In Crumbling Sudan: Dodging Bombers with the Rebels of Blue Nile

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Hannah Macneish / AFP / Getty Images

Sudanese rebel leader Malik Agar at his hideout near the town of Kurmuk in Blue Nile state on Oct. 10, 2011

The sound of a plane is hard to pick out in the thick, empty landscape of dry grass and blue sky in the Sudanese state of Blue Nile. But once it grows closer, the low whine of an engine is unmistakable. The fighters have been looking up, sensing a problem. They see it, what they are certain is an Antonov bomber sent by their enemy. Quickly, the fatigues-clad rebels leap out of their camouflaged Land Cruisers and trucks, and scramble down the banks of a dry creek. Sweat streaming down their cheeks, they crouch under trees, listening to the plane circle overhead. At last, the bombs drop — one, two and three — perhaps in a faraway field, perhaps on a faraway family. The soldiers emerge from the brush and onto the sandy creek bed to take a drink from the stagnant pools of water. The worst part of their day has passed.

This is how the long, hot days are won — or at least not lost — for the rebel forces battling the Sudanese military for control of Blue Nile state, which used to be in the central part of sprawling old Sudan. Then, the oil-rich south of the country voted overwhelmingly for independence and set itself up as the world's youngest nation. Blue Nile is now on the southern frontier of what is left of Sudan — which continues to be beset by local separatisms, including that waged by the rebel soldiers in Blue Nile.

Conflict has spread across the new border region between the remainder of Sudan ruled by Khartoum and South Sudan, which has its capital in Juba, from Abyei to South Kordofan and, since the beginning of September, Blue Nile. Though violence in Abyei has subsided, ground skirmishes and reports of bombings continue to trickle out of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, a conflict that observers worry will escalate into a fresh civil war to further rend what is left of Sudan. "If [Khartoum] continues this vein in governance terms, they face the potential disintegration of the country," says Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

For the moment, it's still a guerrilla-style rebellion being run from a modest grass hut. Malik Agar, the former governor of Blue Nile who was forced out of office last month, now leads the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army North (SPLM/A-N) from a remote patch near the town of Kurmuk. On Oct. 6, Agar, wearing fatigues, combat boots and a neat salt-and-pepper beard, had a group of foreign journalists over to visit his makeshift command center, delivering polished sound bites while his men passed out sweet tea and Pepsi. "There are so many angry young men who have joined us," he said to the cameras and microphones trained at him. Agar claims that 74 civilians have been killed and over 100 injured in Khartoum's bombing campaign, spurring greater civilian support for his movement and taking rebel movements from Darfur and South Kordofan to Blue Nile to work more closely together against Khartoum. Said Agar: "It's not a misnomer that the enemy of your enemy is your friend."

The history of the enmity between Khartoum and the opposition groups in the region runs deep, and the latest conflict stems in part from the very thing meant to end bloodshed in this part of the world. Opposition forces that supported the South Sudan rebels during the decades-long war say that Khartoum has not upheld its end of a 2005 peace agreement, which, among other things, guarantees greater democracy in Sudan and a greater voice to the people — and politicians — of Abyei, South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Khartoum and the opposition have also not been able to agree on what to do with the soldiers who fought under the banner of the SPLM before the movement helped establish South Sudan as a separate country. The peace agreement says those soldiers should either be demobilized or deployed to the now officially independent south. Neither has happened. Like the movement, the rebel army in the Sudanese territory, the SPLA, has pointedly added the word North to its name.

This spring, Khartoum sent its army in to flush the fighters out of the region — a move that has instead devolved into a fight for control of the states. Now Agar and his party, which Khartoum has banned, are calling, among other things, for the international community to pressure President Omar al-Bashir to stop bombing civilians and for the removal of al-Bashir himself from office. "This regime is deformed to an extent that you can't reform it," says Agar. Khartoum, for its part, said in an Oct. 3 paper that the SPLM has "executed a plan to spread fear and instability in the state through targeting civilians in repeated attacks ... completely avoiding government army sites."

If Agar and his troops are itching for a long fight, residents in the southern part of Blue Nile are not sticking around to see it. Along the red dirt roads of the rebel-controlled region, small groups of women, children and elderly men walk with sticks resting over their shoulders, carrying pouches of whatever they could transport from home. Agar estimates about half the state's 1.2 million people are now on the move. (Without outside monitoring groups operating in the state, there is no way to verify that figure.) But in a little over a month, more that 27,000 refugees have streamed over the border with Ethiopia to escape the bombing and fighting, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which is running camps along the border. The U.N. refugee agency opened a second camp in western Ethiopia this month to accommodate the continuing influx. Others, like cattle herders who refuse to leave their animals, are simply fleeing to places inside the state where they don't think the Antonov bombers will spot them from far above, pitching tarp tents under trees and waiting for the storm to blow over.

The tempest isn't likely to abate, judging by the looks of Kurmuk, once a busy trade town on the border with Ethiopia. In the past six weeks, Kurmuk has become something of an oversize base for the rebellion. Trucks of soldiers tear around throughout the day. Soldiers go on training runs each morning, singing and shuffling in their boots through the littered dirt streets. In the market, most shops are shuttered and desolate; only a few vendors sell cigarettes and tea to the soldiers, hoping to make some extra cash for their families who have already left. "My family comes to visit me here sometimes," says Jahir Jaro Mosa, an elderly man who runs a tea stall in what's left of the Kurmuk market. "When they hear the Antonovs come, they go back across the border."

Nearby, the Kurmuk hospital, which has been treating soldiers from both sides of the conflict as well as the few remaining civilians in town, is now down to one doctor, a South Sudanese man who has been working there since 1997. International aid groups and a handful of foreign private companies that were doing business there have pulled out of the state, taking the many services they were providing with them. In a quiet operating theater, Dr. Evan Atar sutures the amputated arm of Satdam Anima, 20, a soldier whose limb was blown apart by a piece of bomb shrapnel. Anima's eyes flutter open as he begins to come out from under the anesthesia. They settle blankly on a corner of the room. "The impact on civilians is maybe even worse than on the soldiers themselves," says Atar. He says that during the previous war, at least, life in Kurmuk was able to carry on as normal. Now everyone has had to leave. The hospital is running out of supplies, and many across the region are facing a severe food shortage without being able to cultivate their land during the conflict. "The civilians have lost everything in this war," Atar says.

Touring the region, the convoy of soldiers and rebellion supporters is oddly exuberant, alternately cheering at people they see along the way and stopping to point out bomb craters off the side of the road. In the remote, bucolic village of Maiyas, six people were killed in one bombing early this month, including a pregnant woman. Standing in front of the crater, residents turn pieces of twisted bombshell over in their hands and tell the visitors how the victims were mutilated by their impact. "I couldn't even bear to take the bodies to the graves," one recalls. The village chief, Khidir Abusita, says that most of Maiyas' estimated 4,000 people have not left yet. How long they'll stay isn't clear. "Today at noon there was another Antonov circling around," Abusita says. "We're scared." When the soldiers start to pile back into their mud-smeared trucks, the men who gather around the bomb crater bid them farewell: "SPLA, oyee! SPLA, oyee! Long live the SPLA!"

Produced in association with the International Reporting Project.