(Juba) – Civilians are bearing the brunt of abuses in Sudan’s simmering border conflict in Blue Nile state, Human Rights Watch said today, based on a research trip in April 2012 into Blue Nile. As in neighboring Southern Kordofan, which Human Rights Watch visited in August 2011, civilians in Blue Nile continue to endure Sudan’s indiscriminate bombing and other abuses, even as new conflict between Sudan and South Sudan threatens to engulf the wider border area.
Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Blue Nile, which the government has largely shut off from the outside world, described indiscriminate bombings in civilian areas, killings, and other serious abuses by Sudanese armed forces since armed conflict broke out there in September 2011. The testimony indicates potential war crimes may have occurred, Human Rights Watch said.
The United Nations (UN) and African Union should insist that Sudan end indiscriminate bombing in civilian areas, and immediately allow aid into the state. The Security Council should urge the Sudanese Government to allow a full and impartial investigation by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights into events in both Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, said Human Rights Watch.
“The fighting in Blue Nile has turned its people into refugees, forcing them to abandon their homes and livelihoods,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The horrific accounts of extra-judicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and mass looting and destruction of property need to be investigated, and those responsible held to account.”
Little information has emerged about events in Blue Nile. Sudan has not granted journalists, independent monitors, or aid groups access to Blue Nile state or to neighboring Southern Kordofan, where conflict erupted last June. Since the United Nations mandate for a peacekeeping operation in the region expired in July 2011, there have been no UN monitors on the ground to document the initial impact of the fighting on civilians in Blue Nile, where conflict spread in September.
The research in Blue Nile indicates that Sudan’s bombing campaign has killed, maimed, and injured scores of civilians since September and destroyed civilian property including markets, homes, schools, farms, and aid group offices.
Refugees in South Sudan as well as internally displaced civilians inside Sudan told Human Rights Watch that aerial bombing since September in their residential areas forced them to flee their homes. Most of those interviewed had abandoned their villages and farms between September and November and were on the move inside Blue Nile for several months with limited access to food or water. More than 100,000 people are refugees in South Sudan and Ethiopia, and another 100,000 are still displaced in Blue Nile, including groups of potentially several thousand who are stranded in remote areas.
The states of Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan, where violence began three months earlier, lie north of the border with South Sudan, and have populations who were aligned with the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) during Sudan’s long civil war.
In both Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, conflict broke out amid increased tensions between Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party and the northern sector of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) over security arrangements in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Darfur, set a June 1, 2011 deadline for all SPLA forces to leave Sudan.
The northern sector of the SPLM, now known as SPLM-North, contended that the peace agreement gives the parties six months to withdraw after completing popular consultations, which had not yet occurred when violence broke out. The consultations are mandated under the peace agreement so that people in both states can decide on their system of governance while remaining part of Sudan.
On the night of September 1, fighting started in Damazin, the capital of Blue Nile, between the Sudanese armed forces and SPLA remnants who were there under the terms of the peace agreement. Witnesses from Damazin told Human Rights Watch that government soldiers used tanks and heavy weapons to destroy civilian property, including residential homes and the Malik Agar cultural center. Soldiers and national security forces then rounded up suspected members of SPLM-North, arresting people in their homes and in the streets, and looted extensively.
On September 2, President al-Bashir announced a state of emergency in Blue Nile and dismissed the state’s SPLM-North governor, Malik Agar, replacing him with a military commander. The next day authorities announced that SPLM-North was banned, seized their offices, and arrested party leaders and members across Sudan.
Shukri Ahmed Ali, the local administrator in charge of Roseris, a town neighboring Damazin, and an SPLM-North member who had fled the town with other party leaders, told Human Rights Watch that on September 3 soldiers at a checkpoint between Roseris and Damazin shot dead two of his family members and his driver, and seriously injured a third relative, as they were entering Damazin, apparently believing the commissioner himself was in the car.
“Sudanese authorities clearly targeted known opposition party members and civilians they perceived to be opposition supporters, in total disregard for basic human rights,” Bekele said. “Sudan needs to hold abusive forces accountable, and release all illegally held detainees.”
In the following days, hundreds of men in Damazin, Roseris, and other towns were taken to military barracks, national security offices, and other places of detention. Many were held for weeks or months without charge. Former detainees told Human Rights Watch they were beaten, made to sleep in crowded rooms, deprived of sleep, food and water, and witnessed executions of other detainees while in detention.
Lawyers following the detentions estimate that more than 200 people are still being detained or are missing. The Sudan attorney general’s office announced in March that it had completed investigations of 132 detainees and accused them of crimes against the state and espionage. Authorities have refused to provide information to the lawyers about prosecutions, access to the detainees, a full list of their names and whereabouts, or the exact charges against all of them.
Sudan has refused to sign an agreement with SPLM-North granting access for humanitarian aid for Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, as proposed by the United Nations, African Union, and League of Arab states.
“By shutting out the world, including human rights monitors, Sudan is only reinforcing concern that it is trying to hide heinous crimes,” Bekele said.