Two weeks after Khartoum’s tanks, artillery, and military aircraft began moving into South Kordofan, violence—especially against civilians—continues to explode. There are now scores of reliable reports that attacks against the indigenous Nuba people have accelerated, both on the ground and from the air. Humanitarian conditions are deteriorating rapidly, aid workers are fleeing the region, essential relief supplies have been looted in the regional capital of Kadugli, and the U.N. World Food Programme has indicated that the violence could prevent it from reaching the 400,000 people it was serving before the recent onslaught. There are no verified estimates of the number of people displaced, but Abdel Aziz El Hilu, former governor of South Kordofan, has put the number at almost half a million. Dozens have been reported killed, but, in the absence of any effective humanitarian monitoring, this surely understates significantly.
For its part, Khartoum has ominously promised to continue fighting. Troops and military vehicles are still pouring into Kadugli; according to U.N. observers, some 280 military vehicles have been spotted, and “preparations for a major ground offensive” are being made. Understandably, according to a report by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, this has created “a growing sense of panic” among the Nuba.
These highly provocative military actions—on top of those occurring in Abyei and parts of southern Sudan—put all of Sudan at risk of renewed civil war. Complicating matters is a weak U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Kordofan that, even before it became subjected to this most recent violence and harassment, was barely able to protect itself, let alone the civilians seeking its refuge. Indeed, it has a poor reputation among the Nuba people. (Several Egyptian members of the U.N. mission have even been accused of assisting in ethnic roundups.)
And, ultimately, the Nuba are at the crux of this conflict. It’s the Nuba people, of multiple African ethnicities, and their way of life that seem to be the primary targets of the recent violence. They are being attacked not only by Khartoum’s regular military forces but by the notorious Arab militias known as the Popular Defense Forces (PDF). And this fact, inevitably, raises questions about whether what we are witnessing is ethnic cleansing—or, worse, genocide.
There is an extraordinary amount of information being smuggled out of South Kordofan by fleeing aid workers and civilians and conveyed via electronic communication, including digital photographs. And, from the mounting evidence that has come to me, clear patterns emerge. The signature feature of Khartoum’s operation is the door-to-door roundup of Nuba, who are often summarily shot. The Nuba are also stopped at checkpoints grimly similar to those once seen in Rwanda. One aid worker who recently escaped from South Kordofan, told McClatchy, “Those [Nuba] coming in are saying, ‘Whenever they see you are a black person, they kill you.’” Another Nuba aid worker reports that an Arab militia leader made clear that their orders were simple: to “just clear”
Another Nuba resident of Kadugli told Agence France-Presse that he had been informed by a member of the PDF that his forces had been provided plenty of weapons and ammunition, and a standing order: “He said that they had clear instructions: just sweep away the rubbish. If you see a Nuba, just clean it up. … He told me he saw two trucks of people with their hands tied and blindfolded, driving out to where diggers were making holes for graves on the edge of town.” There have been several more reports, so far unconfirmed, of mass graves in and around Kadugli.
There also clear indications of how Khartoum means to conduct its campaign going forward. On June 15, military aircraft of the regime completed destruction of the runway in Kauda, a small town in the middle of the Nuba Mountains. The destruction was of no military significance, as the SPLA has no air force. But it was nonetheless of enormous consequence and emblematic of how Khartoum intends to wage war against the Nuba people. Because the Kauda airstrip is critical for humanitarian transport in the region, its destruction works to ensure that the hundreds of thousands already in need will remain cut off from relief. It seems Khartoum intends to starve the Nuba into submission.
How, then to label this sort of violence? Thelanguage of “ethnic cleansing,” increasingly used in describing what is occurring in South Kordofan, seems not to convey adequately the realities on the ground. (Certainly, this is the view of many Nuba.) “Ethnic cleansing” is a phase that has no established meaning in international human rights law. It is rather, as Samantha Power has observed, “a euphemistic half-way house between genocide and crimes against humanity.” Indeed, the deliberate and widespread destruction of the Nuba people seems more accurately to meet the standards of the 1948 Genocide Convention. The murders, killings, rapes, and destruction of livelihoods that have been reported all appear to comport with the terms of Article 2 of the Convention, which details the qualifying actions undertaken “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
To be sure, the allegation of genocide is a strong and for some a controversial one, and I do not claim to have full knowledge of everything that has happened or will happen in South Kordofan. But, given Khartoum’s legacy—its actions during the country’s long civil war, including a genocidal assault against the Nuba, and the conflict in Darfur, which resulted in President Omar Al Bashir being indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide—as well as the horrific evidence we have seen and heard in recent days, it is important to consider seriously whether the situation in Sudan is taking the shape of the worst crime mankind can commit against its own.
The United States and its allies—or the U.S. alone, if necessary—should state that, if Khartoum does not halt its campaign of ethnic destruction in South Kordofan, the aircraft responsible for bombing civilian and humanitarian targets will be destroyed, until the regime yields. And the international community should make this commitment quickly. For, as was the case with Darfur seven years ago, when it comes to South Kordofan, the window of opportunity to change the thinking and actions of Khartoum, before the regime’s forces permanently change the demography of the Nuba, is likely to be brief. This campaign is being brought to us live, and the failure to act to stop it would occasion withering historical judgment.
Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College and author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.
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