Sudan eyewitness recalls South Kordofan horror

AFP , Friday 17 Jun 2011

Sudanese tell their stories of suffering from the brutality of the fights in Kordofan

sudan
Residents gather outside the UNMIS sector headquarters after fleeing fighting in Kadugli, the capital of South Kordofan, Sudan (Photo:AP)

Bodies in the street, workers digging graves and gunmen hunting down members of the Nuba ethnic group -- the horror still chills those who managed to escape the violence rocking Sudan’s embattled border state.

"We were just coming back from church, when many soldiers started shouting ‘go, go, go’," said Yusuf, a 40-year old resident of Kadugli, the state capital of South Kordofan.

"At first they were shooting in the air, but then there was firing with artillery," he added, providing one of the first eyewitness accounts from the fighting there.

"After that was when the killing began."

Yusuf, not his real name, asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, saying he feared reprisals against family members or colleagues.

Heavy fighting in South Kordofan state on the border between north and south Sudan has raged since June 5.

Khartoum forces are battling northern militia aligned to the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the army of southern Sudan which is on the verge of forming a breakaway nation.

Heavy aerial bombardments have taken place across the state and humanitarian aid has been severely restricted, drawing condemnation from the international community.

Religious leaders and rights activists have said it is a government policy of ethnic cleansing, targeting the indigenous Nuba peoples who fought during Sudan’s bitter 1983-2005 war with the then southern rebels.

Khartoum rejects all accusations of ethnic cleansing, and says it is disarming northern militiamen allied to the SPLA, thought to number around 40,000.

It says it will not tolerate the existence of two armies within its borders after south Sudan gains full international recognition on July 9.

But Yusuf has a different account.

"The government says it started when they came to disarm the SPLA and they refused, and then started shooting," he said, speaking in the southern capital Juba, where he fled to with his family.

"But if you were in Kadugli town you could have seen that this was something planned.

"As soon as it started, the Sudanese Armed Forces (the northern army) were saying, you go there, you start there, and you attack from there. It was well organised in advance."

For men like Yusuf, a Nuba, the outbreak of violence echoes the brutal days of killings and forced displacement of the civil war, tactics historians say were then later used in Sudan's war-torn western region of Darfur.

Traditionally the people of South Kordofan co-existed, however, and Yusuf still had good relations with his neighbour from the Baggara Arab ethnic group.

But his neighbour was also a member of the Popular Defence Force, a feared militia now part of the Sudanese army.

"We talked and he helped in business, but I know he is also a member of the PDF," he said.

"He’s a supporter of Ahmed Harun," he added, referring to the newly elected state governor, a man wanted by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges in Darfur.

"He told me that the PDF had new guns and had been given lots ammunition.

"He said that they had clear instructions: just sweep away the rubbish. If you see a Nuba, just clean it up.

"He told me he saw two trucks of people with their hands tied and blindfolded, driving out to where diggers were making holes for graves on the edge of town."

So after two days sheltering inside his house, Yusuf and his family decided to escape.

"We were told that the soldiers were going from house to house searching for supporters, so we knew we had to leave," he said.

"We carried no belongings with us, so that we looked like were just going out for a walk.

"When we came out, there in the street were at least two dead bodies, civilians, but the soldiers and police were just standing there chatting as though that were normal.

"I was saying to our group: 'Just walk slowly, pretend you are not afraid, not scared, no one should run. If it is our time to die, then we will die, but let us not provoke them.'

"I am sure that they saved my life because I was carrying a child, a baby."

The impact of heavy fighting could be seen in the city.

Houses and aid agency offices had been looted, while stores of Christian literature had been torched.

Churches had been shot at and buildings destroyed: all accounts backed up by several other independent reports.

After safely reaching the car, the group drove past hundreds of displaced people, many gathered outside the gates of the UN peacekeepers compound in the hope of security, shelter or food.

As they tried to leave the town, Yusuf and his family ran into checkpoints run by gunmen, where they had to deny that they were SPLA supporters.

"We drove slowly further out of town, and there were two Arabs who wanted a lift. We just wanted to escape but we took them, which was lucky.

"At the next checkpoint, the soldiers shouted: 'Who are you? Who do you support?' But then they saw the Arabs, and they waved us through, as though saying, 'You are one of us.'

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