Violence against civilians has been a constant during conflicts in the south and west, notably militia raids into Bahr al Ghazal, 1986-89; the Nuba Mountains attacks that began in 1992 and continue today; systematic targeting in the late 1990s of entire civilian groups who lived in areas where oil was discovered; and genocide in Darfur 2003–2005.
Entire ethnic groups were targeted by the north, including the Dinka and Nuer in the south, and the Nuba of central Sudan. Fighting in 1991-92 between factions of the SPLA also caused significant civilian losses and displacement. In Darfur, the primary victims were the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit.
In both the south and west, the Sudanese government established a pattern of assaults against civilians, killing, torturing, raping and displacing millions. Assault tactics included:
- Use of mass starvation and mass forcible displacement as a weapon of destruction;
- Obstruction of humanitarian aid;
- Harassment of internally displaced persons;
- Bombing of hospitals, clinics, schools, and other civilian sites;
- Use of rape as a weapon against targeted groups;
- Employing a divide-to-destroy strategy of pitting ethnic groups against each other, with enormous loss of civilian life;
- Training and supporting ethnic militias who commit atrocities;
- Destroying indigenous cultures;
- Enslavement of women and children by government-supported militias;
- Impeding and failing to fully implement peace agreements.
As recently as 2016, the Sudanese government continued bombing campaigns in civilian areas and restricting humanitarian aid and access to areas of the country. Individually, each action has had devastating, often deadly consequences for its victims. Together, these actions have threatened the destruction of entire groups of people. Among the most intense campaigns against civilians have been the assaults against the Nuba in Kordofan and campaigns against the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit in Darfur.
The Nuba Mountains is an area of about 30,000 square miles situated in the southern part of the state of South Kordofan in Sudan. It is home to Christians, Muslims, and many who practice a variety of indigenous religions. The Nuba people were decimated when the Sudanese government conducted systematic assaults against them, a policy that reached a destructive peak in 1992-93, but continued for years thereafter and has spiked again since 2011.
War in the Nuba Mountains began in 1985, but intensified significantly after the National Islamic Front (NIF)—which became the National Congress Party (NCP) in 1998—took power in 1989. As the main north-south front came closer to the area, the government began attacking villages regularly, decommissioned Nuba in the armed forces, and “disappeared” many Nuba leaders. Villages were emptied of their former inhabitants; their lands were confiscated for large-scale agriculture ventures or local designs. The government used a range of forces to carry out the assaults: Peoples Defense Forces (PDF), Missiriya Arab militias (Murahileen) and, eventually, the Khartoum government's own Mujahideen (Holy Warriors). These forces intentionally targeted the local food supply chain, creating a stranglehold over traditional Nuba areas, forcing civilians to flee into the lowlands for survival or face starvation.
The next phase of the government’s attacks was marked by an increase in the scale and intensity of assaults against civilians. Beginning in 1992, jihad was declared and a massive offensive against the Nuba began. The issuance of a fatwa in 1993 declared that even Muslims among the Nuba were to be viewed as not “true Muslims,” thereby justifying attacks against them in addition to Christians and those who practice indigenous religions. A 1998 report for the US Committee for Refugees attempted to put numbers to the devastation, estimating that out of a population believed to be around 1 million at the time, some 100,000 Nuba died as a result of government attacks in 1992-93.
Partially as a result of unresolved issues from the north–south conflict, a new rebellion erupted in 2011 in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, known collectively as “the Two Areas.” The Sudanese government responded by financing local Arab militias, conducting bombardments of civilian areas, including hospitals and food stocks, and restricting humanitarian access to rebel-held areas.
Between 2003–2005, Sudanese government forces and their allied militias conducted a series of raids against Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit villages. During this period alone, at least 200,000 people died as a result of the conflict, and more than two million were displaced internally or fled as refugees to neighboring Chad.
After Darfuri rebels attacked a military airbase, the government responded by arming and supporting local militias, known as Janjaweed, in a series of coordinated attacks against villages. The government’s goal was to quell any support for the rebels, and the Janjaweed had interests in securing new land and other resources for their own communities. The impact on targeted groups was devastating.
The attacks often began with government planes bombing villages, followed by combined Janjaweed and Sudanese Armed Forces attacks on the ground. Villagers were killed, tortured and raped during attacks, and thousands of villages were destroyed. The greatest civilian tolls came during the forced flight that followed. Pushed into the desert without water or food supplies, many civilians perished due to malnutrition and disease. The government has repeatedly obstructed the delivery of aid to these vulnerable groups. Millions of displaced civilians settled into enormous camps, many on the outskirts of major towns in Darfur. Over 200,000 fled across the border into Chad. View images of the refugees from 2004.
In early 2016, the Government of Sudan conducted a large-scale offensive against a faction of the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA/AW) in the Jebel Marra region of Darfur, attempting to clear rebel-controlled areas through intensive aerial bombardments and seizure of key villages. In addition to suffering from government air strikes, civilians in Jebel Marra were subjected to murder, rape, abductions, the looting and destruction of villages, and, allegedly, attacks using chemical weapons.
Large segments of the Darfurian population are traumatized by the experience of losing family members, homes, communities, and livelihoods. Those who survived attacks, particularly women who were raped, suffer long-term physical and emotional effects of the violence. Many of the more than two million displaced now live in massive sprawling camp "cities," where they face harassment and abuse. Inside Darfur, violence continues with a wider array of perpetrators. Since the peak of the violence in 2005, when millions of Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit civilians were displaced by large-scale government and Janjaweed offensives, new populations have settled in lands cleared of their former inhabitants.
Many of Darfur's Arab tribes tried to remain neutral during the early years of the conflict. They were neither targeted by nor did they join the government and Janjaweed, but as the conflict continued, some became victims of generalized violence and were displaced. The armed rebel movements also splintered several times and committed acts of violence against civilians.