In the foyer of the Rayburn Congressional Office Building on December 14th the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF, sponsored a press conference and photo exhibition where two prominent representatives in the Sudan caucus, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Rep. Frank Wolfe (R-VA), advocated passionately for the human rights of the Sudanese people while photos of refugees at Yida refugee camp who fled Blue Nile and South Kordofan states were on prominent display.
The photo exhibit was a two day event, culminating in the release of USCIRF’s most recent report, which documents the Sudanese government’s recent violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states. The report is based on eyewitness accounts and interviews conducted by USCIRF staff in the Yida refugee camp from October 17 to 24, 2011. The colorful and moving photo exhibit and corresponding press event were organized in an effort to engage more members of Congress and their staff in the issues of the on-going crisis in Sudan that so desperately needs their immediate attention and action.
Photo taken at Yida refugee camp in Sudan that was part of the photo exhibit. According to USCIRF, unaccompanied youth make up 20 percent of Yida camp’s population.
As Enough Project field researcher, Nenad Marinkovic, documented in his September field dispatch from Yida, “the escalation of the conflict in South Kordofan between the Sudanese Armed Forces, or SAF, and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army – North, or SPLA-N, is continuing to force many residents of the region into displacement.”
More recently, Enough Project field researcher Amanda Hsiao and policy advisor Omer Ismail interviewed refugees from Blue Nile who have fled to Ethiopia, where they have sought refuge in Sherkole camp and Kurmuk town. Both the Enough Project November field dispatch and the USCIRF report indicatethat government forces in Blue Nile have been targeting, killing, and raping civilians. USCIRF reports that civilians are being targeted based on their religion, ethnicity, and political affiliation in both Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states, and that the government has additionally bombed and repeatedly denied humanitarian assistance to civilians. The actions documented constitute violations of human rights law, as well as international humanitarian law. In total, approximately 39,000 refugees have fled the fighting in Blue Nile and South Kordofan to either Ethiopia or South Sudan, a figure that rises daily.
The humanitarian crisis is urgent. Rep. Chris Smith, in his remarks at the press conference, urged Congress and the administration to do more to “end this blatant violation of human rights and ensure that the needs of those impacted by the violence are met with the compassion Khartoum no longer holds for its people.”
Rep. Wolfe, five-time visitor to Sudan himself and passionate advocate for human rights, reminded the audience that they stood “just blocks from a museum that cries out ‘Never Again’, and yet the international community has remained largely complicit in the abuses by the Sudanese government. “We must not be silent in the face of this injustice,” Wolfe declared.
The strategic placement of photos depicting the refugees’ faces and their plight in a Congressional office building was meant to urge Congress and the administration to action. The international community must ensure the protection of civilians, and the U.S. government has an opportunity to lead the way by using diplomatic leverage to demand the government of Sudan’s immediate cessation of hostilities against its own people, the opening of Blue Nile and South Kordofan to international humanitarians, and the initiation of a comprehensive peace process within Sudan. If the Sudanese government will not protect its own people, who will?
Photo: Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) speaks during the USCIRF press conference on Sudan. He is joined on the left by the USCIRF chairman, and Rep. Frank Wolfe (R-VA).