On Sudan's front lines, suffering and death

Civilians caught between government and rebel forces in South Kordofan state are targets in intensified bombing.

    On Sudan's front lines, suffering and death
    Many people have been sheltering in the caves since bombing intensified in January [Ashley Hamer/Al Jazeera]

    Nuba Mountains, Sudan - You cannot drive into Um Serdiba. Vehicles risk being spied by war planes overhead whose pilots can radio a base in nearby government-controlled Kadugli, prompting a barrage of artillery fire.

    Instead, everyone walks in and out six kilometres in 43 degree Celsius heat. The sandy path skirts the bottom of a rough, tawny ridge; mud-brick huts and straw compounds scatter across the plain.

    Most residents of Um Serdiba, close to the government-rebel front line, evacuated into hillside caves [Al Jazeera]

    There is an artillery shell crater almost every 50m, blasted earth or shattered stone, and blackened trees with great impact bites punched out of their trunks.

    Grass and crops are burned in the blaze that follows explosions, leaving stubby, charred ground. Jagged shards of lead shrapnel litter the sand.

    According to Faruk Idriss, executive director of Um Dorein county, all of the huts across this area are empty as families have evacuated to caves in the hillside for protection.

     Artillery shells landed in the bush not far from villages where children were taking school lessons [Al Jazeera]

    Um Serdiba has been shelled and bombed by government forces (SAF) relentlessly for the past month.

    Idriss said currently as many as 200 munitions a day are falling here and on neighbouring payams, or villages. At least 70 people have been wounded and more than 50 killed.

    Antonov bombers track movements on the main dirt road cutting through Um Dorein.

    A cluster of bombs fell beside the road as a vehicle carrying this journalist sped towards the county.

     Villagers say government forces have been bombing and shelling Um Serdiba on a daily basis for four weeks [Al Jazeera]

    Children, taking lessons outside because school buildings are often targets, came running to the shelter of a rocky outcrop, notebooks flapping in their hands, to watch the fire spread and a column of black smoke rise a kilometre away.

    These are the Nuba Mountains, a rugged border region in Sudan's South Kordofan state.

    The government in the capital Khartoum has waged war in these hills since 2011 against a Nuba opposition group called the Sudan People's Liberation Army-North (SPLA-N), which controls much of this territory.

    The Sudanese government forbids journalists, international relief organisations, and all humanitarian aid from entering the Nuba Mountains, leaving the entire region under a three-year blockade.

    Children hide in the caves day and night while their parents carry water and attempt to tend crops on their plots below [Al Jazeera]

    Back in Um Serdiba, Rosa Yasir was hiding in a narrow concrete tunnel running under the baking road. At least six children, including her own tiny baby, emerged from the mouth of the tunnel.

    "We've been here for two weeks," Yasir said. "The Antonov destroyed my house. It is bombing every day. I stay here with the children while another woman finds food and water."

    Asked why she doesn't leave the village for a safer place further from the front line and fighting, Yasir responded: "Everywhere is the same. There's nowhere safe here, it's all the same situation."

    Rosa Yasir shelters in a tunnel under the road, looking after children who sleep here since their homes were destroyed [Al Jazeera]


    Government forces are fighting SPLA-N rebels for control of Um Serdiba.

    Kadugli, an SAF stronghold, sits 10km away across the grassy plain.

    The government wants Um Serdiba because it would open up more rebel territory. The town is also the birthplace of a senior SPLA-N commander - although there is minimal military presence in the town, its capture would be a major blow to rebel morale.

    Exactly one week ago at 4am, a military artillery shell from Kadugli crashed through the roof of a hut where nine children were sleeping in an underground foxhole.

    The blast and subsequent inferno killed four kids aged 3 to 16. Another five were critically wounded with 60 percent burns on their bodies, and are being treated in a field hospital four hours away.

    Shadia Khatir [left] lost three of her seven children recently when a shell landed on her house while the family slept [Al Jazeera]


    One mother and father lost three of their children in that attack.

    Shadia Khatir, the mother, said she is more heartbroken than she can explain.

    "We were sleeping outside, the children were in the foxhole. Afterwards we were pulling them from the fire … then we asked the soldiers for a vehicle to take them to hospital," she said.

    The military shelled Um Serdiba in the early hours, then when light came and the villagers crowded to rescue the children, it did so again.

    The extended family mourn for the children killed last week in artillery shelling by the military [Al Jazeera]


    Mawia Ibrahim, commissioner for the town, said the army deliberately bombs civilians.

    "They hardly target SPLA barracks. The injured are always civilians. They target farms, livestock, water points … schools," he said.

    On January 20, a field hospital run incognito by medical charity Doctors without Borders (MSF) in another village called Frandala was targeted from the air and bombed, causing the organisation to cease operations and withdraw from the region.

    "Today there can be no doubt that this was a deliberate and targeted bombing on a civilian hospital structure and part of a strategy to terrorise the community," MSF's head of mission Marc Van der Mullen said.  

    The government in Khartoum continues to deny allegations of atrocities against civilians in the Nuba Mountains.

    Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir has vowed to crush the country's insurgencies ahead of the presidential election in April. "We want to hand over the young generations a united and conflict-free country, we want to get rid of tribalism and racism," Bashir has said

    But the families of Um Serdiba, who have left their homes to shelter in nearby caves, say they experience attacks almost every day.

    Five children critically wounded in a recent attack are being treated in hospital with severe burns [Al Jazeera]


    "This is where we sleep now, like pigs, in caves. We have taken the place of pigs," said Hanan Ashanta, 25, in perfect English. "The Antonov bombs us during the day and they start the shelling at night."

    The caves are dirty and dark. The villagers stuff mattresses into the crevices for the children to sleep on. It is more than an hour round trip to the nearest water point.

    Because of the government blockade and proximity to enemy lines, there is no humanitarian aid whatsoever reaching Um Serdiba. There is no clinic and no functioning school.

    Families are reluctant to leave because this is their land and they have nowhere else to go.

    Nuba Mountains, in Sudan's South Kordofan state, have been a battleground since the government launched a military campaign against rebels in 2011 [Al Jazeera]

    Other towns might be further from the front line, but aerial bombardment and ground attacks have intensified across the entire Nuba Mountains since peace talks failed in December.

    On the edge of Um Serdiba, a young man stands inside a four-metre-wide crater left by a bomb dropped last week. He holds up a twisted chunk of broken shrapnel.

    "I want to ask you something," he said through a translator.

    "Since the war started in 2011, journalists have been coming here. Taking photos and making videos of our suffering. But in four years nothing has changed. Why is that?"

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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