Four years after the UN first warned of ” egregious ” war crimes in the Sudanese state of South Kordofan, Amnesty International has released a report that “definitively confirms” war crimes against civilian populations were committed by the Sudanese military, as recently as April this year.
The human-rights advocacy group’s report , Don’t We matter? Four Years of Unrelenting Attacks against Civilians of Sudan’s South Kordofan State, details alleged instances in which the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) used prohibited weapons and attacked civilians, schools and hospitals between January and April 2015.
According to Amnesty International, the outcome has been an uptick in civilian deaths, as well as a deteriorating humanitarian situation in which fear is increasingly becoming the rule.
“It is time for the international community to stop averting its gaze from South Kordofan and take urgent action to end this conflict,” said Michelle Kagari, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director.
The Sudanese ministry of justice was unavailable for comment.
Though media attention and relief efforts for Sudan often focus on the Darfur region, South Kordofan is at the centre of fighting between SAF and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), a rebel organisation controlling territories in the area.
South Kordofan has been embroiled in violence since the north-south war, when local residents fought against the military alongside southern rebels demanding autonomy.
After the war ceased and borders ossified, the fighters of South Kordofan found themselves in the north, behind enemy lines.
Now, SPLM-N is battling the military for control of the state, with both sides having been denounced for committing war crimes.
Amnesty International has been in South Kordofan and released several reports on the violence since 2011, when the conflict began.
“For the first time, Amnesty International is definitively saying that war crimes are being committed,” said Nyagoah Tut, the group’s campaigner on Sudan and South Sudan.
“This time we have enough evidence to say that the places SAF is targeting have no military objectives.”
Amnesty International was unable to verify whether SPLM-N had been responsible for war crimes, as the organisation was barred access from territories in South Kordofan under the Sudanese government’s control.
However, through site visits and interviews in SPLM-N territory, Amnesty International confirmed that SAF dropped an estimated 374 bombs on civilian locations between January and April 2015.
During these months, SAF aerial bombardments and ground shelling resulted in 35 civilian deaths, massive internal displacement and 70 people injured.
According to the organisation, SAF forces targeted areas in South Kordofan indiscriminately, blurring the “civilian and combatant” divide enshrined in international law.
“It is a principle of international law that civilians should not be targeted,” said Tut. “Where the bombs landed, there were no military installations in sight. They were nowhere near the frontlines.”
SAF campaigns have also resulted in the destruction of civilian infrastructure like hospitals and schools, severely restricting children’s ability to receive education. According to Tut, enrolment in secondary school has dropped from 3000 children to between 300 and 500.
In SPLM-N controlled areas, there are now only two hospitals servicing 1.2 million people – a number only exacerbated by the government’s refusal to allow humanitarian aid into these territories.
“Since 2011 the government has restricted humanitarian and human rights organisations from entering,” said Tut. “This has had a terrible impact on people’s ability to access adequate food, water and health care.”
An outbreak of measles in Sudan has raised additional concerns as aid organisations grapple with the life-threatening disease.
However, the ongoing conflict in South Kordofan means that aid givers are unable to access children in the area.
Unicef estimates that 165,000 children under five living in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, another hub for fighting, have gone without routine immunisation, and half a million are at risk of contracting measles.
“We need to be able to reach every boy and girl to administer the measles vaccine,” said Geert Cappelaere, a Unicef Representative. “If we are not able to reach these children, not only are they in danger of facing a life-threatening disease, but also the spread of measles throughout Sudan will continue.”
“All parties need to put down arms, all parties need to commit and allow for humanitarian assistance,” Cappelaere told Al Jazeera. He added that in seven months, Unicef has reported 2800 cases of measles – five times the annual average.
In addition to the deteriorating humanitarian situation, Amnesty International also found physical evidence of the use of cluster bombs, weapons that spread open mid-air into tens or hundreds of sub-explosives, which rain down indiscriminately on the ground below.
According to Amnesty, these weapons are too imprecise and should not be used in areas with civilians. Yet personnel have found cluster munitions at four sites across South Kordofan.
“South Kordofan needs to be on the map as much as Syria is, as much as Yemen is, becuase the humanitarian impact here is just as dire,” Tut told Al Jazeera.
When bombings take place, families flee to caves or dig foxholes for shelter. The widespread bombing has left many too afraid to farm in fields, contributing to the growing food insecurity that has affected 555,000 people in the area.
Sometimes munition does not detonate and residents are left to cover unexploded cluster bomblets with thorny branches. Amnesty has heard testimony of children playing with undetonated munitions.
“Many people that we interviewed said that the areas they’re living in are being surveyed by drones, or that fighter jets will circle around before dropping a bomb,” Tut said.
For the writers of the report, these testimonies suggests that SAF forces are either aware that they’re bombing civilian locations, or “they are not able to distinguish between what is civilian and what is military”. According to Tut, both constitute war crimes.