In the Red Zone with Sudan's Blue Nile Rebels
While ongoing conflicts in Libya, Egypt and Syria have attracted hundreds of established war correspondents and young freelancers alike, other wars, like that in Sudan’s rebellious Blue Nile state, are completely ignored by the world’s media. I guess some wars are just more fashionable than others – Libya the razzle dazzle of Nicola Formichetti to Sudan’s fusty old John McCririck. I spent a month living with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLA-N) rebels on the Blue Nile’s front line, the only journalist they had ever seen.
Blue Nile is one of the most isolated regions on Earth. There are no paved roads in or out of the province, so the rebels carve dirt tracks out of the thick forest with bulldozers, changing their routes every few weeks to keep ahead of the Sudanese Air Force, who have a distinct fondness for bombing literally any vehicle they see. Driving into rebel territory means struggling for a full day across a web of muddy tracks, through a blasted landscape of burned-out and abandoned villages and hiding under trees whenever a government bomber flies overhead. The chill life.
The rebels all carry magic charms, amulets of leather and sacred herbs they believe cause enemy bullets to veer away harmlessly. But they all say no magic can protect them from the Antonovs, the Russian-made cargo planes the Sudanese government use as makeshift bombers. Whenever they see a target, the airmen roll bombs out of the Antonov’s rear ramps onto the ground thousands of metres below. It’s an inaccurate means of delivering death, as the pilots are unable to distinguish between military and civilian targets – so inaccurate it’s considered a crime under international law, but small things like that apparently mean little to the Sudanese government.
It’s an odd experience being bombed. I know, you wouldn’t have thought it, right? One morning, I was drinking coffee with the officers when we heard the slow rumble of an Antonov overhead. The rebels paused, cups in hand, scanning the sky above them with a sort of detached professional curiosity, like they were standing outside the Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony, waiting for the fireworks to start. Then, without a word, they all ran into the shallow foxholes dotted around the secret camp. When the bombs – nine of them – exploded harmlessly in the forest a couple of hundred metres away, they clambered back out, dusting down their uniforms and returning to their coffee and game of cards.
“It’s a professional hazard,” one shrugged, before asking me if I knew where they could buy anti-aircraft missiles, because picking up a couple of lethal, surface-to-air military explosives is no big deal for a freelance journalist.
Civilians are easier targets for the Antonovs than the rebels, and, for the government, a legitimate one. Like any guerrilla army, the SPLA-N rely on Blue Nile’s few remaining civilians to grow and rear their food, chop their firewood and draw their water. The government has responded with brutal, effective military logic: by bombing civilians and burning down their villages, aiming to starve the rebels into surrender. Almost all of Blue Nile’s civilian population has now fled to the safety of UN-run refugee camps across the border.
Unintentionally, the UN has found itself acting as the rebels’ only source of supplies. Food handouts to the desperate civilians in the camps are commandeered by the fighters, who live on a meagre diet of USAID sorghum and whatever wild game they can shoot with their Kalashnikovs. Almost all the rebels live with their families in the refugee camps and commute to war every few days, with the same, blasé attitude you might see on the 8.30AM from Crawley to London Victoria.
Heavily-armed convoys of Toyota Land Cruisers roar through the camps towards the front, but aid workers pretend not to notice anything, because would you want to notice a truck full of armed rebels on their way to hopefully kill people? Officially, the SPLA-N has no presence in South Sudan. In reality, the rebel fighters control the refugee camps.
The border between South Sudan and Blue Nile is a single line of string stretched across a dirt track, manned by a few bored rebels. Once inside Blue Nile, the war begins. Short of fuel, ammunition, food and transport, the rebels trudge across the muddy bush trails to ambush government convoys whenever they move, and capture their precious hoard of supplies. The government soldiers, mostly conscripts from the flat, arid north of Sudan, avoid battle as much as possible. They huddle in their bases, ringed by minefields, and blindly shell the thick forest whenever they suspect an attack brewing.
“They’re scared of the bush,” one rebel officer told me. “They think there’s rebels hiding behind every tree. If only they came out of their camps and fought us like men in the bush, we’d win the war in a week.” But the government forces stay in their camps, the rebels move between their secret bases in the bush and so the war drags on. As you may have guessed from the distinct lack of any real fighting, there are few military casualties on either side – the civilians bear the brunt of this small, vicious war.
In one village, Bellatoma, rebels showed me the grave of eleven civilians killed when government Antonovs bombed the once bustling market. The survivors tipped the mangled bodies into a bomb crater, covering the makeshift grave with thorn branches to deter scavenging animals, before fleeing across the border. Now Bellatoma lies abandoned, its cluster of grass huts collapsing in the summer rain, its fruit trees heavy with unpicked fruit.
“What do people in the West think about Blue Nile?” one general asked me, “Do they think we’re winning? Do they think we’re in the right?” No, I said, no one in the West ever thinks anything about Blue Nile at all.
Follow Aris on Twitter: @arisroussinos
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