Sudan's South Kordofan: 'Bombings, blood and terror'

Residents gather outside UNMIS sector headquarters in Kadugli town June 9, 2011.
Image caption There have been claims of ethnic cleansing in South Kordofan

More than 70,000 people are said to have fled violence in Sudan's South Kordofan state, where the government says it is disarming rebels. The region borders South Sudan, a largely Christian and animist region, which is due to gain independence from the mostly Arabic-speaking, Muslim north on 9 July.

There is concern about the humanitarian crisis and the alleged atrocities being committed. The area has effectively been cut off by the military and not much has been heard from people in the area. One aid worker who has just left the region told the BBC's Will Ross about his experiences:

It is terrifying. The civilians try to hide but generally they run in panic and hence, sadly, there are many casualties who die because of shrapnel. There are bombings and shellings every day in different areas.

There is a plane called an Antonov which circles high in the sky and keeps coming over. Then there is the whistle of the bombs as they fall. You have a few seconds to run but you do not know if it is going to fall on you or not. The sounds of the explosions are huge and sometimes the craters they leave are five or six metres across.

Image caption The fighting comes ahead of South Sudan's independence on 9 July

Burning hot pieces of jagged metal, the shrapnel, go flying across the air and if you are not below the surface in a hole or a dug-out you are at huge risk.

'Blood and flies'

Then there are the MiGs [planes] which come in very, very fast and low. These fire rockets and they are terrifying because they are on top of you before you know it. You have no warning.

They are very loud and so the terror that this incites in people, even if you survive these attacks, is enormous.

They can continue for hours on end. You can imagine how awful that is for women and children and men, rural farmers who have no military background whatsoever. And when they sense that this is not an enemy from outside that is attacking, this is their own government, they just do not understand why this is happening.

There are so many poignant, heartbreaking stories.

A local farmer was lying on the floor of a hospital in enormous pain, with a large piece of shrapnel that had gone through his leg, with blood and flies over him. Again and again he was asking the same desperate questions: "Why is our president doing this to us? Why is he bombing us?"

He kept saying: "This is wrong".

Then there was a young man who had fled a village that was attacked and when the SAF [northern] troops withdrew, he found to his horror that his wife and children had been abducted by the army.

With anguish in his voice he said he would rather have been killed than his wife and child taken.

"I don't know what they will do to them, I don't think I will see them again," he said.

No less than 75,000 people have been displaced, and because the bombing and shelling is continuing, that number is probably going up every day.

This is not a war of north versus south - this is about a people within north Sudan who want a peaceful existence in the north just with social and economic opportunities and access to justice.

The Nuba, a large percentage of whom are Muslims, feel their future is with north Sudan.

The people of South Kordofan, both the Nuba and people from the nomadic Arab tribes, feel marginalised by Khartoum. They feel they are not granted basic human rights.

'House-to-house executions'

The area offers a remarkable alternative vision of how Christian and Muslims and animists can live together. I have witnessed after Eid, the Christians bringing breakfast for their Muslim brothers and sisters, and at Christmas and Easter all the people from the mosque coming to say "congratulations".

Image caption The African Union has called for an end to the fighting

But people there feel the government in the last few weeks has revealed it has no interest in allowing a political solution that gives rights to an alternative voice in the north, where there is religious tolerance and Christians and Muslims living together.

There is so much anguish. People say they don't want war but they say until the policies of Khartoum change, they see no alternative.

They are asking for help from all northern Sudanese to come back from this madness and have a look at how to build a peaceful, tolerant society in the north.

We are getting very strong reports that house-to-house executions are going on by internal security forces where summary executions are taking place based on ethnicity, political affiliation and even how black you are. These are civilians, intellectuals, teachers, community leaders, Muslims and Christians, and often they are killed by their throats being slit.

This may be only the beginning and it could well continue for many months and intensify. There is a complete lack of access - we learnt that the only airstrip that was left had been bombed and we have heard the government of Sudan will shoot down UN flights operating in South Kordofan so humanitarian flights are no longer an option.

We know that there is no access from the north by road so we are looking at a population that is now effectively besieged - without access to services or humanitarian aid and who are under fire.

I fear the government has started these military operations to try to ensure that opposition voice is completely squashed before the 9 July, so that no thought of help of any sort could come from the south, knowing that the emerging republic of South Sudan would be very unwilling to get involved as it would endanger their independence.

The great majority of Nuba people that I have spoken to are very worried the Egyptian forces that make up a large percentage of the UN peacekeepers are not seen as sufficiently neutral. Their cultural and religious background and their behaviour and attitude towards black Nuba people are unhelpful.

Map showing position of oilfileds in Sudan, source: Drilling info international

Both Sudan and the South are reliant on their oil revenues, which account for 98% of South Sudan's budget. But the two countries cannot agree how to divide the oil wealth of the former united state. Some 75% of the oil lies in the South but all the pipelines run north. It is feared that disputes over oil could lead the two neighbours to return to war.

Satellite image showing geography of Sudan, source: Nasa

Although they were united for many years, the two Sudans were always very different. The great divide is visible even from space, as this Nasa satellite image shows. The northern states are a blanket of desert, broken only by the fertile Nile corridor. South Sudan is covered by green swathes of grassland, swamps and tropical forest.

Map showing Ethnicity of Sudan, source:

Sudan's arid north is mainly home to Arabic-speaking Muslims. But in South Sudan there is no dominant culture. The Dinkas and the Nuers are the largest of more than 200 ethnic groups, each with its own languages and traditional beliefs, alongside Christianity and Islam.

Map showing infant Mortality in Sudan, source: Sudan household health survey 2006

The health inequalities in Sudan are illustrated by infant mortality rates. In South Sudan, one in 10 children die before their first birthday. Whereas in the more developed northern states, such as Gezira and White Nile, half of those children would be expected to survive.

Map showing percentage of households using improved water and sanitation in Sudan, source: Sudan household health survey 2006

The gulf in water resources between north and south is stark. In Khartoum, River Nile, and Gezira states, two-thirds of people have access to piped drinking water and pit latrines. In the south, boreholes and unprotected wells are the main drinking sources. More than 80% of southerners have no toilet facilities whatsoever.

Map showing percentage of who complete primary school education in Sudan, source: Sudan household health survey 2006

Throughout the two Sudans, access to primary school education is strongly linked to household earnings. In the poorest parts of the south, less than 1% of children finish primary school. Whereas in the wealthier north, up to 50% of children complete primary level education.

Map showing percentage of households with poor food consumption in Sudan, source: Sudan household health survey 2006

Conflict and poverty are the main causes of food insecurity in both countries. In Sudan, many of the residents of war-affected Darfur and the border states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan, depend on food aid. The UN said about 2.8m people in South Sudan would require food aid in 2013. The northern states tend to be wealthier, more urbanised and less reliant on agriculture.