4 Jul 2012

Sudanese refugees tell of their flight from persecution

The leader of tens of thousands of refugees from the Blue Nile region of Sudan tells Channel 4 News’ Jonathan Miller of the persecution causing his Ingessena people to flee their homeland.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres has said that humanitarian efforts in the newly-created country of South Sudan are close to breaking point, with more than 200,000 people fleeing Sudan for South Sudan or Ethiopia.

A large number of the refugees who have crossed into South Sudan are from the Ingessena mountains of Sudan‘s Blue Nile state. All of those in Jamam camp – where conditions are among the worst ever seen by experienced emergency relief workers – are from Ingessena.

Their region has suffered terribly from the attacks by Sudanese government forces, both from the air – they have been bombed by Antonov aircraft – and from the ground, with soldiers entering villages and killing civilians in cold blood.

The scale of the killing has not been verified by outside observers but all the refugees tell the same story. They were in large part attacked because they supported the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement of South Sudan, and on the South’s independence last July, they found themselves on the wrong side of line on a map.

Gallery: Channel 4 News cameraman Soren Munk captured these images of the Jamam refugee camp

For many months, they were trapped in Blue Nile state, gathering for shelter in caves or in the bush, which they call “hala”.

The displaced rarely spent more than a couple of nights in one place. They had no water and no food – many talk of their having to eat leaves and bark.

Their sudden escape into South Sudan in recent months was made possible by military advances made by the rebel army fighting Khartoum’s forces in Blue Nile. A corridor was opened up, down which 120,000 have so far fled, with more on the way.

There are four main tribes in the Ingessena mountains and at least nine, related, local languages are spoken. In total they are thought to number around 270,000. Leadership of the tribes and clans falls first to the village shiekhs, then above them, there are regional chiefs, called Umdas.

There are seven Umdas now in Jamam and 67 sheikhs, together with others scattered in different refugee camps.

All four tribes are headed by one man, the Nassir, Efendi Badi el-Tom, who himself is now a refugee. I tracked him down in Jamam refugee camp.

Here are extended excerpts from his interview, translated from a mixture of Arabic and the Gabanit tribal language.

Nassir, Efendi Badi el-Tom (Channel 4 News)

JM: Why are your people in this terrible camp?

NASSIR: The war started on 2nd September. Omar [al-Bashir, Sudan’s president] sent the Antonovs to our place and he killed people in so many places in the area and he also attacked on the ground. He killed civilians and he also killed cattle by bombing. He burned our maize and sorghum. And he poisoned our water. Omar al-Bashir came and tortured the civilians. That is what forced us to flee from Ingessana mountains into South Sudan. And until now, the war continues and his aircraft are still bombing in Ingessena. The soldiers rape the women. This war is not going to end any time soon. Until this year, the Ingessana have never had to flee from their place but when war broke out we had to leave – and people are still fleeing. People have died of thirst and hunger on the journey here. Men, women and children have all died. All of this happened because of the war. People fled into the wilderness because of the war and they died of hunger and thirst. And all of this we blame on Omar al-Bashir.

JM: Why did he do this to you?

NASSIR: He [Bashir] said that he does not need the dark skinned people of Blue Nile State. And he called us ‘insects’. Omar al Bashir said he does not want black people. And that is why he attacked us and drove us out. And he said that he will kill all the civilians in Blue Nile and he will not spare even one. Now the Ingessana people have scattered in all directions.

JM: Your people come from the mountains of Ingessena in Blue Nile. Now you find yourself in a swamp on a flood plain.

NASSIR: We are mountain people. The Ingessena people want to go home and find peace and finish this terrible war. Our hearts are broken. In August and September there is rain and people drown because of the flood water. Our tents will be inundated and will collapse. We plead that the NGOs and the white people move us from this place. Let them find a way to move us, because this place will be a river. It has only rained twice, but it’s already flooding. This place will be one big river. There’s nowhere good to pitch a tent and sleep. When it rains the tents will all be in water. The second problem is that all our children lost their schools.

JM: Who do you blame for all this?

NASSIR: I don’t blame the UNHCR. I blame Omar al-Bashir because if he hadn’t shot and bombed us, we would have avoided all this. He is a bad man. He made a problem with the people of Darfur. He killed people – old men, women and children – in South Kordofan and now, in Blue Nile State, many are dying because of the war he has brought to us. This man alone is making all these problems.