Sudan and South Sudan look to be on the brink of all-out war, with ICC-indicted Sudanese President Omar Bashir exclaiming, “There are two choices: Either we end up in Juba, or they end up in Khartoum. The old borders cannot take us both,” last week.
But prior to the frenzied rallies and South Sudan’s occupation of Heglig, an oil-rich region on Sudan’s southern border, the Sudanese government was waging a quiet and ruthless war against rebels in its province, South Kordofan.
The humanitarian situation in parts of South Kordofan (and the Blue Nile States) has been deteriorating since last year. The government of Sudan’s indiscriminate attacks have been particularly monstrous in South Kordofan’s Nuba Mountains region.
In a fantastic feature released by Al Jazeera on the 9th, a former UN coordinator for Sudan described events in South Kordofan as “worse than Darfur.” The Al Jazeera report (link here) is a valuable source on the issue for a number of reasons, but the interview with Mustafa Osman Ismail, a senior adviser to Bashir, is particularly fascinating.
The justifiably-confrontational interviewer presses Ismail hard on the civilian toll of the Sudanese government’s ferocious offensive in the Nuba Mountains.
Reports of excessive violence and ethnic cleansing gained some added degree of credibility when Al Jazeera released a video of South Kordofan’s governor, Ahmed Harun, telling Sudanese troops about to engage rebels to “hand over the place clean. Swept, rubbed, crushed. Don’t bring them back alive. We have no space for them.”
Ismail begins by responding to the Al Jazeera journalist and by laying out a fairly crude argument that “war is war,” and civilian deaths in war are unavoidable. However, towards the end of his interview, he murmurs a far more sophisticated (albeit grotesque) defense:
“They [the rebels] are taking civilians as shelter.”
Now, the fact that an adviser to the butcherly Omar Bashir deployed this hackneyed reasoning should be jarring. Without a doubt, Ismail’s excuse has a sort of romantic appeal to military and government officials in the Sudanese regime and to whoever decides to buy into their arguments.
Bashir’s adviser attempts to transform this outmatched rebel group, which is fighting a well-armed state and its allies in South Kordofan, into a group of more-worthy opponents, with sinister, Bond villain-esque intentions.
The tragedy here is that Bashir’s underling is ultimately using the defense as a means to justify government-sponsored mass murder in places like the Nuba Mountains. The highlighted Al Jazeera interview demonstrates the exportability and absurdity of the “human shields” or “taking shelter among civilians” defense.
The next time any government decides to use that trick to justify “collateral damage” or high civilian death tolls, more than a few eyebrows should rise. And, right now, we shouldn’t buy Sudan’s deployment of the defense for a second.