The ethnically targeted human destruction in South Kordofan in Sudan, directed overwhelmingly at the African peoples of the Nuba Mountains, continues to spread and intensify. Many are warning of a “new Darfur,” a reprise of the destruction of the African tribal groups in western Sudan by Khartoum’s forces from 2003 to the present. The number of people displaced is likely in the hundreds of thousands and growing, and the U.N. reports that “the “security situation continues to deteriorate.” Nearly all World Food Program workers have been evacuated. Many Nuba are now living in caves, without adequate food, water, or medical care.
But what we are seeing might not be most accurately described as another Darfur. Rather, the stage is being set for a reprise of the genocide of the 1990s in the Nuba Mountains, when hundreds of thousands died. Brutally assaulted on the ground and from the air, suffering under a relief aid embargo, forced into “peace camps” where many died, the Nuba faced a campaign of extinction. Today, the fear that this horror might be happening again is palpable. A correspondent for Time magazine in Juba recently interviewed an aid worker who said, “You can see it in all their eyes. They are scared. They see this as a fight for survival.” Hunted “like animals” by helicopter gunships, bombed by military aircraft, and haunted by their terrible history, the Nuba are right to be fearful. As one aid worker has predicted, “if the ground offensive commences, ‘absolute carnage’… could ensue.”
Which demands that we ask the two-fold question: What should the international community, namely the U.S., be doing to stop the violence—and is it doing it? Unfortunately, the answer to the second half of the question continues to be “no.” “This is going to spread like wildfire,” an American official told The New York Times earlier this week, adding that, without mediation, “you’re going to have massive destruction and death in central Sudan, and no one seems able to do anything about it.”
THE CIVIL ADMINISTRATION in the part of the Nuba Mountains most heavily attacked has collated figures from all of South Kordofan’s 19 states and said that approximately 425,000 people have been displaced by the conflict. (This number has yet to be confirmed.) Meanwhile, relief access to the region continues to wither, and Khartoum refuses to grant airspace to U.N. relief agencies. The regime has even gone so far as threaten to shoot down U.N. aircraft refusing to abide by the flight ban.
Beyond this obstruction, Khartoum is displaying an attitude of mounting hostility toward the U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Kordofan. The kinds of threats being made are revealed in a grim incident cited in a recent internal U.N. report:
Sudan’s forces detained four United Nations peacekeepers and subjected them to “a mock firing squad,” the organization said Monday [June 20, 2011], calling the intimidation part of a strategy to make it nearly impossible for aid agencies and monitors to work in the region.
It seems, again, to be a repeat of the 1990s, when Khartoum shut off humanitarian aid to the Nuba region. Indeed, despite the regime’s massive military buildup in the regional capital of Kadugli—including hundreds of heavy military vehicles—it doesn’t appear to have the stomach for confronting the Nuba Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in the rocky terrain. It’s much easier—and devastating to the Nuba people—to cut off aid.
In the midst of the devastation, Khartoum is counting on securing diplomatic credit for signing an agreement over the contested north-south border region of Abyei earlier this week—even though it is a weak compromise and was only made necessary by a Khartoum-led military assault that forced out more than 110,000 indigenous people from Abyei. The regime will likely attempt to trade on this credit in negotiations over South Kordofan, and, if so, we should expect intransigence: The regime has made clear its determination to destroy the people of the Nuba Mountains, already refusing a proposed one-month “cessation of hostilities agreement.”
Worse still, Khartoum’s heavy hand might soon extend beyond South Kordofan and Abyei. President Omar Al Bashir recently warned South Sudan, which is set to secede in July, following a self-determination referendum earlier this year, that it may be next: “If they [the Southern leadership] want war ... we will show them, practically like what happened in Abyei and South Kordofan.” Repeated bombings and shellings of targets inside the south’s borders suggest that this threat must be taken seriously.
But Princeton Lyman, the Obama administration’s special envoy to Sudan, appears increasingly out of his depth in dealing with Khartoum’s génocidaires. He has declared of South Kordofan that the U.S. “doesn’t have enough information on the ground to call the campaign ethnic cleansing.” Given the hundreds of reports, photographs, and even videography that have now emerged from the region, coming from U.N. personnel, relief workers, religious leaders, Nuba who have escaped to the South, and those who remain to speak to the outside world, this claim is deeply troubling. Andudu Adam Elnail, the bishop of South Kordofan’s capital of Kadugli, could not be more explicit: “Once again we are facing the nightmare of genocide of our people in a final attempt to erase our culture and society from the face of the earth.”
How then to explain Lyman’s skepticism? Is it an expedient effort to keep Khartoum at the bargaining table by refusing to name the crimes that the regime has committed? If so, this augurs poorly for any robust U.S. or international action to halt what all extant evidence suggests is genocide. For Khartoum, which has killed its own people for decades more or less unchecked by the U.S. and the rest of the world, is all too expert in discerning the implications of what we will and won’t say publicly.
The international community should be threatening to destroy the regime’s aircraft targeting civilians in South Kordofan until it stops its campaign against the Nuba. But it’s not, choosing to dither instead. As such, the regime in Khartoum sees only a blinking green light.
Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College and author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.