Yet again, Sudan shows all the signs of accelerating genocide, this time on its southern border.
The question is whether the world will now respond more quickly – and effectively – than it has to the years-long atrocities in Darfur, in western Sudan. Over four years ago the International Criminal Court indicted a senior Khartoum official for crimes against humanity (2007); most recently it has indicted President Omar al-Bashir for genocide (2010). But to date Khartoum has continued to express only contempt for the ICC and human rights reporting generally.
Another test of the world’s resolve to halt ethnically targeted human destruction now presents itself in a border state known as South Kordofan (like Darfur, in Sudan). Al-Bashir has unleashed a campaign against many tens of thousands of Nuba people, a grouping of indigenous African tribes. The Nuba have long made common cause with the people and former rebel fighters of the newly created country of South Sudan.
The catastrophe in South Kordofan is daily becoming more conspicuous, both in scale and in the ethnic animus defining Khartoum’s military and security operations in the region.
Beginning with events of June 5, strong evidence is growing of house-to-house searches for Nuba people and those sympathizing with the northern wing of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Also, compelling evidence points to roadblocks that have similarly targeted Nuba. Most Nuba found were arrested or summarily executed. This has occurred primarily in the Kadugli area, capital of South Kordofan.
Most disturbingly, a great many eyewitness accounts of mass gravesites are being reported; a number of these accounts are collected in a leaked UN human rights report from late June.
The extraordinary indictment rendered in this report is confirmed by definitive satellite photography from the Satellite Sentinel Project, based at Harvard University; these photographs clearly indicate large, parallel mass gravesites – capable of holding many thousands of bodies. Evidence from the UN report, as well as eyewitness accounts from many Nuba who have escaped Kadugli, confirm the findings of the satellite project.
The Associated Press has reported on an even earlier leaked UN “situation report” indicating that some 11,000 people, virtually all Nuba, sought protective custody with the UN Mission in Kadugli, capital of South Kordofan; 7,000 of these people, including women and children, were forced on June 20 to leave the UN protective perimeter and move to an unspecified location. Those moving them were reportedly members of Khartoum’s security services, disguised as Red Crescent workers. Today, the UN has no idea where these refugees are.
Bombing in the Nuba Mountains of central South Kordofan is relentless, threatening the lives and livelihoods of the African people who make up the Nuba. Fields have been abandoned at the height of planting season, when the need for crop-tending is greatest. Many tens of thousands of people have fled to the hillsides and caves, desperate to escape continuing aerial attacks. Next fall’s harvest will be a disaster, and Khartoum has blocked virtually all humanitarian aid to the Nuba Mountains, including the UN’s World Food Program.
Why, with so much evidence of ethnically targeted human destruction, and so many acute risks to human life and welfare, has there been no rapid or forceful international action?
The universally agreed upon UN “responsibility to protect” civilians from ethnic cleansing and genocide – not to mention attack by their own government – should be in force in South Kordofan if anywhere. Yet there is nothing of consequence coming from anyone in the UN, the European Union, the African Union, or the Obama administration – except Susan Rice, American ambassador to the UN, declaring there will be no US military commitment to the Nuba people.
This virtual policy silence on South Kordofan seems to be based on a peculiar, indeed incomprehensible skepticism about the evidence available, including the satellite photography as well as eyewitness accounts provided by the UN report and other sources.
The Obama administration spokesperson for this skepticism is Princeton Lyman, special envoy for Sudan, as The Washington Post recently reported. But his account does not square with the facts; for example, he asserts that the piles of irregular white bags near the mass gravesites, all of human anatomical dimension, have always been at the sites focused on by the satellite project; but sequential, dated satellite photographs unambiguously demonstrate otherwise.
There are in South Kordofan too many harrowing echoes of not only Darfur, but Rwanda and Srebrenica. In all these cases there was a UN military presence; in each instance this presence was completely intimidated or rendered ineffective by génocidaires bent on their task; many world leaders refused to recognize the reality of genocide; and in each case unspeakable shame followed.
Despite Mr. Lyman’s skepticism, the urgency and scale of potential human destruction demand an immediate and robust international response – and not simply moralizing pronouncements, whether from UN officials or international actors of consequence, or in the predictable and formulaic prescriptions of human rights groups. At the very least Khartoum should be warned that if its military aircraft continue to be implicated in attacks on Nuba civilians or humanitarians, they will be destroyed on the ground by cruise missiles or other means. Impunity for such atrocity crimes cannot continue.
If the world refuses to see what is occurring in South Kordofan, and refuses to respond to evidence that the destruction of the Nuba people, as such, is a primary goal of present military and security actions by Sudan, then this moment will represent definitive failure of the “responsibility to protect.”
Eric Reeves is professor of English language and literature at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. He has spent the past 12 years working full-time as a Sudan researcher and analyst, publishing extensively both in the US and internationally. He has testified several times before the Congress and is author of “A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.”