Where bombs rain terror from the sky while the world looks the other way

SOUTH KORDOFAN – Time and again, as we have interviewed women, men and young people throughout Sudan’s besieged South Kordofan state, people have had not just one account of personal tragedy to share but several.

That is perhaps the most heartbreaking measure of how entrenched this human rights and humanitarian crisis has become.  After four years, the people of South Kordofan have seen the violence and injustice come around several times: more bombs, more displacement, more hunger, more loss and more death.  This is a cruel campaign that does not only strike once.

These are not the stories of those caught on the frontline by chance. But civilians deliberately targeted.

In none of the sites we visited did we see or hear of any evidence of nearby military targets that might have justified the attacks.  In fact one woman told me that the Antonov bombers spend much more time raining hell around villages and sites for internally displaced persons (IDPs), than they do at the front-lines of the fighting. 

Alfadil Khalifa Mohamed, a teacher, emotionally told us of an Antonov attack at an IDP site in February.  When his wife, Nahid, who was eight months pregnant, heard the ominous droning of the plane, she ran to ensure children in the vicinity – including her own young son – made it to safety. 

Alfadil speaking to Amnesty International researchers during the mission in South Kordofa.   Photo courtesy of Amnesty International
Alfadil speaking to Amnesty International researchers during the mission in South Kordofa. Photo courtesy of Amnesty International

Nahid was struck down by shrapnel and killed immediately.  But the baby was still alive.   But in a region with only one surgical hospital still operating (days away by foot), there was nowhere to turn for medical attention to save the baby’s life. Numerous other hospital and clinics have closed or been scaled back after being bombed, sometimes repeatedly.

Two months later the Antonovs returned.  Alfadil and Nahid’s two year old son was hiding in the family’s shelter, along with his grandmother.  That shelter was completely destroyed in the bombing, but fortunately the boy and his grandmother were not killed. 

They killed my wife, they killed our baby, and they almost killed our son. I cannot keep losing my family.

Alfadil Khalifa Mohamed, a teacher and one of the IDPs.

Alfadil then made arrangements to send his son to one of the refugee camps in South Sudan, where his wife’s mother now lives.  As he told us, “they killed my wife, they killed our baby, and they almost killed our son.  I cannot keep losing my family.” 

Zainab, a 75 year old woman, surrounded by children of all ages busy either helping with chores or playing games, shared her family’s account of being displaced twice since 2012.  They fled first when their village was bombed and then had to flee again when their place of refuge (an IDP site) was similarly attacked a year later. 

With resignation and certainty Zainab assured us that if we come back next yearwe will likely find that she has had to run away again.

Similarly, a family living in a small village on the edge of a large IDP site were terrorized in February of this year when a bomb loaded with cluster munitions landed on their property, causing considerable damage but fortunately not death or injury.  It was a close call and they decided to move into the IDP site – a long ribbon of shelters nestled into the base of the Nuba Mountains – in the hope that the rocks, crags and caves would offer protection. 

But only two months later an Antonov attacked and a bomb landed near the site’s sorghum milling machine.  Shrapnel flew in many directions, and this newly displaced family’s two year-old daughter was one of seven who were killed.

For four years civilians have been under attack in South Kordofan.  The Sudanese military, determined at any cost to defeat the SPLA-North opposition that is fighting for greater autonomy for the state, has sealed opposition controlled areas off from the outside world. It has waged an unrelenting campaign of indiscriminate aerial and ground attacks clearly intended to terrorize the civilian population.

Antonov, MIG and Sukhoi aircraft rain bombs and missiles down from the air.  Long range shelling sends artillery rockets streaking into distant communities. Food crops have been destroyed with farmers too fearful to plant and harvest.  Sudan’s humanitarian blockade means food relief doesn’t get in; nor do badly needed medicines, or supplies and funding to support schools.

We have seen unexploded rockets, cluster munitions, bomb craters, and shrapnel fragments and destroyed or damaged property on the grounds of or immediately beside hospitals and medical clinics, primary and secondary schools, family compounds, IDP sites, football fields, sorghum mills, food stores, NGO premises, and a prisoner of war camp; all of which are protected under international law (since directing an attack against a zone established to shelter the wounded, the sick and civilians from the effects of hostilities is prohibited). 

However, in the face of such agonizing hardship and misery, the resilience and determination we also encountered – everywhere – was nothing short of remarkable.

Like Alfadil, despite all that has befallen him and his family, he remains loyal to serving as a teacher in the makeshift school that is providing primary education for approximately 700 students, with classes as large as 150.  The thirteen teachers, only some of whom are trained, work as volunteers, barely equipped with textbooks or even chalk. Amidst this despair, Alfadil still declares: “Only education will help us defend our freedom.”

Along with his account of painful loss, safety for his son and inspirational commitment to teaching, Alfadil had strong words for the international community: “The people of the Nuba Mountains have told the world, repeatedly, what is happening.  People come, ask questions and we tell them.  So it is known; but nothing changes.  Nothing happens.  Is it because we do not matter?” A question he poses to a seemingly silent world. 

We assured him that Amnesty International would ensure that the world does not forget the people of South Kordofan – that everybody here matters very much.   

Alex Neve is the Secretary General for Amnesty International Canada Section.