their foxhole. Bombs fell so close that the foxhole was unable to provide protection. In some cases I could even imagine, agonizingly, that being trapped in the confined space of the small foxhole as the cloud of shrapnel and force of the blast blew past, might have made the impact even deadlier.
Southern Kordofan is famous for its beautiful, striking Nuba Mountains. And many people turn to those mountains for refuge.
On my first day in the region I visited the site of a rocket attack (Antonovs are not the only source of fear) a few weeks earlier during which an 11-year-old girl was badly injured. Everything was so close – the crater from the blast was not far from nearby houses; and then turning around in the other direction I could see a large group of children hiding in and among the rocks on a nearby hill. Their hiding spot also was not that far from where the rocket had exploded. I went to speak with them, including the girl who had been injured. When I asked how much of their time they spent hiding in the rocks, they responded, “we never leave”.
After talking with the children, I began walking back down the hill to our vehicle. A few metres on, my eye was caught by a flicker of movement. I looked down and could see a hole in the ground at the side of a boulder I was passing. And then I realized that it was the opening to another “bomb shelter”, a small crawl space that went some distance into the earth underneath the boulder. And there in the gloom of a small underground earthen cave, two young boys were hiding. Obviously the somewhat more open nature of the mountainside crevices where the other children were hiding did not give them a strong enough sense of safety. They peered up at me, but did not want to come out.
I also spent time at a displaced persons’ settlement that snakes along in a narrow ribbon, nestled in at the very bottom of a long line of hills. Thousands of people have lived there for well over a year. Being at the foot of the mountains gives them a sense of peace of mind, with the added security of being able to seek shelter in caves and openings on the mountainsides if necessary.
On my last day in Southern Kordofan I found another displaced community who explained it was too far for them to reach hills or mountains. They had set up camp in what they hoped was a safer place hidden under trees, but they had not figured out what they will do in a few months time when the rains come and their makeshift shelters may no longer be tenable.
All of this made me remember the words of a man we interviewed at South Sudan’s Yida Refugee Camp last year. He said that they had learned how to hide from bombs, but that they could not hide from hunger. And it was the hunger that propelled tens of thousands of people to flee across the border and seek safety and relief at Yida.
His words came back to me often as I traveled through Southern Kordofan’s Nuba Mountains – so many different ways to hide from the bombs. Tragically, though, sometimes hiding was not enough and the deadly Antonov bombings still claimed their victims.
But what we of course have to work towards is removing the need to hide in the first place. And that will only come when the Sudanese military’s cruel and illegal indiscriminate bombing campaign comes to an end.
To intensify the pressure on the Sudanese government, the UN Security Council should immediately extend an existing arms embargo – currently in effect only in Sudan’s western Darfur region – to the entire country.