In April 2010 residents of Blue Nile State in Sudan elected Malik Agar their governor, the only one of 10 elected governors for then-northern Sudan to come from the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the political wing of the former rebel army that successfully fought for South Sudan independence. Agar beat out a candidate from the National Congress Party (NCP) of President Omar al-Bashir.
It was a significant victory: Agar is a Muslim who fought alongside South Sudan's founding rebel leader, John Garang, who was a Christian. Agar is widely regarded as one of the elder statesmen of the movement toward formation of the Republic of South Sudan, which took place formally in July-and found him head of a state now in the Muslim north.
Before Agar's election, heads of the SPLM and NCP had pledged to accept the election results at all levels in the country-paving the way for what many hoped would be the triumph of the electoral process over the civil war that had defined Sudan for the last 21 years. Agar was poised to be the face for a new era.
Now, 17 months later, the governor has gone missing. The northern army, known as the SAF, on Sept. 2 attacked his residence and headquarters in Blue Nile's capital city, Damazin, and struck at soldiers affiliated with the SPLM. In recent weeks Agar has warned that government forces had deployed new military units to Blue Nile in what looked like buildup just this conflict. By Sept. 5 SPLM spokesman Yassar Arman said SAF soldiers controlled Damazin and were continuing to fight both SPLM forces and civilians.
President Bashir announced a state of emergency in Blue Nile and said he was replacing Agar with a governor from his own party, SAF garrison commander Yahya Mohmamed Kheir. Arman told reporters that Agar "is safe" but warned that civilians in Blue Nile are not. He said SAF forces are committing atrocities and continuing a bombing campaign in Blue Nile to instill fear in a populace that's mostly sided with the south.
Those tactics are similar to Bashir-ordered attacks in other contested areas. Throughout the summer, SAF fighters have intensified attacks first in the border area of Abyei, followed by South Kordofan, where attacks on the Nuba people have left over 60,000 displaced and alarming evidence of mass graves. UN officials reported that since Sept. 2 over 20,000 residents from Blue Nile have fled to nearby Ethiopia.
U.S. workers in the region also find themselves at risk in southern Blue Nile, an area that is predominantly Christian and figured heavily in fighting leading up to the 2005 ceasefire. AIM Air quickly evacuated some medical workers as fighting commenced on Sept. 2 but others have opted to stay. One reported that Sudanese living in Damazin as well as Kurmuk and Yabus "are hiding in the bushes with no belongings and worried about their children and what has become of their homes." Another, a doctor, reported treating 30-40 wounded soldiers at a time amid heavy fighting, as well as civilians, including one girl who had to have her leg amputated after she was hit by an aerial bomb from SAF planes. Medical workers also reported the death of a man hit by a bomb while riding on his donkey near Kurmuk, his child now missing.
With fighting growing along strategic border areas of Sudan, the fighting in Blue Nile could launch the region into full-scale war.