Khartoum's Deadly Game

This article originally appeared in ThinkProgress Security.

By Peter Orr

In the last few weeks, the media has ramped up its coverage of violence in the South Sudanese state of Jonglei — and rightly so. Inter-ethnic clashes in Jonglei flared up in January, pitting the Lou Nuer and Murle ethnic groups against each other in what is the latest round of recurrent attacks between the two.

At the same time, however, violence on a much larger scale is hitting Sudan’s “new south”: Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile States. Fighting between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North (SPLM-N) has forced tens of thousands of people to flee to Ethiopia and South Sudan. Nearly as many have been internally displaced and face dire food shortages.

Displacement is a growing problem in the region, and aid groups face immense challenges providing enough emergency food and care to support the displaced population. Bombing and fighting in the area have prevented local families from cultivating their crops, and a poor harvest in November left food stocks even lower than usual. The most insidious problem, however, is the aid blockade imposed by Khartoum.

The government’s refusal to allow international aid agencies (both UN and private) into its territory is putting tens of thousands of lives at risk. Only the Sudanese Red Crescent, seen as neither impartial nor capable of handling the needs of civilians in government and SPLM-N areas, has been allowed to enter the area.

The U.N. and countries including the United States have tried to shift Khartoum and stave off a humanitarian disaster. In recent weeks, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the U.N.’s top humanitarian official both visited Sudan and pressed Omar al-Bashir’s government for greater access. But neither visit was successful in opening Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile to desperately needed assistance.

Khartoum is clearly in bunker mode. Feeling that it was not sufficiently “rewarded” for allowing South Sudan to break away, it is now wary of any incentives the West might offer for opening up these war-torn states. It is also keen to avoid a second Darfur, where Khartoum saw humanitarian assistance as merely a friendly façade for Western meddling. More than that, Bashir’s regime sees the aid blockade in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile as another way to force the SPLM-N to surrender for the sake of suffering civilians.

Given the dire need in these two states and the lack of movement by Sudan, some in the U.S. are now calling for forced access to Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile – whereby food and medical supplies might be flown or trucked into the two areas against Khartoum’s will. Certainly, the need is clear; but leaving aside the prospect of Sudanese military retaliation, the practicalities of such a move are thorny indeed. Dropping aid from the air would be incredibly costly, and it’s unclear how the supplies would be distributed once the aid hits the ground. Meanwhile, the land routes from South Sudan into Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan are either impassible or go through Khartoum-held areas. Ethiopia, another possible entry point, would be wary of provoking Khartoum by cooperating with such a plan.

For the time being, Khartoum’s recklessness and intransigence is certain to push more families from Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile into South Sudan and Ethiopia – adding to the over 100,000 Sudanese refugees already there. Those who can’t flee will face even more danger and deprivation; many will surely die.

As humanitarians, we continue to hope that this time Khartoum will prove its critics wrong; that this time it will welcome assistance and not endanger thousands of lives out of pique. But after years of disappointment, it is hard to expect anything better from Sudan. And the fear is that the most the world can do is prepare for the human tragedy that is about to unfold.