Born in Blood

Sudan's separation was meant to end decades of civil war. Instead it has created two weak states and more conflict

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Photograph by CÚdric Gerbehaye for TIME

High in the Nuba Mountains in central Sudan lies a green valley of guava, mango and custard-apple trees where the people live in conical grass-roofed huts, tending goats and raising maize and sorghum on steep stone terraces. For the past month the focus of valley life has been its hospital, overflowing with child amputees, old women with shrapnel wounds and young men who arrived carrying their guts. Among them is Morcilla Dimas, 8. Her uncle, Haitar Solomon, recounts how on June 26, after hiding all day in the hills above their village of Kurchi, the family ventured home, and Morcilla took her sisters Maklena, 6, and Priska, 4, to fetch water from the village pump. A Sudanese air force Antonov plane chose that moment to launch five 45-gal. (170 L) barrels of oil attached to explosives. Twelve people, including Maklena and Priska, were killed. Morcilla suffered burns and lacerations to her feet and arms. Dr. Tom Catena, 47, a surgeon from upstate New York who works in the hospital, says even if Kurchi were a military target, "rolling bombs out the back at 20,000 feet" over a village can only be described as "premeditated civilian bombing."

Births should be joyous, but in Sudan, new life can seem merely one more opportunity for death. On July 9, two new nations will come into being when Africa's largest country splits into two: a smaller, mostly Arab and Muslim Sudan ruled from the old capital, Khartoum, and a mainly black African and Christian South Sudan with its capital in Juba. The road to separation was long and bloody: 2 million people died in two civil wars — 1955 to 1972 and 1983 to 2005 — between the northern government and southern rebels. But rather than heralding peace, the split is creating two weak and unstable countries and yet more conflicts.

The deadliest is the month-old war between the regime in Khartoum and the rebels of the Nuba Mountains. Though the Nuba, ethnic black Africans, fought alongside the south at a cost of 200,000 lives, their state of South Kordofan ended up inside the new north along with Darfur to the west and a third restive state, Blue Nile, to the east. Last December, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir proclaimed that the new northern Sudan would be a monolithic Islamic Arab state. "We will change the constitution, and at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity," he declared. "Shari'a [law] and Islam will be the main source for the constitution, Islam the official religion and Arabic the official language." Further upping the stakes, on June 1, though stalling on other elements of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the north-south war, al-Bashir's government announced it would implement the part about disarming rebels, starting with Nuba fighters.

War erupted in days. Aid workers fled. Khartoum sealed the roads and banned flights. A handful of journalists managed to reach the mountains, however, including a small team from TIME. And from 30 interviews in three days with rebel leaders, soldiers, civilians, refugees, the wounded and medical personnel, a consistent picture emerges. Human-rights investigators will ultimately judge whether what is happening in the Nuba Mountains is classified as ethnic cleansing or genocide. What is clear is that by launching a campaign of terror against unarmed villagers, al-Bashir's soldiers are committing crimes against humanity (defined as "a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population" in Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court), and by targeting civilians they are guilty of war crimes (defined in Article 8 as "intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population"). Bolstering this case, as International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo notes, are the charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity already facing al-Bashir and his South Kordofan governor, Ahmed Haroun, over similar atrocities in Darfur. Al-Bashir responded to the new accusations on July 1, saying he had ordered his soldiers to "continue their operations in South Kordofan until they clean the state of rebels." Jehanne Henry, Sudan specialist at Human Rights Watch, says, "It certainly appears war crimes are being committed. The government is not discriminating at all between military and civilian. It seems to have decided to take them all out."

Sudan's main rebel group for the past three decades has been the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). It has 150,000 to 200,000 men under arms, spread across Sudan — north and south — and a large political wing, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). The rebels in the north will technically become a separate group on July 9. In early June, days after Khartoum announced its intention to disarm the rebels, its security forces in and around Kadugli, the capital of South Kordofan, were handed lists of SPLA and SPLM members. On June 5, according to eyewitnesses, they began going house to house with the lists, shouting, "Now is the time to shoot" and "Allahu akbar [God is great]." Hundreds of rebels and opposition members fled. Many who did not were dragged from their houses and shot or butchered in the street. Simultaneously, the SPLA, reinforced by tens of thousands of Nuba fighters from bases in South Sudan, made a lightning advance, briefly capturing parts of Kadugli. There, a crowd of thousands of Nuba refugees gathered outside a base manned by peacekeepers belonging to the U.N. mission in Sudan. The peacekeepers refused to let the refugees enter. Northern soldiers encircled the crowd and began identifying rebel supporters. Witnesses say at least six were marched off and shot.

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