Insurgencies, and operations to suppress them, are invariably horrific. They are especially so in a rogue state like Sudan where the government thinks little of banning journalists, aid workers and other potentially mitigating watchdogs. The insurgencies underway in Sudan’s Blue Nile and South Kordofan states are fueled, like so many before them, by discrimination, marginalization and intolerance on the part of the government in Khartoum. It has long been a fatal flaw of the Sudanese state that its government, seated in the northern city of Khartoum and ruled by the chauvinistic National Congress Party (NCP), refuses to embrace the country’s vast racial, religious and ethnic diversity. This dynamic was the crux of most Sudanese conflicts throughout the 20th century and underlay the country’s partition in the 21st.
Between 2009 and 2012, I lived in South Sudan where I worked to document the Republic’s tense and precarious transition to independence. During my time there, I made numerous trips to border regions where I observed various aspects of the conflicts in question. As is the case in most insurgencies, there is a notable power disparity between insurgent elements, in this case the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North (SPLA-N), and their counter-insurgent foes in the Sudan Armed Forces. The latter controls the air space and uses that advantage to carry out wildly inaccurate, albeit regular and frightening, aerial assaults on rebel territory. Through its ability to regulate legal access, the government is also able to severely limit humanitarian assistance. The rebels, who are in and of the people, exploit the asymmetric nature of the fight by controlling the hinterlands, staging hit-and-run ambushes and fighting elusively. In this regard, the dynamics on the ground are typical of insurgencies.
Where things get complicated is the broader context in which these battles occur. Following the secession of the South in 2011, the populations in Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains, elements of which have been mobilized against Khartoum for decades, found themselves in a precarious and frustrating position: isolated from their former southern allies and under the enduringly harsh rule of the NCP. They fight with the stated hope of toppling the NCP and transforming government institutions in ways that will reflect the country’s diverse population. “We want to build a system in which citizenship, not ethnicity, is the basis for inclusion,” Malik Agar, the SPLA-N commander in Blue Nile State, told me during a tour of the battlefield. To achieve this goal, the rebellions in both Blue Nile and South Kordofan commenced and grew, as did the government’s heavy-handed response. The intensification of fighting led to a mass exodus of civilians and a dire humanitarian emergency in refugee camps along the southern side of the new border.
While Sudanese President Omar Bashir is not a character worthy of sympathy, he too faces a set of challenges. To the chagrin of many hardliners within his party, he accepted the 2011 secession of South Sudan — a bitter and economically devastating blow to northern morale. With the South went 80 percent of Sudan’s oil resources, a vital pillar for the North’s fledgling economy. Despite deadly clashes along the border in April, Sudan has, for the most part, allowed southern secession without initiating a return to large-scale conventional war. In the wake of southern independence, across the border of a vastly truncated Sudan, Bashir and the NCP faced multiple, increasingly coordinated insurgencies South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur, all boasting interest in regime change. While decades of oppression motivate the rebellions and garner sympathy from democratic allies, it is unrealistic to think that the regime would allow them to pass unchallenged, particularly during this transitional and uncertain period.
Despite these complex dimensions, there is a growing discussion in which Khatroum’s egregious counter-insurgency measures are presented to the public in a vacuum. In a June 6th, op-ed entitled “We must act now to stop Sudan’s genocide of the Nuba people,” which appeared in the British daily, The Guardian, Dr. Giles Fraser, writes that the “aim [of Khartoum’s current military campaign] is annihilation [of the Nuba people].” Fraser proceeds to vaguely reference the brutality of Khartoum’s actions in South Kordofan without once noting the SPLA-N insurgents, whose operations and intentions constitute the other half of the equation. Such simple and polemical cases, while convenient, not only obfuscate the political complexities of the situation; they disrespect the proud rebels who risk their lives to combat a system of injustice and oppression. The thoughtfulness of their political ideology and the pride with which they navigate the battlefield deserves recognition.
It is largely within these circles, where detail and nuance are elusive, that we hear murmurs of genocide. While employed with the best of intentions, the use of the term to describe the present situation in Blue Nile and South Kordofan is unnecessary, inaccurate and admissible only because of Sudan’s political isolation. With few exceptions, we have yet to uncover evidence of widespread, systemic attempts to exterminate the non-Arab populations of South Kordofan and Blue Nile States. While the situation may deteriorate moving forward, what we presently see are the reprehensible hallmarks of unchecked counter-insurgency; namely the bombing of civilian areas in which rebels are thought to operate, the use of violence to extract information on rebel activities, and the collective punishment of civilian elements thought to be providing support to insurgent forces.
All of these actions constitute war crimes and add to the exhaustive list of human rights abuses for which President Omar al-Bashir and his government must account. It is important, however, that observers remain committed to dispassionate analysis and remember that while genocide is always a war crime, not every war crime is genocide. As advocates and communicators, we should aim to enhance our audience’s understanding of and sensitivity to war crimes rather than dubiously applying the ultimate title in order to garner interest and action. Those who have witnessed this war know that its devastation requires no exaggeration.