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Photo by Hannah McNeish/AFP/Getty Images

In the shadow of war

South Sudan | After over two decades of civil war, six years of tentative peace, and a year since the independence of South Sudan, new refugees from Sudan's embattled Nuba Mountains, including a large population of Christians, give evidence of an unfolding humanitarian crisis, ethnic cleansing, and forewarnings of a broader conflict

Issue: "Return to war?," May 5, 2012

YIDA, South Sudan-When Ali Harun Saliman fled relentless bombing and looming famine in Sudan's Nuba Mountains seven months ago, the Episcopal pastor left nearly all his possessions but took the two things most dear: his family and most of his congregation.

For nearly five days, the pastor and 34 families from his local church trekked on foot through sweltering heat and torrential downpours to cross the border into South Sudan and settle here in Yida, a remote refugee camp just a few miles away from the volatile north-south border.

Less than two months after arriving, a familiar affliction followed. An Antonov bomber approached from northern Sudan and circled Yida three times before dropping its payload: four bombs that landed near the camp, and one that landed next to a thatched-roof school in the middle of camp.

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Thankfully, the bomb didn't explode, but terror did: Refugees fled into the woods and the bush, some staying for hours. These days, foxholes dot the landscape of the camp's hot sand and red dirt-a constant reminder that danger lurks just beyond the horizon.

As many as 20,000 refugees live here in Yida, facing the harsh reality of starting over with few supplies and wondering if they'll ever return home. Most have fled here from the Nuba Mountains in the state of South Kordofan, a region just over the border in northern Sudan, after South Sudan declared its independence from Sudan in 2011.

The situation in the Nuba Mountains is reminiscent of the catastrophe in Darfur, where the Sudanese government executed an ethnic cleansing campaign against opposition forces and civilians during a conflict that began in 2003.

These days, local residents and outside observers say the government is conducting another campaign in the Nuba Mountains against forces who are sympathetic to South Sudan and who are demanding greater control of their own territory. The region is also home to many Christians-an open target for an Islamic government in the north that persecuted and killed Christians in South Sudan for decades.

That campaign has ensnared hundreds of thousands of civilians in pockets of the Nuba Mountains, forcing them to endure bombings, burned villages, rape, torture, and starvation. It's not the first time: During a similar campaign in the Nuba Mountains in the 1990s, as many as a half million residents died.

But while they've lived with bombardments and violence for decades, they can't live without food. More than a dozen refugees in Yida told me they fled the region mostly because they feared starvation. Constant bombings have kept farmers inside their homes or hiding in caves, leaving crops unattended and harvests ruined. In some areas, food isn't available. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, an organization that tracks food supply in vulnerable regions, estimated conditions would reach "near-famine" in the Nuba Mountains by this month.

Similar bombardments in Sudan's Blue Nile state have forced residents from their homes as well. Overall, the UN estimates that violence or hunger has displaced or severely affected some 350,000 residents in Blue Nile and South Kordofan since last year. As many as 150,000 live in refugee camps in South Sudan and neighboring Ethiopia. Meanwhile, the situation is worsening under the pressure of separate conflicts over oil fields and borderlines between Sudan and South Sudan that have grown violent in recent weeks.

On April 12, South Sudanese troops seized Heglig, a major oil installation in South Kordofan state, saying they were trying to defend against ongoing attacks from the north. Southern army spokesman Col. Philip Aguer said northern forces retaliated by dropping "many bombs" over Heglig. The spokesman said the bombing and clashes represent a "terrible escalation" in the north-south conflict. By April 16, the northern military had branded South Sudan "an enemy" and a spokesman for the northern government, Rabie Abdelaty, said Sudanese troops would take back Heglig by force: "This is war."

The worsening conflict stokes fears of a wider war that would endanger vulnerable civilians in both nations, especially along the border near the Nuba Mountains.

Mukesh Kapila, a former UN official who was outspoken about ethnic cleansing in Darfur, visited South Kordofan in March and offered a grim assessment to Reuters: "Sudan hosted the first genocide of the century in Darfur, and the second one is unfolding in Nuba."

Whether other international observers call the campaign genocide, the ongoing violence and starvation in the Nuba Mountains is a certain catastrophe that threatens worse casualties if the Sudanese government doesn't relent or allow humanitarian aid to flow to the region. In mid-April, Sudanese officials claimed that South Kordofan doesn't need food aid, but USAID estimated 200,000 to 250,000 residents are close to running out of food.

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