Sudan's Blue Nile conflict forces painful return to Ethiopia
Fri Oct 14, 2011 11:15am GMT
* Conflict in Blue Nile State displaces thousands
* Dreams of a new life in peaceful Sudan ruined
* Khartoum fighting rebels in region
By Aaron Maasho
KURMUK, Ethiopia, Oct 14 (Reuters) - Sudan's aerial bombardment of its Blue
Nile state has driven thousands of people across the border into Ethiopia, a
painful return for many to a refugee existence they thought was over when
the Sudanese civil war ended six years ago.
When Khartoum signed the 2005 peace deal that closed one of Africa's
deadliest conflicts and paved the way for South Sudan's independence in July
this year, Maza Soya led her nine children out of a squalid camp in Ethiopia
dreaming of a new life back home in Sudan.
Last month, however, fighting erupted in Blue Nile state between the
northern Sudanese army and fighters allied to the Sudan People's Liberation
Movement (SPLM), the dominant force in the newly independent South Sudan.
"Our homes were burnt down to the ground. There were daily air raids on our
town," Soya told Reuters two weeks after fleeing back to Ethiopia's frontier
town of Kurmuk.
Rebel fighters and residents in Sudan's Kurmuk, a town of the same name just
across the forested border, accuse the Sudanese government of waging a
sustained, indiscriminate bombing campaign against civilians.
Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir's government denies bombarding Blue
Nile, which lies just north of the new north-south border.
But Soya said her husband remained in Kurmuk in Sudan, recovering from
shrapnel wounds that burst his stomach open when an Antonov aircraft at high
altitude dumped its payload of bombs on their town.
"It is heartbreaking to be back," said Soya, who spent 21 years in one of
several camps in Ethiopia that were home to tens of thousands of displaced
Sudanese at the height of Sudan's war.
The United Nations says about 27,500 Sudanese refugees have streamed into
Ethiopia since the fighting broke out in early September.
PRAYERS, NOT A CAMP
Although Khartoum accepted the independence of South Sudan, analysts say it
wants to crush rebels in the joint border area before they become a strong
military and political force.
The Washington-based Satellite Sentinel Project has released satellite
imagery captured last month it says show an armoured brigade of 3,000 troops
deployed along a road leading to rebel-controlled Kurmuk in Sudan.
One government bomb flattened a United Nations office and storage facility
in Sudanese Kurmuk in mid-September, said aid workers who declined to be
named. Sudan's Antonovs could routinely be seen circling in the skies across
the frontier, they said.
Dozens of refugees are crossing the border each day, down from hundreds a
month ago. Aid workers expect that number to swell as high as 35,000 before
the end of the year.
"Some of the residents have been trapped in the bushes. We expect that when
ground troops advance, more will come to Ethiopia," said Aziku Santus, head
of the World Food Programme's (WFP) sub-office in western Ethiopia.
"We have opened a new camp and have prepared food for the newcomers," he
Many of the refugees, however, have opted to seek shelter in schools or in
the homes of locals who share ethnic ties.
Others are camped out in the lush forests of Ethiopia's Benishangul Gumuz
province where huge rocks sprout like giant termite mounds.
Some refugees in the Sherkole camp clung to hopes the violence back home
would be short-lived and that they might head back soon to salvage their
But for 38-year-old Salah Jeilan, even a brief return to the camps was too
painful a reminder of a past life and scorched dreams, and one he would not
Jeilan, his wife and seven children trekked for three weeks, their eyes
scouring the skies for the white vapour trails of Khartoum's bombers, before
"God willing, they'll lay down their arms soon. But I would rather stay here
and pray than move into a refugee camp after just leaving one," Jeilan said,
playing cards under a tree. (Editing by Richard Lough)
* African Union condemns attack; Somali rebels blamed (Adds detail on
kidnapped Spanish women)
By Richard Lough
NAIROBI, Oct 14 (Reuters) - The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Friday
it had suspended non-essential operations at Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp
near the border with lawless Somalia as security forces scoured the area for
two Spanish aid workers kidnapped a day earlier.
Kenyan security forces fanned out through the semi-arid border area on
Friday, hunting abductors believed by Kenyan police to be Somali al Shabaab
insurgents. The al Qaeda-linked rebel movement has denied it was responsible
for the attack.
Some aid agencies have become increasingly concerned by the worsening
insecurity at the sprawling camp, where refugee numbers have swollen to more
than 460,000 this year as famine and conflict drive Somalis across the
Nevertheless, the brazen nature of Thursday's broad daylight attack on two
women working for Medecins Sans Frontieres in the heart of the camp stunned
its relief workers.
"Today we have to hold everyone (at) base. We just have a thin staffing that
is going down to the camps with a police patrol because some services cannot
be suspended," said Emmanuel Nyabera, spokesman for UNHCR Kenya.
That meant there would be no registration of new arrivals, he said, but that
water distribution, for example, would continue.
It was not clear when the agency's staff would be able to return to normal
operations, Nyabera said. For now there were no plans for an evacuation of
foreign staff, he added.
Medecins Sans Frontieres in Madrid said Blanca Thiebaut, 30, from Madrid,
was one of the kidnapped Spanish women. The other woman, Montserrat Serra,
40, had been named yesterday. They both worked in logistics for the group at
"MSF has not been able to establish contact with the kidnapped workers so
far. A crisis committee has been set up to manage the incident," Jose
Antonio Bastos, president of Medecins Sans Frontieres in Spain told a news
conference in Madrid.
"MSF always works without armed security... It's part of our policy to show
people and armed groups that we have nothing to do with the conflict and we
are purely a humanitarian and medical organisation," Bastos said.
The African Union strongly condemned the abduction, which came some weeks
after gunmen with close ties to Somali militants kidnapped two Western
visitors on northern Kenya's coast in separate incidents.
Kenya's North Eastern Province police commander, Leo Nyongesa, said the
hostages' whereabouts remained unknown. "We have contacted elders in Somalia
to help us with the search."
The MSF workers' hijacked vehicle was found abandoned late on Thursday
between the Dadaab camp and the border, which lies about 100 km (60 miles)
The campaign group Human Rights Watch reported in 2009 that al Shabaab was
recruiting fighters from inside Dadaab.
A Kenyan driver working for the international relief group Care is still
missing after he was grabbed in September from the Dadaab camp.
The Geneva-based UNHCR said it has 200 staff in Dadaab. A further 100
humanitarian workers work alongside them from aid agencies including MSF.
(Additional reporting by Noor Ali in Isiolo and Catherine MacDonald in
Madrid; Editing by George Obulutsa and Mark Heinrich)
C Thomson Reuters 2011 All rights reserved
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Received on Sat Oct 15 2011 - 06:55:11 EDT