The government of Sudan, the bombing of civilians, and the silence of the international community

The recent elections in Sudan call into question the legitimacy of the government soon to be re-elected. Even if the elections had been free and fair (which they have not), the government’s legitimacy would be challenged unequivocally by the fact that the very same government currently being re-elected into power is authorising the continual and systematic bombardment of civilians who are technically part of its polity.

On average, the Sudanese government has dropped three bombs a day on rebel held territory in its Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile States since April 2012. The impact of this bombing campaign on those living in the area has been devastating. Not only do the bombs often kill or maim civilians, but they also coincide disproportionately with planting and harvesting cycles, as well as market days, suggesting a deliberate strategy to decimate livelihoods. Yet despite the disruption to the local economy, the government of Sudan refuses to allow humanitarian access to these areas, citing fears that aid would be used to support rebel fighters.

As a result, 1.7 million people – roughly half of the population of the two states – have been displaced. Those who have remained, live with the daily threat of aerial bombardment, of government land forces breaking through the rebel Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement–North (SPLM-N) frontline, and a chronic lack of food and medicine.

A report released today highlights the voices of civilians living in the midst of this conflict. It emphasises the devastating impact of the conflict on every aspect of people’s lives. But it also talks of the resilience and resistance of those who are living through it. Despite unrelenting attacks against them, local organisations and activists have taken it upon themselves to educate the population about the means of surviving Antonov[1] attacks, in particular by digging foxholes and learning when and where to take cover.

This resilience, in many respects, is fuelled by defiance: many people have remained in Southern Kordofan not only because the alternatives are bleak (most of those who have been displaced have fled to South Sudan, itself in civil conflict), but because they see their ongoing presence as a form of resistance to a state they believe is trying to destroy them. As a result, many aspects of day-to-day life continue in rebel held areas of Southern Kordofan, as evidenced by children going to school and markets functioning (albeit under the daily threat of bombing and with chronic shortages.)

Furthermore, the extent to which the current government of Sudan is seen to lack any form of legitimacy is reflected by the fact that civilians are putting their faith in alternative structures of government. The rebels have recently set up a civilian administration in conjunction with the military structures that already exist, which the findings in the report demonstrate are broadly accepted by the civilian population. Civilians hope that this administration will eventually create an alternative, inclusive form of governance – in contrast to those of the Sudanese state, which they see as highly exclusionary.

However, it is important not to over-romanticise this resilience which, not surprisingly, is being severely depleted. The population’s efforts have certainly helped to minimise civilian casualties and allowed many people to remain in Southern Kordofan despite the substantial impact of the conflict. But their ability to survive is also being worn away by the continuing onslaught.

While primary responsibility for what is taking place lies with the government of Sudan, it seems unlikely that they will end their military campaign in the foreseeable future – and certainly not without considerable coercion from the international community (or at least certain parts of it). But the international community has remained, for the most part, silent.

Courageous local organisations and citizen journalists have been reporting on the intolerable circumstances in which civilians live in Southern Kordofan. Yet these organisations remain limited in their external reach. Indeed, civilians caught up in this conflict are struggling to have their voices heard – or rather, heeded. With the government of Sudan blocking independent media and international organisations from the field in a deliberate effort to cover up the consequences of the violence, there is both insufficient awareness at the international level about what is taking place, and a failure to mobilise around what information is available, with reports from NGOs regularly being dismissed as biased.

One of the strongest messages that came through the research was that those living in Southern Kordofan do not want pity: they want solidarity. They want the international community to acknowledge what is taking place and work with them to end the conflict. Their resilience is not being matched by support from the international community, which appears caught between denial and helplessness. The consequent lack of decisive action is proving disastrous, and the disconnect between the standards of international humanitarian and human rights law and their lack of enforcement could not be more stark.

It is hard to see a military victory for either side any time soon. Furthermore, for as long as the government fails to put in reforms that have been demanded, for decades, by those on the peripheries within the broader context of Sudan, there will be a reason for people to fight. In this context, a stalemate is unacceptable – a stalemate that is taking an intolerable toll on a civilian population that has been depleted of most of its reserves.

So what can the international community do? Obviously, there are no easy answers. It has already tried to call the president of Sudan to account in Darfur with an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court. This strategy has so far failed to reap any direct benefits to those in Darfur, let alone those in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. One recommendation that the report makes is for the United Nations or the African Union to conduct an independent inquiry into what is taking place. Once such an “official” body has documented the situation for themselves, key members of the international community will find it harder to dismiss the evidence of massive attacks on civilians. Maybe this will lead to action. Or maybe not. But for now it might be a step in the right direction. At the very least it would send a powerful message to the people of Southern Kordofan that the international community are aware of their plight, and it would shed some light on an increasingly dark chapter of Sudan’s already shady recent history.

(This post first appeared on OpenDemocracy https://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/lucy-hovil/silence-over-sudan%E2%80%99s-bombing-of-civilians)

[1] Antonovs are cargo aircraft designed in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Because they are cargo planes, they lack any sort of guidance system and bombs are simply rolled out of the cargo hold, and are therefore inherently indiscriminate.

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