Over the past several months, the international spotlight has returned to Sudan due to popular protests that have swept across the country and overthrown a small number of high-ranking regime officials. As a nonprofit organization that focuses exclusively on Sudan, we welcome the renewed global interest in the challenges the Sudanese people face from the regime that still controls their country.
The world’s attention has been drawn to recent events in Khartoum, where a peaceful protest movement has placed immense pressure on the so-called Transitional Military Council to hand over power to an actual transitional civilian authority. This council of army officers seized power in a palace coup from the now imprisoned dictator Omar al-Bashir on April 11, 2019. In mid-May and following an unprovoked attack by the Council’s Rapid Support Forces militia on protesters across Khartoum, the junta and protest leaders struck a fragile deal for a three year transition to civilian rule. It remains unlikely that such a deal will pan out as the regime continues dragging its feet and launching fresh attacks on unarmed and peaceful Sudanese demanding their rights.
Unfortunately, not much has changed in the regions of Sudan that have suffered the most underneath the regime. Little to no international attention is being given to places like the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile, and Darfur, where the Transitional Military Council has largely continued the regime’s damaging oppression in far-reaching ways.
Photo: A valley in the southern Nuba Mountains of Sudan. (Operation Broken Silence)
The Nuba Mountains is where our organization supports education and medical programs that serve those Sudanese who are most in need of outside assistance. These programs are led almost entirely by the Nuba people themselves, and we have a wide range of reliable contacts there. It is our privilege to support them as they work to strengthen their community from the ground up.
Since the Transitional Military Council seized power in April, a number of worrying signs in the Nuba Mountains have appeared that prove nothing has actually changed in how the regime operates.
While much of the information below has been published by other reliable sources the past few months and weeks, some of what follows is new and recent information that, at least to our knowledge, has not been made public in any meaningful way before. Regardless, all of the recent security threats and humanitarian conditions in the Nuba Mountains outlined below should be of grave concern to any actual transitional government that emerges in Khartoum, international policymakers, humanitarians, and globally-minded citizens.
The most oppressed Sudanese can not afford for the international community to look at political developments in Khartoum within a vacuum. Regime-sponsored crimes continue to be committed in the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile, and Darfur by forces that report to Transitional Military Council leaders. Some of these regime insiders have met with international diplomats as the face of the “new” regime and should not be trusted. The Transitional Military Council is an extension of the regime underneath Bashir. It only bears a cosmetic difference from when Bashir was in control: less familiar faces, same style of corrupt and violent individuals that came up through the regime’s ranks.
More importantly though, Sudanese in the Nuba Mountains continue to suffer at the hands of the Transitional Military Council and their murderous security forces. The oppression they face should be given equal attention to the protests and political developments in Sudan’s capital, where power has been overwhelmingly concentrated for far too long.
Photo: A Nuba village that was bombed by Sudan’s air force. (Operation Broken Silence)
Since 2011, Sudan’s oppressive regime has waged a brutal war against the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan, Sudan.
At surface level, the conflict has pitted the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), the country’s official military, against the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), a highly-motivated armed opposition movement that is indigenous to and in control of much of the Nuba Mountains.
But as has often been the case in Sudan, a range of other armed actors who serve the regime’s kleptocratic interests have violently targeted the SPLM-N and Nuba civilians. This includes the genocidal Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a powerful government militia responsible for a plethora of war crimes across Sudan, the terrifying National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), and a variety of other deadly security agencies and militias (Popular Defense Forces, Abu Tira, etc.) that the regime created years ago to preserve its own power.
This war in the Nuba Mountains has witnessed many of the regime’s abuses against Sudanese citizens elsewhere: indiscriminate aerial bombing of civilian infrastructure, torchings of entire communities, brutal mass killings and rapes, and a devastating humanitarian blockade. Combined together, these disturbing actions amount to a siege warfare strategy that includes directly targeting the Nuba people while simultaneously attempting to take away their ability and resources to survive. While this crisis has often been dubbed as an attempted ethnic cleansing, it bears the hallmarks of a government-sanctioned genocide against the Nuba people.
Following a series of humiliating battlefield losses in 2016, the regime declared the first ceasefire in June of that year. This ceasefire was regularly breached by SAF and the RSF in the coming months; however, this time period did mark the beginning of a painstakingly slow decline in major fighting between regime forces and the SPLM-N. The declared ceasefire has been renewed by one side or the other ever since.
While the supposed ceasefire has led to a major reduction in fighting between regime forces and the SPLM-N, security conditions remain far from positive due to ongoing junta violence against the Nuba people, much of which is outlined below.
RSF, NISS, other paramilitary forces, and Regime-Backed "Raider" Attacks On Frontlines In Nuba Mountains, Bomber Flights Continue
Photo: A map showing the rough frontlines of the war as the ceasefire began in 2016. Yellow represents SPLM-N-held territory. Pink and red represents regime territory. Striped yellow and pink shows a rough “no man’s land” held by neither side. (Ali Zifan)
Throughout the past several months, SAF units have remained in defensive deployments in South Kordofan around SPLM-N controlled Nuba Mountains. SAF has not launched a major military campaign since 2016; however, there have been no signs that the Transitional Military Council is reducing its presence of SAF troops, RSF militia, or NISS squads in the Nuba Mountains.
While this lack of large-scale fighting is positive, it is only one side of a much darker story that is being overlooked.
Since the ceasefire began in 2016, the Sudanese regime has relied on a secondary method to continue a shadow war and humanitarian blockade during the ceasefire: using its wide array of paramilitary forces and arming of local Arab tribesmen, who both attack isolated frontline areas and Nuba civilians in no-man land areas on the regime’s behalf.
This secondary strategy was one the regime perfected underneath Bashir in the mid and late 2000s in Darfur. SAF units would move into defensive postures, even as Janjaweed militias went on the offensive and wreaked destruction on frontline communities. The regime regularly declared that it had nothing to do with the Janjaweed, despite rampant evidence that the militias were being provided weapons, training, and support by the Sudanese government.
It is worth noting that the Janjaweed were never disbanded as ordered by the U.N. Security Council many years ago. Instead, the regime simply rebranded them as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in 2013 and spread them across much of Sudan.
During the past two years of the crisis in the Nuba Mountains, this same strategy used in Darfur has been copy/pasted into the region as part of Bashir’s iron-fisted rule. The only difference is that RSF and NISS attackers have to operate more cautiously in the Nuba Mountains than they do in Darfur, largely because SPLM-N troops have been able to stand their ground against the RSF and NISS.
To be clear, this strategy has continued largely unchanged underneath the Transitional Military Council.
Photo: Members of the Rapid Support Forces celebrate their victory for the cameras while perched atop a burned dwelling in Sudan’s South Kordofan state on May 20, 2014. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
There have been regular Sudanese government ceasefire violations in the Nuba Mountains for years. At the forefront of such breaches are the RSF, NISS, and what have been described as “raiders” and “criminal networks,” small groups of Sudanese from nearby Arab tribes who receive weapons from the regime and use them to attack and rob isolated Nuba of their land and livestock. The RSF, NISS, and these loosely organized raiders have continued to attack Nuba civilians systematically in frontline and isolated areas in 2019, as well as play the primary role in violently enforcing the humanitarian blockade on the region.
In March 2019 and with the end of Bashir’s iron-fisted rule approaching, the UK-based Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART) released a field report that summarized such attacks against the Nuba despite the declared ceasefire and ongoing protests. HART’s report pointed to the regime continuing its policy of using a mixture of paramilitary forces and “criminal networks” to target front-line villages and isolated Nuba civilians, destroy churches, and steal crops and livestock. We have received reports that this violent activity has continued underneath the Transitional Military Council, especially in the more isolated western and northern frontline areas of the Nuba Mountains.
HART also reported that while no actual aerial bombing had occurred for two years, the regime continued to fly warplanes, specifically Antonovs, over SPLM-N controlled farming areas and population centers to prevent Nuba from returning to their homes. Our own program partners and network of trusted Nuba contacts verified such bomber flights at the time as well.
Photo: A Sudanese government Antonov bomber flies over the Nuba Mountains. (The Heart of Nuba)
While these bomber flights have reportedly decreased since the Transitional Military Council began seizing power, we have been informed by our Nuba contacts that warplanes have been sporadically spotted along western frontline areas of the Nuba Mountains the past few weeks. No bombing has been reported, but such flights continue to disrupt the Nuba people’s ability to farm, trade, and return to their homes.
The dreaded National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) has become even more active along the frontlines of the Nuba Mountains since the Transitional Military Council seized power. NISS agents have tightened their grip on several key roads leading into and out of SPLM-N territory and arbitrarily arrested, and sometimes executed, virtually anyone who dares to travel in such areas. The NISS began intensifying these operations several weeks ago in March while Bashir was still in power and, according to our Nuba contacts, NISS agents remain deployed across much of the western and northern frontline areas underneath the Transitional Military Council. This includes roads as far southwest as Talodi locality all the way north along the western frontlines near Kadugli, Dilling, and beyond.
Finally, the Transitional Military Council has adamently refused to lift the politically-motivated death sentences issued by the regime against some SPLM-N leaders in 2014. This places a major obstacle in the way of any future peace talks for both Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, and serves to further show that the regime is uninterested in ceding any power to the periphery.
Humanitarian Blockade Remains In Place On Nuba Mountains
Since the palace coup on April 11, the Transitional Military Council has had ample time to lift the humanitarian blockade on SPLM-N-held Nuba Mountains. This has been one of the most devastating aspects of the regime’s war against the Nuba people and has claimed thousands of lives. The blockade has prevented desperately needed food distribution, vaccination campaigns, WASH and literacy programs, and so much more.
Photo: A long-empty saline bag hangs at a small, makeshift clinic in the southern Nuba Mountains. (Operation Broken Silence)
The blockade is a clear violation of international law and has created measles outbreaks, isolated reports of polio, malnutrition, water-borne illness, soaring illiteracy rates, and many other pressing humanitarian issues. Children have overwhelmingly borne the brunt of the blockade, with many Nuba households surviving on one meal a day, schools and clinics not being adequately supplied, and access to vaccines being extremely limited for years.
Instead of offering a good faith gesture to the Nuba people and SPLM-N by unilaterally lifting the blockade and allowing unfettered relief to flow into the Nuba Mountains, the Transitional Military Council has opted to stay the course. As mentioned above, NISS agents continue to block many roads that cross from regime to SPLM-N held areas, specifically along the western frontlines. Our program partners have confirmed that aid agencies of all stripes are still banned from working in the Nuba Mountains. The RSF and government-backed Arab tribal raiders remain engaged in violence in frontline areas.
To be clear: Nuba civilians will continue suffering and dying if the regime does not immediately lift the blockade without conditions. While protesters and western countries have done the right thing in calling for the Transitional Military Council to hand over power to a civilian authority, they have not been nearly vocal enough on the continued grim reality the Nuba people face underneath the regime’s humanitarian blockade.
Because of this reality, humanitarian conditions in SPLM-N-held Nuba Mountains are once again nearing emergency levels.The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) has released its projections for food insecurity in Sudan for June-September 2019. The picture is bleak:
Photo: Map showing food insecurity projections for June-September 2019. The large red area in South Kordofan is SPLM-N-controlled Nuba Mountains, which remains blockaded by the Transitional Military Council. (FEWSNET)
Underneath Bashir, the regime never budged in any meaningful way with regards to lifting humanitarian blockades in the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile, and Darfur. The regime underneath the Transitional Military Council is now reeling underneath the pressure they face from both within and outside of Sudan for real, lasting change. That pressure forced Bashir’s overthrow, led to other cosmetic changes within the regime, and continues inching Sudan towards a real transitional government. It should now be used to lift the humanitarian blockade on the Nuba Mountains, as well as the blockades in SPLM-N-controlled Blue Nile and the besieged Jebel Marra region of Darfur.
This brings us to a specific example of why the humanitarian blockade must be lifted now, not after a political solution has been reached. Many Nuba civilians do not have the luxury of waiting for political change. This reality is most evident in the Kao-Nyaro exclave of the eastern Nuba Mountains, where tens of thousands of civilians have been besieged with no hope and barely any outside assistance for years.
Besieged Kao-Nyaro in Eastern Nuba Mountains
The far eastern region of the Nuba Mountains has been isolated for decades. This little known area is usually referred to as “Kao-Nyaro,” which are two of the larger villages. Kao-Nyaro is under control of the SPLM-N, which has kept an armed presence in the area for years to prevent communities from being annihilated by Sudanese government forces.
Photo Top: Map showing Kao-Nyaro’s location with the context of Sudan and South Sudan’s border. (Google)
Photo Bottom: Map showing rough no-man’s land that separates Kao-Nyaro from main SPLM-N strongholds to the west. (Google)
When the regime launched the war in 2011, the already poor security and humanitarian situation in Kao-Nyaro became dire overnight. Kao-Nyaro is surrounded to the north and east by large numbers of regime paramilitary forces and government-armed Arab tribal raiders. The areas south that lead to South Sudan and west to the SPLM-N’s main strongholds are a mostly deserted no-man’s land, where Rapid Support Forces militia and Arab tribal raiders hunt for civilians attempting to flee Kao-Nyaro.
Because of these grim realities, most villages in the no-man’s land have been abandoned for years. Residents from this area suffered government attacks and have long since fled into the Kao-Nyaro exclave, the refugee camps in South Sudan, or west into the SPLM-N’s main strongholds. What little movement that does occur between the SPLM-N strongholds and the Kao-Nyaro exclave consists almost entirely of armed SPLM-N troop movements.
To give you an idea of how bad and for how the long the situation in Kao-Nyaro has persisted, this June will mark the 6th year anniversary of “The Death March,” one of the most horrific atrocities regime forces have committed against the Nuba people. Over a grisly five day period, hundreds of starving and thirsty civilians who attempted to flee Kao-Nyaro through the southern no-man’s land were hunted by regime paramilitary forces. Along the way, 73 people were killed by starvation, thirst, or gunshots at point blank range. Over half of those killed were children. While the story of this war crime is difficult to read, it remains a powerful insight into what living conditions in Kao-Nyaro are like. You can read the account here.
Photo: Villagers gather in Kao-Nyaro in 2015, when fighting between government forces and the SPLM-N was still high. (Tomo Kriznar)
The crisis in Kao-Nyaro continues to lead to shocking emergency humanitarian and security conditions including death by starvation, preventable disease, lack of movement, and executions by regime forces.
Most water pumps in the area broke down or were destroyed years ago. The wells that remain are largely contaminated due to people being forced to water livestock at wellheads because of an inability to venture out to farming and pasture land, most of which is in the no man’s land around Kao-Nyaro. People are also forced to live in close quarters with their livestock because there is little freedom of movement. This has led to even more negative health effects that would most likely not exist if Kao-Nyaro were not blockaded.
Civilians here find themselves confined to SPLM-N garrison towns. Departing the Kao-Nyaro exclave to try to access traditional farm and pasture land immediately puts one in danger of being hunted by regime militia and raiders.
With humanitarian and security conditions this deplorable, childhood education is virtually non-existent in Kao-Nyaro. Villages in the SPLM-N exclave operate rudimentary schools that offer, at best, only a few primary-level grades. For example, the school in Kao village claims to have only three out of eight primary grades, and only the Koran is actually taught in classrooms. Chalk, pencils, and other basic supplies are non-existent and no one is teaching mathematics, science, history, language skills, or any of the liberal arts disciplines at all, much less basic life skills that could help elevate the community.
Photo: The road into Kao-Nyaro from South Sudan. (Operation Broken Silence)
To make this situation even worse, over the last few years the road from Kao-Nyaro to South Sudan has been cut off due to the conflict in South Sudan. Fighting between the Shilluk tribe and Dinka-dominated government near the border has now made it unsafe for residents from Kao-Nyaro to escape into South Sudan’s northern border towns, such as Malakal and Kodok.
Simply put, journeying into or out of Kao-Nyaro ranges from extremely difficult and dangerous to impossible depending on the degree of security threats posed. Kao-Nyaro is so isolated by regime-sponsored violence that the only outside contact the area receives is when the SPLM-N repositions soldiers and equipment between their area and the area of the Nuba Mountains under their secure control far to the west.
The above information was obtained from an international team that was in Kao-Nyaro very recently, an occurrence so rare and dangerous that such outside access only occurs once every few years at most.
Today, this brutal localized blockade on the Kao-Nyaro exclave remains in effect underneath the Transitional Military Council. There are zero signs this disturbing reality will change any time soon. An estimated 27,000 lives remain in danger in Kao-Nyaro alone.
Rampant Regime Crimes Across Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile, and Darfur
Additionally, RSF, NISS, and other regime paramilitary units remain active and routinely arrest, torture, rape, and execute civilians along frontline and anti-regime areas in the Nuba Mountains (South Kordofan), Blue Nile, and across Darfur. There have been several mass crimes committed by RSF and NISS units since the Transitional Military Council declared itself in power:
- April 12: NISS agents killed 7 civilians and wounded 37 more during anti-protest operations in Zalingei, Darfur
- April 17: NISS agents continued to keep 400–800 Darfuris in detention at facilities, where torture and murder are common practices.
- April 19: A released Darfuri lawyer stated that NISS was still moving arrested Darfuris to the dreaded “Refrigerator” detention center in Khartoum, despite NISS previously announcing that all political prisoners were to be released.
- April 21: NISS agents used live fire on peaceful protesters in Kutum, North Darfur. 10 people were shot and 2 critically injured.
- April 22: NISS agents used live fire on a group of peaceful protesters in El Leri, South Kordofan and wounded 9 civilians.
- April 22: RSF militiamen executed Noureldin Hammad at the El Tugula gold mine in Talodi locality, South Kordofan. Hammad was executed by being shot at point blank range.
- April 28: Popular Defense Forces militiamen raped two 15 and 18 year old girls at gunpoint in Abu Kershola locality, South Kordofan.
- May 1: Military intelligence agents beat, arrested, and imprisoned 15 peaceful protesters in Dilling, South Kordofan.
- May 2: RSF militiamen attempted to break up a peaceful demonstration in Zalingei, Central Darfur by driving vehicles into protesters and using live fire. Two civilians were wounded.
- May 3: RSF militiamen entered the El Tugula gold mine market in Talodi locality, South Kordofan and began trying to execute random civilians.
- May 4: Regime security forces used excessive violence to break up a peaceful demonstration in Nyala, South Darfur. More than 20 individuals were wounded and a 17-year old boy was murdered.
It is important to note that these are only reported crimes by the RSF, NISS, and other regime paramilitary units in the most oppressed regions of the country since the Transitional Military Council staged their palace coup. Many regime attacks in these areas of Sudan go unreported as they occur in isolated areas, survivors fear retribution for speaking out, or because there are simply no surviving eyewitnesses.
While the Transitional Military Council has made a cosmetic effort to reach out to armed opposition movements in the oppressed periphery regions of Sudan, there are no guarantees or real signs that the regime is serious about pursuing peace or lifting humanitarian blockades.
This reality is made most evident by the fact that paramilitary forces underneath the command of Transitional Military Council leaders have not been reined in from the oppressed periphery regions of Sudan, much less reformed or disbanded as so many Sudanese are calling for. The RSF, NISS, and regime-backed raiders remain violently engaged in the Nuba Mountains and continue to enforce the blockade there. The ceasefire remains a thinly-veiled farce underneath the Transitional Military Council.
Photo: RSF Commander Hemeti waving with his former boss Bashir during a military parade. (Photo from RSF’s Facebook page)
Of grave concern is the rise of the commander of the RSF within the Transitional Military Council. Lt Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who is commonly known in Sudan as Hemeti, is now the Deputy Head of the regime, effectively making him second-in-command.
Underneath Hemeti, the RSF has become the murderous oppression machine it is today and remains largely responsible for the ongoing crimes against Sudanese civilians in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile. The simple fact that Hemeti now holds a top position in the Transitional Military Council and continues to oversee one of the most recognizable aspects of the regime is perhaps the clearest sign that the Transitional Military Council is a dangerous extension of Bashir-era governance.
This is why protesters are refusing to back down and the armed opposition has not cast their weapons aside. The regime remains fundamentally unchanged, instead choosing to pursue cosmetic changes in the hopes of buying time and waiting the Sudanese people out. But even as it does so, forces underneath the command of the Transitional Military Council continue to oppress those Sudanese who are most in need of a transition to good, democratic governance.
All international efforts to drive real, positive change in Sudan by coming alongside of the Sudanese people must begin with understanding the unchanged nature of the regime, otherwise the Transitional Military Council will remain in power. The humanitarian blockades will remain in place. There will be no peace agreements. Sudanese in the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile, and Darfur will continue to die.
This regime is too deformed to be reformed. Only uprooting it from the ground up offers the beginning of solutions to Sudan’s challenges that so many Sudanese are rightfully seeking to address.
Now is not the time to release the minimal pressure the international community has placed on the regime. It is time to drastically amp that pressure up. The Transitional Military Council’s members need to feel that every moment they remain in power and continue oppressing ordinary Sudanese, the likelihood of their own demise will rise exponentially. The Council must be forced to begin answering to the will and immediate needs of the Sudanese people. That should not just include a rapid transition to civilian authority and eventual democracy, but to the immediate ending of the regime-created humanitarian emergencies that have continued underneath the Transitional Military Council.
The people of Sudan are overcoming two of the greatest challenges facing humanity today: war and genocide. Operation Broken Silence is accelerating their ability to generate lasting change by funding storytelling and movement-building, education and emergency response, and grassroots advocacy programs. Here are a few ways you can join us:
1. Give Monthly To The Education In Yida. The Renewal is our unstoppable family of monthly givers who never stop fighting for change. They give automatically each and every month to the two schools we sponsor in Yida Refugee Camp, providing consistent support to 24 teachers and nearly 1,100 students from the Nuba Mountains. Monthly givers who donate $25+ a month also get free tickets to our two annual events! LEARN MORE »
2. Become A Fundraiser. If you can’t give monthly right now, you can start an online fundraising page for the schools in Yida or Mother of Mercy Hospital in the Nuba Mountains warzone. BECOME A FUNDRAISER »
3. Give Once. Not ready to commit with a monthly gift or fundraising yet? That’s okay, making a one-time gift is the best next step to get your feet wet! GIVE HERE »