JUBA, South Sudan — Except for a few early risers, Yida refugee camp in Unity State, South Sudan was sleeping when an unlikely assortment of people headed north to the border with Sudan and over into the embattled Nuba Mountains. In the front seat of the ragged Land Cruiser sat Academy Award winning actor George Clooney, Co-founder of the Enough Project John Prendergast, and a handful of human rights researchers. Here is what we saw:
The conflict in South Kordofan and in neighboring Blue Nile is rooted in the same dynamics that have left much of Sudan battle-torn and chronically unstable. From newly independent South Sudan to Darfur and East Sudan, the history of conflict fits a similar pattern: Neglected and discriminated against by the central government, Sudanese across the country’s periphery have risen up, some demanding representation and equal treatment, and others calling for government overthrow. Whether deploying its secret police, its crude Antonov bombers, or its proxy militias, Khartoum’s response is invariably brutal and indiscriminate. The case could be made that the Nuba people in South Kordofan have had an exceptionally difficult plight, even among Sudan’s many marginalized groups.
During Sudan’s second civil war, the civilians in the Nuba Mountains, many of whom sided with the South, were subject to brutal attacks at the hands of government and Khartoum-backed forces. From 1991 to 1998, the government tested out the strategy it is employing with devastating effect today: Khartoum sealed off the Nuba Mountains from international humanitarian aid, prompting food shortages and famine when the conflict prevented residents from working in their fields.
During this time, the government also forcibly cleared tens of thousands of indigenous people from the Nuba Mountains and resettled them in so-called "peace villages"—ostensibly to “protect” the Nuba from the war. But human rights violations, including rape and murder, at the hands of the Sudanese army and the government-backed militia known as the Popular Defense Force were rife.
The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the North-South war sought to address the root political and economic causes for conflict for all the areas, including providing the residents of South Kordofan and Blue Nile a political process through which they could determine their states’ relationship to the federal government. The level of political autonomy and the formula of wealth-sharing for the states were among the big issues the populations were supposed to be consulted on. But the larger North-South issues—crucial and potentially conflict-inducing though they were—overshadowed the process for South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Signals that Khartoum was not going to fulfill its pledges, combined with elections that many viewed as flawed, and the government’s moves to disarm the rebels-turned-soldiers in the two states proved a combustible combination. Since the war broke out in June in Southern Kordofan and in September in Blue Nile, few international observers have been allowed into the two areas and no international humanitarian assistance. In December 2011, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network warned that parts of South Kordofan and Blue Nile would experience Phase 4 emergency food insecurity beginning March 2012—just one designation short of famine—because of the conflict.
With this history in mind and amid reports that humanitarian conditions are deteriorating, we ventured over the border to witness and capture in raw footage the conditions on the Sudanese government’s latest front. The trip builds off of George Clooney’s ongoing efforts since his previous two trips around the time of South Sudan’s referendum on independence and the founding of the Satellite Sentinel Project.
Few people in the isolated Nuba Mountains were aware of the public significance of the visitor who simply called himself “George.” But we’re betting that back in Washington and among the action-oriented American public, people will. Already today, U.S. senators put forth a resolution urging the Sudanese government to allow immediate and unrestricted humanitarian access to South Kordofan and Blue Nile.