Sudan government forces attacked at least six rebel-held locations across the Nuba Mountains this week, sparking the largest battles the region has seen in more than a year.
Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) are attempting to reach the rebel-held capital Kauda with multiple units moving west and north through South Kordofan State. As of March 30, fighting continued in Karkaria, Um Dorain County, one of the main routes westwards to Kauda, according to Nuba Reports journalists. Fighting is also taking place in Haluf, Heiban County and Kega Hills, Talodi County, south of Kauda. Meanwhile rebel forces, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North (SPLA-N) hit the state capital, Kadugli, with at least four shells, according to sources on the ground and reports.
Simultaneously, Sudan picked up its aerial attacks in the Nuba Mountains, hitting Heiban and Um Dorein hardest, according to witnesses. Three women – a mother, teacher, and student – and two children, ages 16 and 6 months, were injured when an Antonov bombed a village in Heiban. Bombing has also reached the outskirts of Kauda this week. Nuba Reports has identified 38 wounded at a local hospital in the Nuba Mountains.
Rebel and government officials both claimed victory in the recent fighting.
SAF Military Spokesman Col. Khalifa Al-Shami said on March 29 the government had captured seven locations, according to news reports and Nuba Reports monitoring, including Um Serdiba, a strategic town along the road linking the state and rebel capitals. The rebel’s political wing, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement—North (SPLM-N) deny these claims and have repulsed the SAF forces, rebel spokesman Arno Ngutulu said.
Since 2011, the government of Sudan and the SPLA-N have been at war in South Kordofan state, where the Nuba Mountains are located, and Blue Nile state. The conflict started after the government reneged on a popular consultation designed to provide the two states greater political autonomy and insisted on what the SPLM-N considered a premature disarmament of their forces. In Blue Nile State, Khartoum has primarily resorted to Antonov attacks using crude shrapnel bombs with at least 86 reported incidents in March targeting Kurmuk County. With a rebel headquarters base in Kurmuk, SAF bombings are designed to empty the area of civilians, forcefully displacing them to government-controlled areas, Ngutulu and sources in Blue Nile said.
So far, the 2016 fighting season has been far less active than previous years. Sudan warplanes have dropped roughly 105 bombs this year, compared to 816 in January 2015 alone.
Prior to mid-March, SAF hardly engaged the SPLA-N on the ground, with only four cases of government troops initiating attacks in the Nuba Mountains. Instead, Sudan authorities resorted to intermittent Antonov bomb attacks on agricultural areas such as Delami County. “They continue to target the heavily populated areas – the farming areas, schools, churches, mosques. All life is rendered unstable,” Delami County Mayor Kumni Farid Wanis told Nuba Reports after bombs struck the area mid-February. “They think the power of the SPLA-N is from the citizens so they bomb us along with our farms and cattle.”
The SPLA-N went on the offensive in February, conducting a series of ambush attacks on government forces as a preventive measure to curb SAF troop build-up, SPLA-N Colonel Koko Jazz told Nuba Reports. Retired general and lecturer Mohamed Al-Abbas says the SPLA-N is slowly draining SAF’s resources with these hit-and-run tactics, but not holding ground to win the war.
A late start, motley crew
In previous years the conflict started much sooner – as early as November when the dry season starts and roads are traversable. But SAF is employing a new tactic, Ngutulu told Nuba Reports, by attempting an offensive close to the rainy season (roughly May to November), when the Nuba Mountains’ muddied landscape predominates. Sudan is also launching multiple, simultaneous attacks unlike previous concentrated, singular SAF offensives, he added.
The late offensive may be more logistical rather than strategic. SAF is relying on increasingly diverse forces from pro-government militias marking an organizational challenge, according to local sources and a report by the security think tank Small Arms Survey.
“They are very mixed,” said one rebel soldier, Jibril Gebeil to Nuba Reports, “They are Rapid Support Force, Popular Defense Force, Abu-Tira – a very mixed force that they collected and brought to attack people.”
Militias and local recruits familiar with the territory are leading the government attacks, sources in the Nuba Mountains told Nuba Reports. The SPLM-N claim SAF is training and even using a South Sudanese militia to carry out attacks in Tess, Buram County and the Al-Hamra area in neighboring Um Dorein County, reports said. The government denies the claim.
Militia recruitment since the beginning of 2015 has also been problematic for Khartoum. The government has been unable to pay the militias, leading the state-sponsored militia, the Rapid Support Force, to loot northern Khartoum in protest last September. Youths from another militia, the Popular Defense Force, are deserting the battlefield due to lack of payment, local sources said.
More failed peace talks
But SAF Spokesman Al-Shami says the delay in fighting is after exhausting attempts at peace. The African Union High Implementation Panel (AUHIP) on March 18 held a consultative meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, between the government and SPLM-N, along with other Darfur-based rebel groups and the opposition National Umma Party to discuss the resumption of the peace process between the groups.
The government and Chief Negotiator, Thabo Mbeki, signed the document calling for a peace agreement without requiring the disarmament of SPLM-N forces. The framework agreement also required opposition parties and rebel groups to participate in a National Dialogue, a state-led peace initiative launched in October 2015 in the capital, Khartoum.
The opposition and rebel groups ignored international and regional pressures and refused to sign, claiming the dialogue is subjective to government manipulation and would not procure genuine peace. “Our ultimate goal is peace in Sudan – which this document will not achieve,” SPLM-N Chairman Malik Agar said in an interview with Radio Dabanga.
Sudan authorities are now using the collapsed peace deal as a pretext to launch their offensive. The SAF spokesman said they will now “fight all the rebels across Sudan” with five campaigns focusing on the Nuba Mountains. “Now we are sure the rebels are using the way of war since they are refusing to sign the Mbeki plan,” Al-Shami said.
As the political and physical fighting nearly enters its sixth year, citizens in the Nuba Mountains persevere with daily life, including attending school. “War is always against education,” student James Mohamed told Nuba Reports, “but we will continue classes, even if the planes come, we run and come back to continue. We will not give up.”