Human Rights

Possible crimes against humanity in southern Sudan

© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

In 2011 these women fled the government bombardments near their homes in Surkum. (Credit: Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch)

The indiscriminate aerial bombardment of civilians in the south of Sudan could amount to crimes against humanity, according to a new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report.

Under Siege, released today, documents the devastating toll the bombing campaign has had on the states of Southern Kordofan and the Blue Nile in Sudan.


This is Darfur all over again, and unfortunately we’re seeing the same lackluster global response‘- John Prendergast, Satellite Sentinel Project

The regions have been under attack since 2011, when skirmishes broke out between the forces of the President of Sudan Omar al-Bashir’s government and rebel group the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which is linked to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement- North (SPLM- North). Since then the Khartoum government has carried out a series of aerial bombardments of the rebel-held regions in the south of the country, using Antonov cargo planes to drop munitions, including cluster bombs, which are outlawed by many countries.

Over two years Human Rights Watch undertook five field visits and held interviews with more than 200 displaced people and refugees, as well as staff from eight national and international organisations. The evidence compiled charts the effect this sustained violence has had on the region and concludes that many of the tactics employed could constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity.

An estimated 900,000 people have been displaced or otherwise severely affected by the conflict, according to the report – a huge proportion of the estimated 2.2m people who live in the areas affected.

Indiscriminate killing
The force of the aerial bombardment has been intense. HRW notes over 230 bombs were dropped between the start of October and mid-November this year.

As well as cluster bombs the researchers found the government troops using barrel bombs – ‘improvised crude devices filled with nails and other jagged pieces of metal that become deadly projectiles upon impact.’

The Antonov aircrafts used to deploy these bombs do not allow for a great deal of accuracy and, as such, civilian targets are common. Indeed, HRW researchers found that of the 122 people treated for aerial bombardment wounds at a hospital in Kauda, Southern Kordofan, 110 were civilians, most of whom were women, children and the elderly.


[Bashir's government has] adopted a strategy to treat all populations in rebel held areas as enemies and legitimate targets, without distinguishing between civilian and combatant’
Under Siege, Human Rights Watch

HRW even came across suggestions that bombs were dropped in regions where there were in fact no military targets, although the researchers could not verify these claims.

According to the human rights NGO, Bashir’s government has ‘adopted a strategy to treat all populations in rebel held areas as enemies and legitimate targets, without distinguishing between civilian and combatant,’ an approach which violates international law, according to HRW.

The view from the ground
The human impact of this indiscriminate war of attrition makes for disturbing reading. The report mentions the Dellami family who were asleep in their house in Um Durein on February 17, 2012 when a bomb fell from the sky. Four sisters sleeping in one room burned to death while their father died shortly afterward.

It is stories such as these that haunt Bishop Andudu, head of the diocese in Southern Kordofan. He spoke to the Bureau in October about what he had seen during his last visit to the region.


There is unimaginable human rights abuse’- Bishop Andudu

‘When I visited the people, really I have seen their suffering,’ he told the Bureau. ‘They are bombing not only the soldiers but also the churches, the market, the children and the mosques as well. There is starvation looming in all areas because people cannot cultivate [crops] because of the air bombardment. There is no medicine, people are sick. Many people have been arrested and there is unimaginable human rights abuse.

‘Everybody has a hole in his house or compound, because of the air bombardment flights,’ he continued,  ‘so you can go into your hole, because the bombs they go horizontally, so if you are down in [the hole] that will save you, unless something falls directly on you.’

Other people have resorted to living in the relative shelter of caves in the Nuba mountains.


This is Darfur all over again, and unfortunately we’re seeing the same lackluster global response.’ - John Prendergast, Satellite Sentinel Project 

However, those displaced from their homes face other complications. One mother told HRW how, when she and her family hide in the bush, they do not use mosquito nets for fear the white material might make them targets for the planes. As a result her family are at heightened risk of contracting malaria.

Related article: UN criticised in Sudan after children left unimmunised

HRW also reports incidences of government troops raping women and girls in the rebel-held regions, although they explain that exact numbers are hard to ascertain. However, refugee women in the refugee camp in Yida, South Sudan are also reported to have identified sexual violence as a serious concern when fleeing their homes in the Nuba mountains. Sexual violence is also cited as a serious issue in the refugee camps.

A Human Rights Watch researcher examines the crater left by a barrel bomb in late October 2012, in Yabus, Blue Nile. (© 2012 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch)

Getting aid in
As well as the aerial bombardment, Khartoum has also made it nearly impossible for humanitarian aid to reach the area.

In August, following pressure from the African Union (AU), Arab League (AL) and United Nations (UN), Bashir announced he would let aid into the area. However, as reported by the Bureau,  months later and aid agencies still found themselves unable to help those in the targeted regions.

Related article: UN agencies have no access to desperate people in Nuba, despite al-Bashir’s promises

Aerial bombardment of the land has left farmers unable to cultivate their crops. A household survey in rebel-held parts of Southern Kordofan revealed that last August 81.5% of families were living on one meal a day, leading to serious levels of malnutrition among children.

Some displaced families in the Blue Nile region reported having to reduce their food intake in October and November to just one meal every five days.

Meanwhile last week the Satellite Sentinel Project, which uses aerial drones to film areas of Sudan, warned that their footage appeared to show 26 villages had been intentionally set on fire last month by Sudanese forces.


‘Razing a village is a war crime, and the torching of now at least 26 Nuban villages, plus the systematic destruction of crops and grasslands for cattle, is a crime against humanity.’ - George Clooney

George Clooney is one of the co-founders of the project and has spoken out about the project’s findings, stating: ‘Razing a village is a war crime, and the torching of now at least 26 Nuban villages, plus the systematic destruction of crops and grasslands for cattle, is a crime against humanity.’

Responding to HRW’s report the other founder of the project, John Prendergast told the Bureau, ‘The Satellite Sentinel Project’s imagery and field analysis corroborates Human Rights Watch’s findings of war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the government of Sudan in South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

‘Village burning, indiscriminate aerial bombing, and the denial of food as a weapon require a much more robust response from the international community. This is Darfur all over again, and unfortunately we’re seeing the same lackluster global response.’

According to international law all parties to a conflict are required to take all possible precautions to minimise civilian casualties during military operations. The deliberate targeting of civilians and extra judicial killings constitute war crimes.

In 2008 the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Al-Bashir for suspected crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide in his treatment of the population of Darfur.

Neither the AU nor the UN has explicitly condemned Sudan’s indiscriminate bombing, according to HRW.

The Embassy of Sudan did not respond with their opinions on the HRW report but have previously refuted allegations made by HRW and Amnesty International with regards to the situation in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile States.

Read the Human Rights Watch report here.