For days they had been stranded on the mountainside with very little food and water. They had fled their communities after violent extremists had seized the area nearby. A massacre of dozens of people in one nearby town had instilled fear throughout the area. Besieged on all sides, the concern now is that the mountain itself will be assaulted and thousands murdered. All the people here can hope for is that the outside world intervenes.
This may sound like the terrifying events at Mount Sinjar, Iraq in August of 2014, when the Islamic State seized the city of Sinjar and besieged the nearby mountain that 50,000 people had fled to. Within days, the world intervened with humanitarian relief, a U.S.-led bombing campaign, and a Kurdish-led ground evacuation of the mountain.
But these are not the events of Mount Sinjar, Iraq. They are currently unfolding on Mount Jebel Marra, Sudan.
Mount Jebel Marra lies in the heart of Darfur, the infamous western region of Sudan best known for being the home of a government-backed genocide that shocked the consciences of many around the world in the 2000s. Over the past few years, the Sudanese government has steadily ramped up it's campaign of killing, rape, and forced displacement in Darfur again. The big difference this time is that much of the world isn't watching.
On January 15, 2016, the government of Sudan renewed heavy air raids and shelling of civilian areas in inner Jebel Marra, Darfur. Since then, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a government-designed and supported militia, have continued attacking communities directly on the ground and are blocking many of the roads people would be able to escape on. An estimated 95,000 people have already fled their homes. Many of them now find themselves on a mountainside with little food and water, just like the Yazidis did in August of 2014.
Siege Warfare Is Not New To Sudan
The comparisons between Mount Sinjar and Mount Jebel Marra are easy to draw: a people under siege on a mountainside, mass killings and rapes in the surrounding towns, and the military force responsible for all of it making humanitarian conditions even worse. At it's least disturbing state, siege warfare seeks to force an enemy into surrendering. In the case of Mount Sinjar and Mount Jebel Marra though, the goal was and is annihilation.
Siege warfare has become the favorite brand of warfare in Syria and Iraq, particularly by the Islamic State. But siege warfare has been the preferred strategy of the Sudanese government when it comes to crushing various people groups in the periphery regions of the country for over 25 years now. And the government of Sudan is far more effective at it than the Islamic State.
The Jebel Marra area of Sudan has been under siege by Sudanese government forces for years now. The area is seen as a stronghold for rebels battling the regime of President and indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir. The rebel uprising in Darfur began in 2003 after years of severe oppression of Darfuri communities by the Bashir regime. The government's response to the uprising has been widely described as a genocide against Darfuri tribal groups.
It is because Jebel Marra has long been one of the strongholds of both armed and unarmed opposition to the Bashir regime that the government of Sudan has worked so hard to successfully keep the international community from accessing the area. While the government siege has reached various levels of intensity over the years, the last few weeks can easily be described as some of the most devastating in nearly a decade.
Looking beyond the surface of the Sudanese government's siege of Jebel Marra yields a glimpse at the renewed intensity of the government's mass atrocity campaign there. Both SAF and RSF units have been blocking major roads out of Jebel Marra since January 15. Aerial barrel bombings and artillery shelling are occurring on a daily basis now, with virtually all of the targets being civilian areas.
The government of Sudan is also using heavy SAF equipment to transfer additional RSF units, who appear to make up the bulk of the fighting force, into and out of the area. On January 18, over 70 wounded RSF militiamen were transferred out of Kabkabiya to El Fasher in two SAF helicopters.
On January 20, a joint SAF/RSF force massacred 42 people during a shooting spree in Golo, Mount Marra.
The widespread use of rape as a weapon of war also appears to be central to the government's siege strategy in Jebel Marra. RSF units have gang-raped an unknown number of women and children. Most recently, a 14-year old girl was gang-raped by men in military uniforms on camels (a common description for RSF units). Radio Dabanga, one of the last independent reporting agencies covering Darfur in-depth, has reported a number of other rapes committed by forces loyal to the government of Sudan. And these are just the ones we know about.
While there are no official numbers yet, multiple sources estimate that 23,000 families have been displaced by government war crimes in the last few weeks alone.
As has been the case with the government of Sudan's previous military campaigns against civilians, government officials are declaring victory prematurely. The Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM-AW), the armed oposition force in Jebel Marra, denied that the the government had seized 90% of the area and has confirmed eyewitness reports that the number of displaced and in-need of humanitarian relief is far greater than what government officials have declared. Abdelwahid El Nur, head of the SLM-AW, also confirmed that the government of Sudan was continung to block humanitarian agencies from reaching people in need. It does appear that the Sudanese government is exaggerating its claims of victory as the widespread use of barrel bombs and ground attacks by RSF units continue.
These renewed government attacks against civilians follow a long pattern of siege warfare committed by the Sudanese government not only across Darfur, but also in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states as well. The pattern is nearly identical each time: the government blocks humanitarian/media access, the Sudanese Air Force barrel bombs communities, RSF militiamen enter the area to rape and kill survivors who have not fled, and SAF forces provide support to the RSF as needed.
Mount Jebel Marra Will Be Worse Than Mount Sinjar
Many of the types of crimes being committed by the Islamic State that have outraged the international community have been deployed in Sudan's conflict areas for years now with far less outcry. Shelling of civilian areas, blockage of humanitarian relief, forced displacement, and mass rape within the context of siege warfare are well-known crimes committed by the Islamic State. The siege of Mount Sinjar provides the clearest single example of how effective the terrorist group can be at killing and displacing large numbers of people; however, the Sudanese government's siege of Jebel Marra will prove to be far more deadly for two primary reasons.
The first is that the Sudanese government has more resources at its disposal than the Islamic State does. Unlike the Islamic State, the government of Sudan has the ability to barrel bomb civilian areas and rapidly move troops around with a fleet of helicopters and aircraft. The Sudanese government also has a number of Mi-24 attack helicopters, often described as "flying tanks," that few rebel groups in Darfur have the ability to shoot down.
The government of Sudan represents the worst qualities of the Syrian government and the Islamic State simultaneously. The Bashir regime can barrel bomb communities just like the Syrian government is doing, while it can also besiege an entire area from the ground much like the Islamic State is doing. The major difference is that the Sudanese government has been doing both for years longer and perfecting its siege warfare strategy along the way. If anything, the government of Sudan is an extremist group with unparelled resources because it also happens to be a government.
The second is that unlike Mount Sinjar, there will most likely be no cavalry coming over the hill for the people who now find themselves trapped on Mount Jebel Marra. The international community has paid little attention to the crisis in Sudan despite the growing scale of the crisis there. UNAMID, the struggling U.N. peacekeeping force in Darfur, does not have the manpower, firepower, or international backing to end the siege of Mount Jebel Marra.
Survivors of Sudanese government war crimes and Sudan watchers have long asked when the international community will return focus to Sudan due to the number of problems created by the Sudanese government. With tens of thousands of lives once again on the line, this time on Mount Jebel Marra, one would think now is the time to refocus.
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