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Along Sudan’s border, old disputes trigger new violence, hunger

Oil and ethnic rivalries are behind Sudanese military strikes in the sensitive South Kordofan-Blue Nile region along the new border between Sudan and South Sudan. At this week’s African Union summit in Ethiopia, leaders are calling for a halt to the bombing and aid for civilians.

Continued fallout from the 2011 separation of Sudan into two states, including military strikes by the government of Sudan on rebel factions and villages, may have forced as many as 700,000 Sudanese from their homes in the past year, causing a buzz among aid experts in east Africa.

While civilian strife in Syria, Congo, and now Mali are known to the world, new reports on Sudan are a reminder that a long-running crisis in that part of Africa is not over. 

In the sensitive South Kordofan and Blue Nile zones along the new border between Sudan and South Sudan, humanitarian agencies say civilians are hiding on rivers banks, in caves, and under mountainous rocks to escape air strikes and ground attacks from the Sudanese Army. 

Aid groups are still not allowed to deliver to these regions, but recent visitors report many locals surviving on wild fruit, roots, seeds, and leaves.

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Malnutrition levels have doubled, and an unknown number have starved, according to eyewitnesses. 

Starting yesterday at the African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Sudan’s crisis is being highlighted by calls from African states – including host Ethiopia – to end the bombing of civilians and open aid delivery. Sudanese and international groups also want the AU and the United Nations to investigate war crimes and genocide allegations.

The Sudanese situation reached a higher volume in a Jan. 18 Nairobi meeting of African civil society leaders, who warned in a statement that, “One of the world’s worst humanitarian and human rights disaster is unfolding there.”

“It is getting worse. Children are dying. There is no vaccination or medicine. The people are hungry. Their crops have been were bombed and burned,” says Anglican bishop Andudu Adam Elnail of South Kordofan, who adds that the various bush and leaf foliage that have been a source of food are “drying up.”

The AU needs to make humanitarian aid a priority and stabilize the population, “so attention can be turned to political issues,” said Mukesh Kapila, a representative of the UK charity, Aegis Trust and former UN humanitarian coordinator in western Sudan’s Darfur region who recently visited the border regions of Sudan in the south. 

Yesterday the New York-based Human Right Watch accused the Sudanese military of using indiscriminate bombing in attacks both north and south of the border, and of ground attacks on villages.

“I don’t know what more evidence is needed in the two areas … of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and potentially genocide. What we are asking [from] the African Union [and] the UN is to go there and investigate,” Mr. Kapila added in the Nairobi meeting.

The conflict between the Sudanese government and rebel groups, some of whom are based in South Sudan, is driven both by ethnic rivalry and disputes over local resources, particularly oil – and by unfinished business following the separation of Sudan more than a year ago

For more than two decades, Sudan was the scene of atrocities and conflict and civil war between the Arab and Muslim-dominated north, and the southern region, mostly Christian and followers of traditional African religions. A 2005 peace agreement backed by the international community led to a referendum and then independence on July 9, 2011 for a new state, the Republic of South Sudan. A rebel group known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) was instrumental.

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Yet the two sides are still engaged in a bitter quarrel over borders, towns, and resources – with rebels that inhabit both sides.

Heglig, for example, a small oil-rich town on the border of Sudan and South Sudan, contains most of Sudan’s proven oil reserves. It is claimed by both sides. Sudan says the town is in its territory and sees rebel groups there as a threat.  

The rebels, however, say they are fighting to end marginalization and oppression of their people, the same grievances that SPLM rallied around. A majority of the rebel fighters are of the Nuba ethnic group, from the Nuba mountains of South Kordofan. They fought alongside the South Sudan’s SPLM in the war with the north, but their territory remained part of Sudan when the new borders were drawn.  

Just before the split, rebel fighting broke out in South Kordofan and spread to the Blue Nile. According to the 2005 peace accords, the two regions – which straddle the border with South Sudan – were supposed hold a separate referendum to determine their home state. That has not happened, further fueling the rebellion.

Much of the current crisis stems from gaps and inadequate details in the peace accords, known as the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).

“The world got the two parties to agree on CPA. Unfortunately it was neither comprehensive [nor a] real agreement – neither did it bring peace. While South Sudan got free, which is good, the cost has continued to be paid by the people [on the border] of the two states,” said Kapila.  

In the view of Nagwa Konda, director of Nuba Relief, a civil society organization, the region is not benefiting from talk and good intentions issued by the AU and UN.

“We have been waiting for the international community to take action…. Unfortunately the long wait is in vain.… We have been hearing a lot, reading communiqués and agreements signed, but unfortunately there is nothing on the ground,” said Ms. Konda.