20,000 flee Blue Nile clashes

Armed conflict and air raids, blocked humanitarian aid and potential food shortages: conditions for civilians in two states on the border with South Sudan are giving increasing cause for concern.

“I am really afraid for my life. The first two days of the [fighting], we could see dozens of dead bodies on the streets,” said Ahmed*, a resident of Ed Damazine, the capital of Blue Nile state, where clashes broke out on 1 September between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), prompting more than 20,000 people to flee to neighbouring Ethiopia.

“I have been at home since Saturday [3 September]. At the beginning, people chose to leave the city by car or by bus. Most of the people did. I had things to do before leaving. Now, it is too late. Nobody can go out from the city. I am SPLM. The army knows it. I am afraid,” added the student, speaking to IRIN by telephone before lines were reportedly cut.

SPLM-N was formed as the northern branch of the political party dominating the government in the now independent state of South Sudan. On 4 September, SPLM-N Secretary-General Yasir Arman said Khartoum’s ruling National Congress Party had banned SPLM-N and arrested many of its members and confiscated property in many parts of Sudan.

Each side blamed the other for igniting the clashes in Blue Nile. SPLM-N described Khartoum’s actions as a coup against elected Blue Nile governor Malik Aggar, a former commander in the movement’s military wing (SPLA), during Sudan’s 1983-2005 north-south civil war.

SAF spokesman Al-Sawarmi Khalid Sa’ad described Aggar as a “rebel” whose forces had been planning attacks on four army positions in the state.

Sense of foreboding

Ali*, another Ed Damazine resident, made his escape by bus to the town of Wad Madani with his wife and three children a day before fighting broke out.

“There was something in the air, something was about to happen. There had been soldiers everywhere in town for several weeks,” he told IRIN.

Thousands of residents of Kurmuk, the main town in the south of Blue Nile, also took flight after the SAF began aerial bombardments there on 2 September, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Many UN and NGO workers based in Kurmuk have also left for Ethiopia.

“People are still coming in large numbers,” Kisut Gebre Egziabher, a spokesman for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), told IRIN in Addis Ababa.

“Within two days alone, we have received over 20,000 refugees from Sudan to Ethiopia’s Sherkole refugee camp. This might increase as we have not received today’s data yet…  Based on initial reports, the number of women and children is high,” he said.

“Because of the drought in the Horn of Africa, it is very challenging to welcome these new refugees,” he said.

“We are worried that [UN] compounds [in Blue Nile] might be looted. Vehicles with GPS devices have already been stolen,” said Peter de Clerq, head of the UNHCR mission in Sudan.

The World Food Programme (WFP) said it had 140MT of food in Blue Nile, enough to feed 20,000 for two weeks. “There is no chance of restocking for the moment,” WFP spokesman Amor Almagro told IRIN in Khartoum.

Call to end hostilities

UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres on 4 September appealed for an immediate halt to hostilities in the state.

“We need, at all costs, to stop yet one more refugee crisis in a region of the world that has been witnessing in recent months so much suffering,” he said in Geneva.

Meanwhile, the situation in the nearby state of South Kordofan, where the SAF and SPLM-N have been fighting since early June, displacing or severely affecting some 200,000 civilians, “has reached a critical point”, Valerie Amos, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said in a statement on 30 August.

Photo: IRIN
Ousted: Blue Nile governor Malik Aggar

“Unless there is an immediate stop to the fighting, and humanitarian organizations are granted immediate and unhindered independent access throughout South Kordofan, people in many parts of the state face potentially catastrophic levels of malnutrition and mortality,” she said.

But the SPLM-N has said it will resist the north’s “plan to eradicate” it, which Arman alleged “had been designed a long time ago by the National Congress, which fears the role of the SPLM-N as a democratic force in the transformation of the North.

“We vociferously declare that the only option before us is to forge a nationwide democratic front with the agendas of a radical restructuring of the power’s centre in Khartoum and build a new state that recognizes others and their right to be others,” he said.

The NCP “has deliberately chosen war as the only mechanism to eradicate the SPLM-N. The NCP will live to regret this choice as the SPLM-N is there to stay and to lead,” he said.

*names changed to protect identity