Violence against civilians has been constant during conflicts in the south and west, notably militia raids from 1986–89 in Bahr al Ghazal (now part of South Sudan); the Nuba Mountains attacks that began in 1992 and which continue today; systematic targeting in the late 1990s of entire civilian groups who lived in areas where oil was discovered; and the genocide in Darfur of 2003–05.
The Sudanese government and forces associated with it targeted entire ethnic groups, including the Dinka and Nuer in current-day South Sudan, and the Nuba of central Sudan. Fighting in 1991–92 between factions of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) also caused significant civilian losses and displacement. In Darfur, the primary victims were the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit ethinic groups.
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:
Mass starvation and forcible displacement;
Blocking 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 to pit ethnic groups against each other, causing enormous loss of civilian life;
Training and support for ethnic militias who commit atrocities;
Destruction of indigenous cultures;
Enslavement of women and children by government-supported militias; and
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 to destroy entire groups of people. Among the most intense campaigns against civilians have been the assaults against the Nuba in South 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. Most of the people in this region identify more with South Sudan than 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 spiked again from 2011–16. The Sudanese government heavily restricts access to the region, making it difficult for international observers to track violence against civilians.
War in the Nuba Mountains began in 1985, but intensified significantly after the National Islamic Front (NIF) took power in 1989. As the main north-south front came closer to the area, the government began attacking villages regularly, removed Nuba from the armed forces, and forcibly disappeared many Nuba leaders. Villages were emptied of their former inhabitants and their lands were confiscated for large-scale agriculture ventures or local development plans. The government used a range of forces to carry out the assaults: People’s 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, the state declared a “jihad” 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 estimated that out of a population believed to be around one 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.
During the 1990s, the western region of Darfur experienced increasingly violent internal disputes over access to land and power. The Sudanese government responded by rewarding and arming local militias, known as Janjaweed, who shared its beliefs. Fighting began in Darfur when members of the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit ethnic groups created the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and attacked a government airfield on April 25, 2003. Another rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), joined the fight against the Sudanese government forces.
Between 2003 and 2005, Sudanese government forces and their allied militias conducted a series of raids against Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit villages. Civilians were targeted on the basis of their ethnic and religious identity in what is now referred to as the Darfur genocide. 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.
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 death tolls came during the forced flight that followed. Pushed into the desert without water, food, or medical 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 Darfuri 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, millions of Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit land owners and other inhabitants have been cleared, often violently, by large-scale government and Janjaweed offensives. New populations, including northern Arabs, have settled in these lands.
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 Arab civilians.
Read about the international community’s response to the Darfur genocide in the next section.