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Humanitarian Crisis in Sudan’s Border Regions

Over the past year and a half, a humanitarian crisis has been building in the border areas between Sudan and South Sudan, where the government of Sudan has been struggling to suppress a rebellion, in part by targeting and terrorizing civilian groups. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled the fighting, and aid groups are reporting on the dangers of widespread famine because the government of Sudan has been blocking aid from reaching peoples in the Nuba Mountains. The Museum asked Pete Muller (external link), an experienced photojournalist who has lived in South Sudan for three years and traveled repeatedly to the border region, to share his photos and report on the crisis:

View Pete Muller's photo gallery of scenes from the region.

It has long been a flaw of the Sudanese state that its government, seated in the northern city of Khartoum and ruled by the National Congress Party (NCP), refuses to embrace the country’s vast racial, religious, and ethnic diversity. This dynamic was the crux of most Sudanese conflicts throughout the 20th century and underlay the country’s partition in the 21st. Today, along the remote borders of a truncated Sudan, identity politics and marginalization are again at the root of war.

Between 2009 and 2012, I lived in South Sudan, where I worked to document that country’s tense and precarious transition to independence. During my time there, I made numerous trips to border regions, where I observed various aspects of the conflicts between rebels and the government of Sudan. The government’s Sudan Armed Forces control the air space and use that advantage to carry out wildly inaccurate, albeit regular and frightening, aerial assaults on rebel territory, as well as to limit humanitarian assistance. The rebels, who are in and of the people, exploit the asymmetric nature of the fight by controlling the hinterlands, staging hit-and-run ambushes and fighting elusively.

While these dynamics are typical of insurgency and counterinsurgency operations, the context in which they are occurring is fraught with complexity. Following South Sudan’s independence in July 2011, the populations in Sudan’s Blue Nile State and the Nuba Mountains region of Southern Kordofan—elements of which have been mobilized against Khartoum for decades—found themselves in a precarious and frustrating position, isolated from their former southern allies and under the enduringly harsh and undemocratic rule of the NCP.

They started the rebellion with the stated hope of toppling the NCP and transforming government institutions in ways that will reflect the country’s diverse population. “We want to build a system in which citizenship, not ethnicity, is the basis for inclusion,” Malik Agar, the former governor turned rebel commander in Blue Nile State, told me during a tour of the battlefield. To achieve this goal, the rebellions in both Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan commenced and grew, as did the Sudanese government’s heavy-handed response. The intensification of fighting led to a mass exodus of civilians and a dire humanitarian emergency in refugee camps along the southern side of the new border between the two countries.

During my travels to the border region, I observed the terrible human consequences of this fighting in the gaunt bodies and upended lives of civilians caught amid the warring forces. Those remaining in the combat theaters cower in riverbeds and other lowland shelters, their eyes fixed on the skies from which Sudanese bombers sow terror. They are too frightened to cultivate their land and, as a result, face acute food shortages. Those who have fled into a matrix of squalid and overcrowded refugee camps along the southern side of the border gain little respite. There they face scarce access to food, water, medical assistance, and shelter. In recent weeks, humanitarian organizations have reported that more than four children per day are dying in the camps—well above the emergency threshold, according to the United Nations (external link).

Despite the severity of the circumstances, I was moved on many occasions by the humility and resilience of those I encountered in this maelstrom. In April 2012, during a period of unusually high tension and violence along the border, I sat in the Pariang refugee camp inside a sweltering tent with a group of young Nuba women. They’d walked to Pariang from their homes across the border in South Kordofan, a journey that took nearly a week. They passed Yida, the largest camp for the Nuba people, opting instead to reach Pariang, a particularly desolate and isolated destination. They did so because they heard that Pariang would be the only refugee camp to offer secondary education. However, because of a spike in violence, Pariang’s teachers had fled, leaving hundreds of teenage Nuba with no access to education.

Inside their tent, with Sudanese bombers whining overhead, the girls braid each other’s hair and lament how the war interrupted their schooling, a pursuit they consider sacrosanct. “This war has got in the way of so many things for us,” says Kauser Mousa, 17. “We’ve come to Pariang hoping to continue our education. It is the most important thing for us. It is the only way for our people to make progress,” she adds, referring to the marginalization of the Nuba people by the Khartoum government. Between brush strokes, the girls speak in measured tones about the situation around them, often finding things to laugh about. As I collect my things, sweaty and disheveled, I ask the group if I may use their remarks in my reports. “You must,” Kauser exclaims. “The world must know what is happening here.”