Many bystanders believed that the successful 2011 partition of Sudan into two countries would end the African nation’s long civil war and attendant atrocities. By demarcating the country along borders that roughly reflected its Islamic, Arab north from its black African, Christian, and animist south—and creating a country now officially known as South Sudan—the thinking was that the two countries could perhaps live at peace, their racial and religious divides now traced and protected by an internationally recognized border and two separate governments. Yasir Arman was never a believer.
Arman—a long-standing leader of the South’s rebel army, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), and a close confidant of its legendary leader, John Garang—has argued for years that the “northern question” was the one that had to be resolved, not the “southern question.”
For too long everyone has tried to figure out what to do about the South, he told me recently, how to separate and protect its people from Islamic aggression: “The international community hasn’t been willing to talk about what to do about the North, what to do about the problem of political Islam.”
Arman is himself a Muslim. But he’s no friend of the Islamic regime based in Khartoum, and serves as secretary-general of SPLM-North, the rebel movement operating within Sudan to carry on the quest embodied by Garang, who died in a 2005 helicopter crash. Arman is one of a number of Muslims who fought and served under Garang, a Christian, sharing his vision for preserving Sudan’s diversity within a democratic state that respects human rights and the rule of law.
“Political Islam is going to divide Africa,” said Arman. “What we have been fighting for over 20 years you now see dividing Egypt, Mali, Nigeria, and Somalia.”
Leaving the “northern question” unresolved has left in power for two decades President Omar al-Bashir, who has sheltered terrorists like Osama bin Laden and is an indicted war criminal before the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Not surprisingly, the conflict and atrocities once visited on the South are escalating in the North—particularly in the ethnically and religiously diverse border states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile.
For the last 18 months those states, home to over 2.5 million Sudanese, have endured aerial bombardments by their own government and military incursions that have driven more than 200,000 people, according to Arman, from their homes. On the ground, armed conflict between government forces and Arman’s SPLM-North prompted Bashir to block outside humanitarian aid—and led to charges that the government there has engaged in ethnic cleansing, and perhaps genocide.
“Ethnic cleansing is largely complete,” concluded former top UN official Mukesh Kapila after a January fact-finding trip to the two states. “Rebel areas are depopulated and largely empty.”
In Blue Nile, Kapila found fields and villages razed, he said. He heard the local population described on Sudanese state radio as “black plastic bags” that had to be cleared from the area. He estimates 450,000 people in Blue Nile affected by the government’s campaign against them.
In South Kordofan, Kapila told reporters, he saw people “living in caves and cracks and eating once every three days.” With sustained bombing of the Nuba Mountains area, and the government blockade on aid, disease and malnutrition are multiplying. “We saw people sitting at the side of the road, with too little energy to even become refugees, who have given up,” Kapila told the Agence France-Presse news service.
On Jan. 31 Kapila and Baroness Caroline Cox, who accompanied Kapila on the trip and is a member of Britain’s Parliament and a longtime advocate for Sudanese Christians, presented a formal report to Aegis Trust in London. Aegis monitors humanitarian crises around the world and could issue a genocide warning for the area in coming weeks.
Conflict in the two-state area began in mid-2011 when Sudan’s military seized Abyei, a disputed border town. Fighting spread to South Kordofan and Blue Nile, states with a diverse mix of Christians and Muslims and varied tribes, all opposing the political makeup forced on them by the Sudanese government as South Sudan gained independence. At the same time Bashir announced his intent to “strengthen Islamic law” with an Islamic constitution, prompting angry demonstrations even in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital.
With mass starvation and exodus in the border areas, thousands fled into South Sudan. That didn’t halt aerial bombardments from the North. In November 2011 international journalists were on hand when Khartoum’s military aircraft fired directly into Yida refugee camp in South Sudan. And humanitarian workers have confirmed over 40 aerial assaults on South Sudan camps housing the North’s refugees.
Even at that time the UN Mission in Sudan warned of war crimes—targeted attacks on civilians in Nuba, mass graves, burned houses, torched crops, and forced displacement. Sudan’s armed forces and Bashir’s National Congress Party denied the allegations and defended the use of force as a legitimate response to what it called an armed rebellion. Today, said Arman, “The civilian population has been cleared out just like we saw in Darfur.”
Kapila, who served as the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Sudan during that crisis, agrees: “What’s happened over the last two odd years … is basically exactly the same tactics as Darfur except in the interim period the technology of war has improved,” he told the Reuters news service late last month. Attacks in Sudan’s western region of Darfur, starting 10 years ago and leading to the killing or displacement of over 2 million Sudanese, is what led to Bashir’s indictment before the International Criminal Court.
Arman travelled to Washington and New York last month, seeking to renew U.S. and UN engagement on the unfolding crisis. He was joined by Malik Aggar, another longtime leader in the SPLM and also a Muslim. Aggar was the elected governor of Blue Nile state until Bashir’s forces drove him out in 2011.
The two gave briefings on Capitol Hill, at the State Department, and with the president’s National Security advisory staff. In New York they met with European and U.S. diplomats, including the Sudanese-born UN special representative Francis Deng. Their message: Countries that played a significant role in negotiating the 2005 peace agreement, particularly the United States, should follow through on seeing the pact adhered to and strengthened.
“This is not a problem of Nuba and not a problem of Blue Nile. It’s a problem of Khartoum,” Arman told me.
The SPLM-North contingent may win attention from the Obama administration over the humanitarian crisis, but is less likely to engage it on the larger political challenges.
Bashir appears weak—another aging Arab dictator faced with a stagnant economy and vocal, mounting resentment across Sudan. Washington isn’t looking for another Arab Spring-type revolution. And President Obama hasn’t publicly endorsed such political transitions until they are a fait accompli. But with Islamic insurgencies spreading across Africa’s northern tier, the “northern question” Arman raises for Sudan isn’t going away.
Maban County in South Sudan is just across the border from what’s being called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the ethnic cleansing unfolding in Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile states. The county’s two dominant tribes, the Maban and the Uduk, are predominantly Christian, tracing their conversions to mission stations set down by SIM, plus others, starting about 80 years ago. SIM, then operating as Sudan Interior Mission, started a hospital in Maban County at Doro in the 1930s. In recent years it’s been reopened and staffed by SIM workers, along with visiting medical teams.
The challenges to running a hospital in rural South Sudan, where there are no roads or electricity, are daunting enough. But now the county has four refugee camps taking in the displaced from the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile, and elsewhere. Total population of the camps, according to the latest UN figures: 110,000.
Even so, with the worsening humanitarian crisis come glimmers of good news. Last month aid workers expected 1,000 new refugees from Blue Nile, but only about 300 showed up. Mostly women and children, they arrived in better shape than expected.
Outpatient numbers at Doro are down by half, said a health worker there who is not named for security reasons. That’s largely due to lower-than-usual transmissions of malaria. International aid groups have set up clinics within the camps that are helping to improve what a year ago was a dismal healthcare outlook in the county.
The spiritual outlook is improving, too. Many churches have been planted among the refugee camps. At a recent “baptismal Sunday” service, pastors set up 25 buckets of water beneath the trees. Three men manned each bucket, two with plastic cups and one with a towel. A choir sang, and a pastor preached, and hundreds came forward to the buckets two by two—men and women, boys and girls. When the service ended, church leaders had baptized more than 1,300 refugees. —M.B.