Before Al Gareeda newspaper was indefinitely suspended by the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), as part of a mass censorship of Khartoum newspapers, the newspaper had been the first to break the news about the torching of villages and forcible relocation of thousands of villagers in Blue Nile state. On 20 May, Al Gareeda reported on fires that consumed the villages of Maganza, Midyam and Bagis in the Bau locality. The newspaper’s local correspondent estimated the number of those left homeless by the fires at 6,872 and quoted a survivor as saying “we have suffered greatly from the effects of the war that has reignited in the region in 2011, but these village fires are the worst we have ever experienced.” Residents appealed to state authorities to investigate the incident, and to humanitarian agencies, both national and international, to come to their assistance. According to Al Gareeda, when asked to comment, the Commissioner of Bau locality declined to comment on the cause of the fires.

While news of these events has been slow to trickle down to national and international audiences, local community activists and human rights monitors, Funj Youth Development Association (FYDA), have been reporting that the village burnings began in April, signaling a new wave of scorched earth tactics in the government’s counterinsurgency campaign against the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement / Army-North (SPLM/A-N) in Blue Nile. The Blue Nile Human Rights and Peace Center documented these developments in a statement issued on 27 May (Arabic), which prompted the UN Resident Coordinator to issue a strong expression of concern (PDF) for the populations affected by these forcible evictions and relocations.

According to reports, the first incident occurred on 10 April, when government soldiers stormed the village of Midyam Eljabal, evicted villagers from their huts, looted their possessions, and burned the entire village to the ground. Another wave of attacks occurred on the villages of Maganza and Bagis on 11 and 12 May. These two attacks appeared to be in retaliation for the losses government soldiers sustained in an encounter with the SPLA-N fighters on 10 May. The clash occurred not far from the two villages, near Kilgu, south west of Damazin. Local activists reported that the soldiers surrounded Maganza, ordered the locals to gather at a specific point outside the village, and then set fire to homes, shops, mills, water points and the market. The village was left in ashes. The locals were not allowed to take with them any of their belongings. The same scenario was repeated the next day in Bagis. Local activists estimate the number of houses burnt to be close to 6000.

The displaced, forced to stay in the open for three days, were later trucked to Azaza, Algari, Wadafodi, Shanisha Baidha, Hamda and Umbarid in Roseires locality on the east bank of Blue Nile River by security officials operating trucks brought in from Ed Damazin. The number of people affected is unknown. Figures vary from the 6,872 reported by Al Gareeda for the three villages, to approximately 30,000 according to local community activists who cite other villages that have experienced the same scenario: Gambarda, Galfouk, Abugarin, Midyam Masalit, Salbel and Fadamiya. The displaced from these villages were similarly relocated in Rosairis locality.

Decisive Summer Continues

The Government of Sudan (GoS) has a long record of unleashing such campaigns against entire communities of populations it suspects of being supportive of rebels on account of their ethnicity. This type of campaign has become a fixed feature of the GoS’s current Decisive Summer Campaigns against the rebel Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), and populations designated as “rebel supporters.” Thus, during the 2013-14 fighting season, the GoS’s Rapid Support Force’s (RSF) in late February 2014 burned 35 villages south of Nyala, capital of South Darfur state, forcibly displacing thousands.

These latest attacks on civilians appear to be prompted by the unraveling of the government’s Decisive Summer Campaign in Blue Nile. The Minister of Defense Abdel-Rahim Mohamed Hussein launched the campaign in person in a fiery speech in Ed Damazin on 3 October 2014, declaring as its objective the clearing of SPLA-N forces from the southwestern part of the state, along the border with Maban county in South Sudan’s Upper Nile state, itself a stronghold for South Sudanese rebels. To preempt the move, the SPLM-N sent mobile units in the heartlands of government-controlled areas in the Ingessana Hills, putting government forces on the defensive. The SPLA-N has since managed to control the town of Jam, and conducted hit and run operations close to Ed Damazin, the state capital.

Full control of the Ingessana Hills, 40 km southwest of Ed Damazin, has become an important military target for government forces. As the home area of Malik Agar, Chairman of the SPLM/A-N and of the Sudan Revolutionary Front, the Hills hold symbolic value. As such the government considers the population in the Hills—named after the majority ethnic group in the area, the Ingessana people—the natural constituency and civilian base of SPLA-N. The area has thus been the target of deliberate and indiscriminate aerial bombings and the site of burned villages and farms since the outbreak of the war, as SDFG reported as early as 2012 (Arabic).

Humanitarian Urgency

The newly displaced people, who lost all of their belongings, are now facing severe humanitarian conditions in their areas of relocation in El Roseires locality. They suffer from a lack of adequate shelter, remaining exposed to the elements, and increasing the risks of catching preventable diseases, including malaria and diarrhea, particularly for children and the elderly.

Attempts by humanitarian agencies present in the area, including those of the United Nations, to reach the displaced in order to assess and provide for their needs, have been frustrated by government blockages. The humanitarian blockade also extends to the public who expressed solidarity with victims. Resident of El Roseires locality, who collected food items from the local market, reported that they were harassed by security agents and not allowed to access the displaced. Local humanitarian organizations seen as largely controlled by the government are reported to be the only ones allowed to provide assistance to the displaced, namely Pan-Care and Sudanese Red Crescent Society (SRCS). Since the beginning of the war, the Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC) has informed international humanitarian organizations that assistance for civilians in Blue Nile State will be provided by national NGOs, and that any support from international organizations should be channeled through a committee that has been established in the state for this purpose

The incoming the rainy season will only exacerbate the displaced community’s plight. The remote areas to which they were relocated are usually inaccessible during the rainy season. Obtaining food, medicine and life saving medicines will be quite challenging when the roads become impassable.

Food insecurity is inevitable for the short and medium run. The poor capacity to plant for the displaced that left behind their land in former villages will make it impossible for them to take advantage of the agricultural season that usually starts in June. As they have already missed planting their home farms (known locally as the Jubraka) and anticipating tensions that could arise due to competition over cultivable land with the local populations, these communities will likely be unable to feed their families.

In this grave context, it is imperative for regional and international actors invested in a future peaceful and democratic Sudan to use their influence and leverage on the GoS to remind it to abide by internationally-recognized laws prohibiting wartime attacks on civilians. The international community should publicly denounce the denial of humanitarian access to relief workers and the blockage of relief supplies to populations that need them.

The GoS itself, recently revived by elections resulting in a renewed five-year mandate, should take seriously its own overtures about a national dialogue process by taking the steps to create an environment conducive to a genuine process. That begins with ceasing deliberate attacks against civilians, as well as the destruction of their homes and the looting of their belongings. It further includes lifting any blockades, and allowing unrestricted humanitarian access to populations in need.

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