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Sudanese military bombings don’t spare civilians, aid workers

August 3, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
A war has been raging for the past three years in a rebel-controlled region of southern Sudan, and civilians and aid workers have been caught in the middle of bombings by the government. The NewsHour's P.J. Tobia reports in conjunction with Nuba Reports.

GWEN IFILL: It’s a largely forgotten conflict in a part of the world marked by hunger and poverty. But for the past three years, in Sudan’s southern Nuba Mountain and Kurdufan regions, a war has been raging. The area is controlled by SPLA rebels who fought for South Sudan in the war that ended in 2005. Now the rebels are on the wrong side of a new border. And they have fought the Sudanese government to a stalemate.

Thousands of civilians have been caught in the middle. A group of Sudanese journalists known as Nuba Reports have been documenting their plight, and helped us produce the following report with the NewsHour’s P.J. Tobia

A warning: Some of the images in the story may be disturbing.

P.J. TOBIA: These pictures were shot in May 2014 in Southern Sudan, a seemingly peaceful morning at the Mother of Mercy Hospital and Catholic School, until the priest’s sermon ended suddenly with a rain of bombs from above.

Students took shelter in ditches. Some fainted in terror. The next day, the site and its residents were hit with more Sudanese air force bombs.

American Dr. Tom Catena, medical director of the Mother of Mercy Hospital, treated the wounded in the aftermath.

DR. TOM CATENA, Medical Director, Mother of Mercy Hospital: The first bomb was dropped maybe — it felt like close to the hospital. A lot of people started yelling and screaming, and — coming back and dropping three more bombs. I think there is no doubt they were targeting us.

P.J. TOBIA: According to the few nongovernmental organizations still operating in the Kurdufan region, strikes against civilian targets are all too common.

This footage provides documentary proof. The Sudanese government uses cluster munitions and banned inaccurate parachute bombs. This one landed in a village during a bombing run that killed a young girl and wounded others. One of the 400 patients at Dr. Catena’s hospital during the attack was a woman named Amal.

AMAL, Victim of Sudanese Airforce Bombing (through interpreter): Since I have been here, the attacks have been continuous, and we don’t know when it will stop or when the attacks will start again. We don’t know anything.

P.J. TOBIA: She came to Mother of Mercy Hospital after the government bombed her village, blowing off half her left foot.

Here, in footage recorded just after that attack, her daughter and niece lie dead, killed while they slept beside her. Mother of Mercy Hospital is the only one for hundreds of miles in any direction. The Sudanese government has blockaded the region, preventing medicines and other aid from getting to Kurdufan. The government has also banned international NGOs.

Medecins Sans Frontieres, known in the United States as Doctors Without Borders, is one of the only international aid groups still operating in Kurdufan. In June 2014, Sudanese air force bombers began circling in the sky above this MSF clinic and began bombing.

WOMAN (through interpreter): So, right when the plane turned around, all the patients that were bedridden in the hospital and all of the staff came running from outside to the shelters.

P.J. TOBIA: The staff were too scared to return to the clinic. They treated the wounded right there in the ditch. An I.V. bag hangs from a tree trunk.

WOMAN (through interpreter: All this blood right here is the blood of the patient that was hit from behind and the staff member whose legs were wounded.

P.J. TOBIA: In all, three were severely wounded in the attack, six injured. Shrapnel blew through the clinic, damaging valuable medicines and equipment, rare tools in this part of the world.

In January this year, 13 Sudanese bombs hit another MSF clinic. Back at Mother of Mercy Hospital, Dr. Catena says the strikes are not an accident.

DR. TOM CATENA: They want us to go away. They want to kill everybody here. They want to demoralize the people. They want to treat everybody like animals.

P.J. TOBIA: Maowia Khalid is Sudan’s representative in Washington. He’s the charge d’affaires.

PBS NewsHour showed him video of the bombing of the Mother of Mercy Hospital.

MAOWIA KHALID, Ambassador, Sudan: We cannot determine where those photos are. They probably could be inside the barracks and the camps of the rebel groups. They could be. And they could be also not in Sudan. They could be in South Sudan or any other area.

P.J. TOBIA: As for targeting of MSF facilities, Khalid says that the group isn’t supposed to be operating in Sudan in the first place.

MAOWIA KHALID: Medecins Sans Frontieres have been asked to go out of Sudan since 2008. So, probably, they have kept operating in some areas which belong to the rebel groups without the knowledge of the government of Sudan. If an attack has been occurred or done for such a facility, you cannot know this, whether this is a rebel camp or a medical facility.

P.J. TOBIA: Just so I’m clear on this, the Sudanese government has not been targeting MSF facilities or the facilities you think are aiding the rebels and therefore…

MAOWIA KHALID: We are not targeting at all any facility for MSF. And if any destroy happen, that’s because they’re part of rebel camps. But we’re not targeting aid workers.

GWENOLA FRANCOIS, Medecins Sans Frontieres: We don’t work at all with any political or military body. It’s completely against our core principals.

P.J. TOBIA: Gwenola Francois, head of MSF’s Sudan operation, said her organization repeatedly told the government about their operations.

GWENOLA FRANCOIS: We informed them about our activities there and the location from the very beginning. Even before we opened there, we informed them in Khartoum, and we kept on informing them from time to time about our activities through diplomatic channels.

P.J. TOBIA: MSF are working in Sudan despite being ordered out by the government.

GWENOLA FRANCOIS: Because we can see all the medical needs for these people. We know that kids, mothers, elders who are suffering from this conflict who are denied access to lifesaving care, and we can’t just stand by and look at them. We need to do something.

P.J. TOBIA: When asked about the parachute bombs and cluster munitions that the Sudanese air force uses, Ambassador Khalid blames international sanctions.

MAOWIA KHALID: We’re combating very aggressive rebellion. And, unfortunately, Sudan is using a very old technology in its armed forces, and that is due to many things, part of it the sanctions that have been applied to Sudan.

P.J. TOBIA: Khalid says that rebel forces, shown here fighting last summer, regularly commit atrocities.

He sent NewsHour this report from Sudanese state television dated April 2013. The report says that rebels targeted a school and stole crops in one town. In another, they attacked a power plant and banks.

Meanwhile, Amal’s maimed foot is mostly healed and she’s reunited with her husband.

AMAL (through interpreter): I have arrived here, thank God. However, I can’t move around. I might be able to make tea. If I have a guest over, I can make tea and make food. But say I have to go and bring water or go for long-distance errands. I can’t do that.

P.J. TOBIA: They have left their village and taken refuge in the caves and rocky slopes of the Nuba Mountains. Many here seek refuge here from the bombings among the craggy slopes. Natural defenses are the only kind of protection that the people of Kurdufan can hope for.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m P.J. Tobia, reporting from Washington.

GWEN IFILL: Later tonight on most PBS stations, “POV” has more on the civilians of Southern Sudan coping with war in a documentary called “Beats of the Antonov.”