By Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Crisis Researcher & Khairunissa Dhala, Amnesty International’s Campaigner for Sudan & South Sudan
“Because of the bombing” is what every single one of the refugees told us when we asked why they had fled their homes. In the past few days we have been meeting the refugees displaced by repeated Sudanese army airstrikes on their towns and villages in Sudan’s Blue Nile State. They are now sheltering in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State.
More than 20,000 have fled their homes since the conflict broke out between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army – North (SPLM/A-N) on 1 September this year.
They have fled with nothing but a small amount of food for the journey, because they had to carry their children and help their elderly or disabled relatives.
Refugees have walked for days to reach a hastily set up camp in Dorro, just outside the poor and isolated small town of Bunj in South Sudan, which does not even have the most basic services for its own population.
Until the arrival of the refugees there was not a single doctor in the town’s small and dilapidated hospital. For Bunj’s 60,000 people, the nearest hospital with doctors is in the town of Renk, five hours by road in the dry season and considerably longer in the rainy season. Now there is one doctor, who arrived a few weeks ago with the refugees from Blue Nile State.
When we met him he was busy installing a sink in one of the hospital rooms which will be used as an operating theatre. He was pleased to have received a bed, donated by an international humanitarian organization, which will serve as an operating table. Until now he has been operating on patients on a stretcher. In the hospital ward some of the patients, many of them soldiers injured in the conflict, were lying on thin straw mats on the floor due to lack of beds or space.
Near the refugee camp on the outskirts of town, at a small clinic whose entire medical personnel consists of a single nurse, we met Ayub Dan. His wife Marta, a 27-year-old mother of seven, was killed on 10 November in an air strike in Bellatuma village in Sudan’s Blue Nile State.
Ayub said: “I was at the market with my wife but was in a different part of the market when the market was bombed. We threw ourselves on the ground when we heard the Antonov above. It was panic.”
“When I found my wife, she was lying on the ground face down and was dead; a large piece of shrapnel had gone through from her back to her chest.”
“ The plane dropped several bombs; I counted 12, three each time it flew over and it flew over four times – back and forward twice”.
With Ayub in the camp were two of his daughters, six-year-old Manasia and 14-year-old Barshiba: both were injured on the same day in another air strike near their home in the nearby town of Yabus.
Barshiba told us that while her parents were away at the market, she and her siblings at home had heard the sound of an Antonov place circling above, and had run out of their hut into the nearby fields where they were struck by shrapnel. Manasia sustained serious wounds to her left armpit and chest and Barshiba had part of her right buttock sliced off. Both require medical care that is not available in Bunj.
At the same clinic we met other civilians who were injured in the air strikes on Bellatuma market. Juma Markan, a 30 year old mother of seven, told us that she was at her home near the market when an Antonov flew over the village four times and dropped 12 bombs.
She lay down on the floor, with her one-year-old child clinging to her chest. A piece of shrapnel went through the thatched roof of her hut and cut through her back. She could not move and spent the night in her house until a relative found a car and took her to Marinji village, where there was a clinic. She spent one week there until she was taken to South Sudan to the Dorro refugee camp at Bunj.
When we met her, her back was covered in bandages and her wounds infected. She too needs medical care which is not available at the clinic. Her husband and children are still in Bellatuma and she is waiting for them to come to the refugee camp.
Bana Dau told us that he and his ten year old daughter Piney were at the market selling roasted meat when they heard an Antonov overhead. He told his daughter to lie down. Shortly after the explosions Piney started crying and blood was soaking through her clothes. She had been hit by a piece of shrapnel in her back. He carried her home and got neighbours to take them to the clinic in Marinji village. They then travelled across the border to the refugee camp.
According to what these and other survivors of the attacks told us, the bombing of Bellatuma market killed nine civilians – five women, two men and two children,.
We cannot go to Bellatuma or anywhere else in Blue Nile State to investigate further, and neither can anyone else. The Sudanese government is keeping the area closed off to international human rights and humanitarian organizations and to UN aid agencies.
In part 2, we try to get closer to Blue Nile State to gather more information by travelling to a South Sudan border village that has been under cross-border attack from the Sudanese Armed Forces.