Sudan Tensions Highlight Difficulties Faced by Women in Conflict

Photo property of: Rita Willaert
Kamila, a resident of South Kordofan, fled the state’s capital of Kadugli after heavy fighting erupted in the afternoon of Sunday, June 5, in Um Dorain--a former stronghold of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) that lies some 35 kilometres southeast of Kadugli. Kamila and other residents became concerned after a large number of soldiers from the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) arrived in the capital, and rumours began to spread that members of the SPLA had requested more soldiers be dispatched to the area.

“The security situation is very bad. Residents of Kadugli town fled their homes with nowhere to run, there’s no movement of people on the streets, the market has become a battleground and basic necessities like food, water and fuel for transporting civilians has run out,” explains Kamila in an interview with Her Blueprint.

Kamila explains that the conflict began in April of this year, after President Omar al-Bashir declared in his election campaign speech in the town of Al-Mujlad (which is located some two hundreds kilometres from Kadugli) that the National Congress Party (NCP) would remove soldiers previously aligned with the southern Sudan's Souther People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) from the key border-states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile of Nuba.

Tensions in South Kordofan flared up during May's elections after NCP candidate and incumbent Governor Ahmad Haroun’s win over former Deputy Governor and Nuba leader Abdel-Aziz al-Hilu. Al-Hilu pulled out of the race claiming election fraud, which the north denies.

Sudan’s defense minister, Abdelrahim Mohamed Hussein, accused SPLA fighters of conspiring to seize South Kordofan by making Kadugli a second Benghazi and declare al-Hilu as governor.

Following South Sudan’s vote for secession, Khartoum increased calls for the SPLA to re-locate in the south. The pressure mounted when Haroun - who is facing forty-two counts for war crimes in Sudan’s western region of Darfur by the International Criminal Court (ICC) - gave the SPLA a June 1st deadline to withdraw from the Blue Nile and South Kordofan state.

“In Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile States, we are already seeing the playing out of the challenges Khartoum faces. Regions that were aligned with the SPLM during the civil war and where the SPLM is still a major political force, and sometimes military as well, represent a challenge to the NCP,” Roger Middleton, Africa researcher with Chatham House, told Her Blueprint. “This can either be a political base for an SPLM led political challenge to the NCP or could if populations feel marginalised and the political negotiations are mishandled lead to violent confrontation.”

Located near the Nuba Hills in central Sudan, South Kordofan - with an estimate population of nearly 1,100,000 people and an area of 158,355 square kilometres - is one of Sudan's twenty-five states and a major producer of the north's oil. The state, which is bordered by Darfur to the west and Blue Nile state to the east, is home to millions of Nuba people who are multi-ethnic black Africans that reside in the foothills of the Nuba Mountains. Despite being situated in the north, most Nuba support the SPLM and many fighters joined the SPLA during the country’s decade-long civil war. The Nuba have rejected calls to move across the border because it would mean abandoning their homelands.

“What we’re going to increasingly see in places like the Nuba Mountains is that some of the old grievances that haven’t been addressed will re-surface because if they feel that the southern question is settled in the post July-era then they’ll want to make their voices heard,” says Dr. Alhaji Sarjoh Bah, a Senior Fellow and Program Coordinator of African Security Institutions at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. “Of course this is happening in an environment that is highly militarised, where the consequences for the civilians is certainly bound to be high.”

The United Nations (UN) estimates that nearly seventy-three thousand people have been displaced since clashes erupted between the SAF and SPLM-aligned Nuba fighters last month in the north's top oil producing state of South Kordofan. Upon arrival from peace talks with Chinese president Hu Jintao, al-Bashir reportedly announced the cleansing of the state of rebels, which analysts says is a way of quelling discontent with the NCP's constituency.

"Khartoum has to give hardliners within the NCP something to hold on to after secession and one way they're doing that is trying to exert some kind of military force in Abyei and other transitional areas so that even if the south goes away it will part knowing that the north maintains its military superiority," explains Bah.

On May 21, the SAF seized the oil-rich region of Abyei, which is a southern district of South Kordofan straddling the north-south border and claimed by both Khartoum and Juba. Rights groups have warned of a growing humanitarian situation as hundreds of thousands internally displaced are in dire need of food, water, health care and shelter.

"Thousands of people from Agok and Abyei town - mainly women and children - carrying bags on their heads are on the move with many now based in Turalei, Mayen-Abun and on the road to Agok," Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF’s) head of mission in Agok, Raphael Gorgeu said in an interview with Her Blueprint. "Water is of concern because it's rainy season and people are becoming dehydrated from the treacherous walk and aid workers are unable to reach them due to the harsh conditions of the roads."

Women and Conflict

Arafa Hassan is from central Sudan’s Nuba Mountains. As a child she dreamed of sharing her cultural heritage internationally but those aspirations vanished when she was forced to leave her homeland.

“We used to have our own language but then Arabic was forced on us. I witnessed members of my family being raped and killed,” Arafa told Her Blueprint. “Our family was driven out after the government seized our lands. Although it’s difficult living the life of a refugee, which could mean being detained or without basic needs, we had to escape persecution.”

An estimated twenty-seven million out of thirty-five million displaced by conflict worldwide are internally displaced persons, with women and girls representing nearly seventy-five percent. Amongst the ninety-percent of civilian war casualties, women and children rank highest.

Although everyone caught in the crossfire of internal violence is affected, women and girls remain the most vulnerable due to their status in society before conflict hits. Most are subjected to rape, severe psychological trauma, unwanted pregnancies and slavery.

Marking the one-year anniversary of the United Nations women's agency (UN Women), the agency unveiled a 165-page report highlighting the significant gains international law has made in the past two decades to bring attention to sexual violence against women as a weapon of war but when it comes to putting the accused attackers on trial, the International Criminal Court (ICC) fails to prosecute.

In a recent UN study, as many as 1.8 million Congolese women have been raped in the conflict, with about 400,000 in the past month at a rate of nearly 1,152 per day - making it one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. And with door to door raids by Khartoum's security forces being reported in South Kordofan, countless numbers of women and girls could silently fall victim to sexual violence.