Militias of Bashir’s Regime and the Proxy War (1)
War in the Blue Nile: Militias in the hunt of refugees and displaced population
Throughout its rule, the National Congress Party (NCP) established an infamous reputation of relying heavily on militias outside of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), in managing its multiple wars in Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan/ Nuba Mountains. The regime bases their recruitment strategies on the politicizing of ethnic relations and the manipulations of tribal affiliations, as well as offering financial temptations to new recruits. The reliance on these militias increased steadily within recent years, providing them with needed weaponry and logistics. The support provided contributes to operations within Sudan and neighboring countries, serving the various goals and objectives of the regime.
The rise of militias is the result of a number of interrelating factors, such as declining loyalty of SAF forces towards the ruling party, caused by dissatisfaction evolving ranks and promotions within the SAF; crimes committed by militias in the on-going conflicts as well as continuous fighting in absence of a clear political will from side of the government, to reach a comprehensive political solution to end conflict.
Sudan Democracy First Group (SDFG) publishes this series “Militias of Bashir’s Regime and the Proxy War” to provide inside into the militias’ roles in Sudan’s multiple wars and to reveal resultant political, security and social implications from their inception and activities.
The first part of this series covers the role of foreign militias from Maban County in the Republic of South Sudan, which have been formed and supported by the Sudanese Government, to play a crucial role in fighting a proxy-war. In addition, it will also shed light on the role of local militias used by the Sudanese Government to fuel the conflict.
SDFG already published two in-depth analysis reports on the involvement of militias in Blue Nile, namely Blue Nile: political deadlock and hidden humanitarian crisis (In Arabic) and Sudanese Refugees in Upper Nile: Facing Perils – With Nowhere to Run.
Militarizing the local Militias to wage war in Blue Nile
SDFG, in its previous reports, documented the ruling regime’s mobilization and exploitation of local tribal militias, in the ongoing war. The report narrates how the military campaign, upon resumption of war in September 2011, in addition to the Sudanese army, relied on resuming ethnic mobilization and recruitment of tribal militias to serve the war agenda. In the course of renewed conflict, Camps of the Popular Defense Forces – an infamous pro-government militia, which was very active during the earlies 1990s, were reopened, so called new Emarat (Islamic renaming tribal leaders) formed and informal militias (Kabje forces and the so called the Tribes’ Army) were supplied with weaponry. The agenda and planning was mainly driven by Mohamed Suliman Jodabi the former Minister in Blue Nile State who had gained tremendous experience in militarizing tribes of Darfur and Nuba Mountains/ South Kordofan.
However, these governmental efforts for mobilizing and militarizing local tribal militias from within Blue Nile failed greatly. The NCP based its initial plan on maneuvering the plurality of the region and utilizing ethnic and cultural differences to form militias to help attaining its political and military goals, regardless how much this will ultimately fragment the social peace fabric that characterize the region. In spite of the huge resources availed for this destructive scheme, it only managed to recruit a handful of people, with no military capabilities- who mainly focused on other criminal activities like theft, robbery and rape.
The failure of the regime in establishing local militias in Blue Nile State was reinforced through the resilience of local communities, and their long experience of peaceful co-existence, which was driven by joint social-cultural interventions and joint economic interests. Communities subsequently built strong resilience against the aims of politicizing ethnicity and the aim of the ruling regime of tearing apart the social cohesion of their communities. Administrative leaders took a particular strong stand in rejecting tribal mobilization and militarization, and spoke out fearless on numerous encounters within NCP premises and security offices throughout the region.
The failure of the NCP to establish local militias inside Blue Nile made the regime import its active militias from other areas of Sudan. As for example in May- June 2016- when the regime brought the RSF- a militia which originally was formed in Darfur- to the Blue Nile Region. SDFG will dedicate a further part of this series “Militias of Bashir’s Regime and the Proxy War” to the RSF. The attempt to introduce the RSF, known by the name of its leader Hemedti, into the war in Blue Nile, aimed at repeating the Darfurian model of genocide and mass atrocities. Their involvement in fighting the proxy-war further included participation into the killings and displacing of indigenous communities to outside of the Blue Nile, availing the regime opportunity to confiscate the lands and rich natural resources of the region.
The RSF militias arrived to Blue Nile by the end of May 2016. However they commenced committing criminal activities, prior to their military operations. The attacks of the RSF militias were characterized by absolute anarchy stretching over cities and villages- pillaging of markets, kidnappings, harassment of women, frequent incidents of rape, the humiliation and abuse of certain tribes, relying on racial rhetoric and ultimately terrorizing of communities and civilians across the region. Even though the RSF militias were ultimately involved to reinforce the ruling regime’s military campaign in Blue Nile, as their prior aims of establishing local tribal militias had failed, the RSF militias were not able to attain the strategic goals of the regime. This led to their subsequent departure, after achieving only one military victory against SPLM- N that controls significant parts of the region.
Failure and quick withdrawal of Hemedti militias can further be attributed to factors such as an out breaking crisis between the SAF and RSF militias as the later started taking pride in achieving military victory, as they claim, while SAF failed for successive years to realize the same. The doubting of the SAF’s competence and capability was seen as a clear humiliation, enforcing internal conflicts between the two armies. Ultimately the withdrawal of forces was further caused by growing anger of the population of Blue Nile, towards the militias and their practices, causing other political forces, civil society and communities to demand their departure. Local administration took a strong stand in the rejection of the RSF presence, during conversations with State Governor Hussain Yassin, citing as reasons the crimes committed against civilians, as well as the overarching chaos created by the militias throughout towns and villages. A influencing precedent was the case of North Kordofan, when their Governor Ahmed Haroun, expelled the RSF forces from the state, for committing crimes against civilians and the overall population of North Kordofan.
Importing war and exporting militias in the Blue Nile Conflict
Maban County- South Sudan- and the Blue Nile War
Maban County covers an area of approximately 11817 square kilometers and is located in the northern part of East Nile state (formerly Upper Nile State) in the Republic of South Sudan. It borders the conflict zone in Sudan’s Blue Nile State.
Since the outbreak of the civil war in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan/ Nuba Mountain region in 2011, Maban County witnessed a massive flow of Sudanese refugees from neighboring Blue Nile state, fleeing military battles and random aerial bombing by the Sudanese army on IDPs camps in Blue Nile. A siege enforced by the Government of Sudan on humanitarian access to IDPs camps forced many of displaced to take refuge in neighboring countries.
Local authorities in Maban County at that time welcomed the flow of refugees to the area, and actively advocated for the setting up of camps in Maban. These arguments were justified, by the close socio-cultural ties between the two areas, as well as low population density within the area itself- 15 persons per kilometer. In addition the inflow of large numbers of refugees and the setting up of camps came with expectations of economic and developmental activities, which would ultimately also provide benefits to the area.
Consequently, four camps were set up in the County for refugees fleeing the Blue Nile war. According to UNHCR current estimates, the County accommodates about 136741 Sudanese refugees, whose number fluctuates according to the prevailing security situation in the camps. Refugees were distributed into four main camps: Doro (52741), Yousif Batil (41280), Kaya previously known as Jamam (25000) and Gondrasa (17584).
New attacks on Refugee camps
Days prior to the New Year on 25 December 2016; South Sudanese tribal militias in Maban County launched a deadly attack on Doro Refugee Camp. 70 residents of Doro Camp, including children, were killed in the attack. The attackers used both firearms and machetes and the victims were buried in a mass grave. Many of the bodies had been mutilated. In addition to fifty refugees currently still missing, many local residents of Maban County were also killed. The attack consequently forced fifteen thousand refugees to flee the camp and return back as IDPs to Blue Nile, facing a situation of continuous suffering in search of safety, food, medicine and shelter and being exposed to the risks of random aerial bombing by the government’s air force.
The attack of Maban’s tribal militias on refugees and formerly IDPs, displaced from the conflict in Blue Nile, is an extension of ongoing conflict and crimes these communities have been exposed to for five years- including killings, forceful disappearances, systematic torture, and destruction of private and public properties, displacement and uprooting of thousands of innocent civilians.
South Sudanese Militias or Bashir’s Militias?
The Khartoum ruling NCP continued to use its same method of generating local militias and importing others from outside the region such as the RSF militias. A new pattern was also introduced by employing foreign South Sudanese tribal militias into its wars, targeting in particular Sudanese refugees from Blue Nile, in addition to utilizing them in military operations inside the Blue Nile territories in support of its armed forces in the war against SPLA- N.
Sudanese refugees in Maban County, in particular, have been suffering from an unstable and unpredictable security situation, which is characterized by recurrent attacks and violence of militias originating in Maban County, i.e. the Maban Heroes Militias (MHM) and the Maban Defence Forces (MDF) also known as the White Army. These militias have been formed, trained by security forces of the government and supported by the political circles of the regime, promoting their agenda of the expansion of the proxy war in Blue Nile and other conflict areas in Sudan.
Who are the Maban Heroes Militias?
In 2011, following the independence of South Sudan, military intelligence of the Sudanese army selected the then Sergeant Kamal Luma, 23 Infantry Brigade, SAF, from the Maban tribe. He was promoted to Brigadier and assigned to form the Maban Heroes Militia (MHM). Training camps were established for his forces inside Sudan in Blue Nile state.
Formation and support of the MHM was under the direct supervision of SAF General Yahia Mohamed Khair, the then commander of the 4th Infantry Brigade in Damazin, who was later appointed the Governor of Blue Nile State following the outbreak of war in September 2011. Following his appointment as Governor he was then appointed State Minister of Defence. The first training camps for the MHM were established near Boot town, capital of Al- Tadamun locality in Blue Nile State. This was followed by the opening of other training camp near Tibelab agricultural scheme and a Military Head Quarters in Damazin-capital of the Blue Nile state. The formation of the Maban Heroes Militias was publicly celebrated in al Mahlaj park, in Damazin attended by high-ranking SAF commanders, including the then Governor of the State, General Yahia Mohamed Khair.
Since its formation, MHM have been receiving full military training and weaponry and rations directly from the SAF HQ in Damazin. The militia depended on periodic forced recruitment of border tribes between Sudan and South Sudan. However, the majority of fighters belong to the Maban, which can be directly linked to its commander, Kamal Luma along with his brother Awad Luma and al Hadi Ibrahim, who represent the leadership of the militia and largely rely on their tribal influence.
Military objectives of these militias frequently change and are unstable in their pursuant of the overall agenda of the ruling NCP of Sudan. At times, they claim to liberate the Maban land from foreign presence and attack accordingly the Sudanese refugees, and at other times they work as part of Khartoum’s regime to create instability and exert pressure on South Sudan’s Government by inciting tribal disorder. Since the outbreak of war in Blue Nile, the MHM started operating as a militia in the proxy- war serving the Sudanese regime. Throughout the five years of the ongoing conflic the MHM was actively engaged in the military battles, and taking a particular role in taking part in the Boot, Alrom and Maffoo battles against the SPLA- N forces. The latest of their attacks occurred in Alrom in January 2017. Formal from SAF including extensive aerial bombardment, accompanied most of the militia’s attacks.
Maban Defence Forces Militia (White Army)
Maban Defence Forces Militia (MDF), also known locally as the “White Army”, was formed after the outbreak of civil war in South Sudan, December 2013. MDF’s alliances and objectives constantly shift from supporting the formal army of South Sudan or standing with forces and objectives of the SPLA-IO led by Dr. Riack Machar. Thus their overall aim since establishment is to claim to liberate Maban County from foreign presence, an objective they share with Kamal Luma’s MHM forces. They further share the same strategy of working to create conflicts and tensions between the Maban and refugee communities. Refugees from Blue Nile State have been their main target.
The MDF is an extended arm of Kamal Luma’s militias and both are overwhelmingly Maban in their ethnic composition and rely on racial slogans and objectives. Large proportions of the White Army are additionally comprised of former fighters of Kamal Luma’s forces. Close ties, organizational connections and joint coordination exists between the two militias, united by their hostility towards and repeated attacks on Sudanese refugees’ camps as well as periodical exchange of fighters. The White Army- MDF Militias played a major role in a number of attacks on the refugees and their camps in the County.
The largest of these attacks on refugee camps by the MDF took place in Yousif Batel Camp in March and August 2014, followed by another attack on Gendrasa Camp in February 2015, which killed and injured many refugees. In addition, refugees in Kaya and Doro camps are on a regular basis exposed to attacks and looting in the camps and Bonj town market, the capital of Maban County. As a result of these attacks more than 40000 refugees were forced to flee again, re- displacing them and forcing them to return to war zones inside of Blue Nile ultimately exposing themselves to risks of random aerial bombing by the government of Sudan on the IDP areas controlled by SPLA-N.
The most recent major attack carried out by MDF was the one mentioned in the beginning of this report i.e. when these forces waged an intense attack on Doro refugee camp and Bonj market during the last week of 2016. The attack resulted in killing of seventy refugees from the camp in addition to many residents of Bonj town and neighbouring areas. Maban’s White Army militias, conducted a massacre using machetes in the heart of Bonj town market during which 14 refugee children.
Worth noting in this regard is that most of the militia attacks, take place simultaneously upon the beginning and at the peak of the Sudanese government’s military attacks inside of Blue Nile State. This serves a double military purpose: by creating a general environment of confusion and uncertainty within the refugee camps and to redirect the attention of the SPLA-N within Sudanese borders towards the refugees in the camps- in order to weaken their military presence creating an advantage for the government forces and their allied militias to advance easily.
Conclusion and recommendations
Incidents such as the attack on the Doro Camp have exposed, the government’s scheme in exploiting ethnic tensions when composing tribal militias to act as proxy in its civil wars thus expatiating the conflict in the Blue Nile areas.
Moreover, the attack shows that the refugees in Maban area are dealt with as part of the Sudanese government’s military and political maneuvers. In addition to the fact that militarization of foreign militias from neighboring countries poses a serious threat to stability and security in neighboring countries and the region as was the case in generating and supporting tribal militias inside South Sudan to take part in various proxy wars. The militarization of tribal militias requires critical solutions within the framework of restructuring the security sector in Sudan and the schemes of reconciliation and transitional justice to maintain the future of just and sustained peace in Sudan.
Doro camp’s incidents affirmed cruel humanitarian situations lived by the IDPs and threats of refugees’ return to the Blue Nile upon their exposure to security risks in the refugee camps especially in light of the siege imposed on the humanitarian access to the needy for more than five years and the government insistence on linking the humanitarian access to political and security processes. Consequently, due pressure should be exerted on the government of Sudan to allow unrestricted and unconditional humanitarian access according to international humanitarian law.
The fatal attack on Doro refugee camp further revealed the weak protection provided by the UN forces affiliated to the UNHCR, especially in light of the compound security risks facing the camps due to their proximity to the war zones in the Blue Nile and the civil war in South Sudan. Size of the force to protect (only 120 soldiers for 4 camps) indicates their inability to provide sufficient protection for civilians in the camps when attacked. As such UN organizations, at the leadership level, will have to avail appropriate means to camps’ protection forces to become more effective in handling its role in a way preventing further attacks.
The attack on Doro camp places on the shoulder of the UNHCR to take accountability as part of its concerns and speed up a transparent, comprehensive, and public investigation on the repeated attacks on the refugee camps in Maban and use the outcome of the investigation to disclose and publicize the internal and external culprits and to take necessary measures to stop these attacks and enforce justice and accountability tools.
Lastly, the attack on Sudanese refugees in Doro highlights the importance of attention due from Sudanese civil society and national political forces to catastrophe lived by refugees from Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan/ Nuba Mountains, especially for those living in the refugee camps in neighboring countries (Ethiopia, South Sudan and Chad) and for organizing broad solidarity campaigns with them. Sudanese national forces must place the refugees and IDPs issue amongst comprehensive and sustainable solutions of Sudan’s various crises.