Sanctions ‘relief’ is anything but for civilians in Sudan’s war zones

Every child in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan can identify the sound of a whirring plane engine from far away. They have experienced this sound, and the terror it brings, most of their young lives: government planes flying overhead, bombing them indiscriminately throughout the often-forgotten war in the Nuba Mountains.

This is a war that the U.S. government appears to have forgotten.

This week the U.S. may decide to lift economic sanctions against Sudan, seemingly rewarding a regime that still targets its own citizens.

A family shelters in a cave in the Nuba Mountains, to avoid bombings by the Sudan government.
A family shelters in a cave in the Nuba Mountains, to avoid bombings by the Sudan government.

A decision to lift sanctions based on faulty criteria will only empower Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes, to target his marginalized citizenry further.

I am one of two Americans still living in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. Just recently, after three years away, I returned to the U.S. to urge officials not to lift sanctions in July. In January this year, the Obama administration ordered the lifting of 20-year-old sanctions against Sudan after a six-month probationary period. By July 12, the new administration under President Trump will decide to provide or postpone sanctions relief.

In 2003, I moved to the Nuba Mountains to manage an aid organization. In 2011, when the current civil war began and all aid agencies evacuated the country, I stayed behind and started a media organization to cover the conflict in the Nuba Mountains. At this point, Bashir had attempted to expel all the independent journalists in Sudan, but we remained and became the only reliable news source covering the conflict.

Women in the Nuba Mountains work to put out a fire, after a home was bombed by Sudan war planes.
Women in the Nuba Mountains work to put out a fire, after a home was bombed by Sudan war planes.

I have lived through six years of war, hid in trenches, witnessed houses, farms, churches and schools destroyed and seen thousands of people displaced. My own home was bombed in May 2012 while my family was there. At the time, my wife was seven months pregnant with our first child. When the bomb detonated, a large piece of shrapnel ricocheted off the rock where she was hiding. We named our son Eben, meaning “rock of hope.”

The Nuba people are incredibly resilient. Yet, as they learn that the U.S. may lift sanctions on Sudan, their hope is dwindling. Sanctions relief is dependent on Sudan’s alleged “positive actions over the past six months.” Some of these spurious claims include Sudan upholding a cessation of hostilities in the conflict areas, improved humanitarian access and cooperation with the U.S. in counter terrorism.

For the past six months, the aerial bombing campaigns have stopped, but the planes continue to circle overhead during the most important time period, planting season. The ominous appearance of the planes forces people to hide in caves and trenches instead of attending to their farms. If local farmers do not get their seeds into the ground in a crucial two-week period, there will be no harvest.

Nuba Reports has documented more than 4,000 bombs dropped by the Sudan government on civilian targets in the Nuba Mountains s
Nuba Reports has documented more than 4,000 bombs dropped by the Sudan government on civilian targets in the Nuba Mountains since April 2012.

The cessation of hostilities may be in place but the war of attrition continues. According to our reporting, Sudan government forces continue to occupy two key agricultural areas and have seized farmland in over 20 locations in the Nuba Mountains. Pro-government militias have raided and looted villages on at least 16 occasions during the last two months.  

There is still no humanitarian access in the Nuba Mountains or war-torn Blue Nile state, another prerequisite to the U.S. removing sanctions. Bashir does not need to drop bombs to target his own people – he can literally starve them into submission.

Another “positive action” listed for lifting sanctions stems from Sudan’s counterterrorism efforts. Indeed, there have been reports of closer collaboration between each country’s intelligence agencies, but this is only one side of the coin. The Sudanese government terrorizes its own citizens in the way it wages war, and continues to be accused of surreptitiously supporting terrorist networks throughout the region.

Since South Sudan’s split in 2011, Sudan officials have targeted Christianity, detaining at least 25 pastors and church leaders and destroying 19 churches. The first jihad in the modern era took place in Sudan and is still going on today against the people of Nuba. If they can justify a jihad against their own people, then what is their agenda for us.

A bombed church in the Nuba Mountains.
A bombed church in the Nuba Mountains.

The timing of this potential removal could not be worse. The current administration has not appointed an envoy to Sudan, nor anyone pertaining to Africa in the State Department or National Security Council. There is no one in place to monitor developments in Sudan if sanctions are lifted – no accountability for a country that has harbored Osama bin Laden and contributed to the bombing of the USS Cole. If sanctions are lifted on July 12, America is handing Sudan a very large carrot for very minimal “improvements.”

Lifting U.S. sanctions brings Khartoum significantly greater political legitimacy. This legitimacy will allow the European Union further justification to fund Sudan’s security forces in an effort to curb migrants using Sudan as a transit route to Europe. The more profitable it is to stop human trafficking, the more trafficking will take place.

The lifting of sanctions justifies investing in a regime that spends over 70 percent of its budget in defense – more arms to use against its own people in the conflict regions of the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile and Darfur.

The U.S. Charge d’Affaires in Khartoum says human rights issues were not part of the original reasons for implementing sanctions and therefore should not be a factor in their removal. But the sanctions, originally introduced in 1997, were partly driven by a desire to impose consequence for Khartoum’s terrible human rights record.  Four pieces of legislation issued by the U.S. government, including the Sudan Peace Act and the Darfur Peace Accountability Act, were partly based on U.S. concerns over human rights violations by the Sudan government. It hardly seems legitimate to remove sanctions for reasons separate from their original intention.

One doubts whether the Nuba people have been consulted on the State Department’s potential decision to lift sanctions --and yet they may be the first to be adversely affected by such a move. With sanctions lifted, granting Khartoum more political and economic leverage, Sudan will increase its military arsenal and persist in its ceaseless military campaigns against dissent. And, as ever, the children of Nuba will hear that baleful sound of planes overhead.

Ryan Boyette founded Nuba Reports, an organization powered by local and international journalists that covers Sudan’s under-reported conflicts. A former aid worker, he is the recipient of the 2014 Human Rights First Award and lives in Sudan's Nuba Mountains with his wife and two children. Follow him @RyanBoyette.

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