Yet again the grim title of “world’s greatest humanitarian crisis” goes to Sudan – this time for developments in the border regions between Sudan and the newly independent country of South Sudan. The crisis is exploding as the rainy season descends fully upon this area, and humanitarian resources are overwhelmed.
Khartoum’s denial of all humanitarian access to rebel-controlled areas within its border, along with a relentless campaign of aerial bombardment, is generating a continuous flow of tens of thousands of refugees – up to 4,000 per day according to Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). But even that June figure is being quickly overtaken, according to reports.
And no wonder. The regime faces no significant international condemnation or consequences for its role in creating this crisis. That must change.
At various points over the last quarter century, greater Sudan has been the site of vast humanitarian crises, notably in Darfur, in western Sudan. These were foreseeable episodes of human suffering and destruction rooted in deliberate military and political decisions by the ruling National Islamic Front/National Congress Party and Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir. If the regime’s tactics have differed, its strategic goal has not. This is “counter-insurgency on the cheap,” and it’s painfully familiar.
At present, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been forced from their homes in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states – areas that are part of what is now (northern) Sudan, but which are substantially populated by people who sided with the South during the 1983-2005 civil war.
Those fleeing are driven by desperate hunger, a lack of water, and air attacks. There is no accurate census for the numbers who have reached refugee camps in the South (in the Unity and Upper Nile states), but data suggest that the figure is approaching 300,000.
The conditions in the camps are terrible, almost indescribably so – although there have been urgent dispatches from relief organizations for weeks. As rain pours down, one camp is under water; transportation to many locations is now impossible. People are living, sleeping, and tending children in mud. Latrines have flooded and drinking water is completely unfit for consumption (captured rainwater cannot begin to compensate for reliable water bore-holes).
Hundreds are dying of dehydration, and MSF estimates that mortality in one Upper Nile camp is twice the threshold for conditions defined by the UN as a humanitarian emergency. Others arrive so malnourished and exhausted that they perish on the spot.
Why are these people fleeing into such desperate circumstances? For over a year now – first in South Kordofan and then in Blue Nile – the Khartoum regime has used its military aircraft to attack civilians and agricultural production. Planes have bombed villages, forcing people to flee for caves and ravines.
The constant targeting of arable fields has disrupted two agricultural cycles, leaving people without food. The failure of this spring’s planting ensures that there will be no new food in the fall, and malnutrition indicators – where they can be registered – are already terrifyingly high. As they did in Darfur, Khartoum’s regular and militia forces have torched and destroyed the villages and food-stores of the African Nuba people who live in this border region.
Why does Khartoum persist with this cruel counter-insurgency strategy in confronting the banned rebel movement in Sudan, called the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-North? Because it’s cheap, and within the Nuba Mountains the rebels are trouncing Khartoum’s military forces. I know from my own time in the area just how determined the Nuba people are: Having faced a jihad extermination in the 1990s, they are not about to acquiesce before Khartoum’s present aggression.
Khartoum also persists because to date it has paid no price for its aerial assaults – or its equally barbarous denial of all humanitarian access to civilians in rebel-controlled regions. Indeed, even when Khartoum deliberately bombed refugee camps in November 2011, international response was barely more than perfunctory. Humanitarian access continues to be completely denied, compelling more people to flee.
Sudan’s long-suffering people have begun their own “Arab Spring,” and we must hope that they succeed in their announced goal of regime change. But given the urgency of the vast humanitarian crisis that is growing at terrifying speed, the international community cannot wait on the sidelines. Tens of thousands of people have died or will die soon; the question is whether the world will act decisively in confronting Khartoum before the number grows to hundreds of thousands.
The UN or a multilateral alliance must be prepared to open humanitarian air and ground corridors to Blue Nile and South Kordofan on an urgent basis. If necessary, armed protection for humanitarian relief efforts should be provided.
International moral and political leadership, as well as a commitment to provide the necessary protective military resources, are of the essence, given the many challenges of such a large and difficult operation. Today's visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, provided a prominent opportunity for the United States to show leadership that has been sadly lacking during the current crises.
More broadly, the UN “responsibility to protect” is a doctrine that has been widely touted by a range of international actors; now is the time to see whether doctrine and reality have anything to do with one another.
Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College, has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade.