When President Barack Obama made a case for possible airstrikes against Syria on Sept. 10, he cited the horrendous chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 that according to his administration killed more than 1,400 Syrians, including hundreds of children.
“When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory,” said Obama. “But these things happened.”
More than a thousand miles south of Syria, a less-noticed set of horrifying things continue to happen: Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has terrorized his own people for decades and continues a bombing campaign that’s killed scores of citizens and displaced at least 200,000 people along the border between Sudan and South Sudan.
If doubts remain about whether Assad launched the Syrian chemical attack, Sudanese citizens watch their aggressors with their own eyes: Military planes drop payloads on villages, homes, churches, and crops across the region.
Some Sudanese live in caves and rocks, eating whatever nourishment they can scrounge. Others walk hundreds of miles to the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan—now home to more than 60,000 refugees.
The ongoing violence has led a Sudanese bishop to plead with Obama to remember Sudan. Bishop Andudu Adam Elnail wrote an open letter to the president on Sept. 6, asking for “prompt action to save those still alive.” He added, “Our people feel as though the world has forgotten them.”
Indeed, Obama’s infamous “red line” in Syria raises thorny questions: Will the United States use its influence in other places government officials are attacking their own citizens? Are Sudanese bombs less abhorrent than Syrian gas?
For Bishop Elnail, the answer isn’t abstract. The Sudanese minister witnessed decades of genocide in the Blue Nile, Darfur, and eastern Sudan.
When South Sudan declared its independence from northern Sudan in 2011, the separation brought more hostilities: The Sudanese government viewed many of its own citizens in the Nuba Mountains—including thousands of Christians—as loyal to South Sudan. In mid-2011, Sudanese military planes began bombing the region, and militias raided villages.
Elnail was in the United States when the attacks began, arriving in early 2011 for medical treatment. By mid-June, the Sudanese government had bombed his village in Kadugli.
In his letter to Obama, Elnail said the government and its militias “hit my house with heavy guns, and all valuables were taken or destroyed. They proceeded to burn the Diocesan offices and Diocesan Guest House in the same hour.”
He described the fallout: “From that moment the church leaders and others scattered as displaced refugees in more than five countries. It pains me to remember many of the young men in my town who were killed in cold blood during the same week.”
Since those attacks, Elnail has testified before Congress and the United Nations about the violence and suffering. He’s also returned to his village. The bishop told Obama about a rocket attack on his village in June 2012: “We thought the mountain was falling on us. … Some people had to run to caves in the mountains.”
Elnail’s letter outlined ongoing attacks: “We continue to be bombed from the air daily. Bombs land on farms and schools, churches and mosques, clinics and markets. Innocent civilians, women and children, are killed carrying on their daily lives. Those who survive live in constant fear, and for two years they have lived in caves in the mountains.”
Innocent bystanders—including children—continue to suffer. When I visited the Yida refugee camp last March, a rustic medical tent filled with children suffering from malnourishment and infections. Weeping mothers grieved over their inability to nurse their children. At least two babies died during my brief stay. (See “In the shadow of war” from the May 12, 2012, issue of WORLD magazine.
Children also suffer from the ground violence. The group Nuba Reports—led by an American and former aid worker from Samaritan’s Purse—reported a grim incident less than two weeks before the Syria chemical attacks: A group of Sudanese children discovered an unexploded grenade in a remote village in the South Kordofan region. They picked it up. The grenade exploded, killing nine children and wounding five.
Elnail didn’t ask Obama to consider air strikes in Sudan. But he did ask the president to publicly address the violence. Though Obama called genocide in Darfur “a stain on our souls” early in his first presidential campaign in 2007, he’s spoken little of the ongoing violence in Sudan since his election.
As the president insists on some kind of intervention in Syria, Elnail said he hopes Obama will remember his earlier concerns about Sudan: “We remember your promises to the people of Sudan suffering these genocides and try not to lose hope.”