Since September, war has been raging between the Sudanese Revolutionary Front and the Sudanese Armed Forces in the Blue Nile State. FRANCE 24's James André, Chady Chlela and Stéphanie Braquehais went to the frontline with the rebels.
Our convoy sets off at dawn, four Toyota pick-up trucks full of rebels armed with Kalashnikovs. We leave Southern Sudan for Blue Nile State, a province of the Republic of Sudan. After an hour’s drive on a bumpy dirt track through the forest, we cross the border illegally.
Our driver asks us to remove the batteries from our satellite phone. If we turn it on, the Sudanese army could locate and bomb us. We are now unreachable. The men stop to camouflage the 4x4 with mud. The area is bombed daily. Khartoum uses Antonovs - Russian transport aircraft - to drop bombs on villages and rebel positions. Most residents have fled the province; others live hidden in the bush.
The villages along the track leading to the frontline are deserted, some houses are burnt. Rebel fighters use these hamlets as bases. We soon realise that they lack everything. There is little food. One of the rebels tells us that their salaries have not been paid since the beginning of the war. They also lack fuel; most fighters have to walk between positions. Some are wearing flip flops, others sneakers.
Rebel positions on the frontline consist of groups of men who control tracks or intersections. It is a static war, with heavy yet sporadic fighting. Ground skirmishes are rarer than bombings.
Omar al-Bashir’s arch-enemy
The rebels take us to interview Malik Agar, the leader of the Sudanese Revolutionary Front. The man lives in a secret base hidden in the forest. The place is remote and heavily armed. There are only temporary buildings. We are not allowed to film or photograph anything that could give away his location.
Malik Agar is a former minister and governor of Blue Nile state who was dismissed by Khartoum. Almost two metres tall, he is President Omar al-Bashir’s arch-enemy. He speaks perfect English and Arabic in a calm voice. “What we are doing here is exactly what you Europeans did a few centuries ago… with the added value of the Kalashnikov”, he tells us. His popularity has allowed him to rally rebellions from Blue Nile, South Kordofan and also factions from Darfur to form a force of 45,000 men. His goal is to overthrow the government of Omar al-Bashir, which he considers racist, then to seize power and create a multicultural and secular Sudan.
During our meeting, he stresses the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the province. We leave to go and meet those who are displaced within Blue Nile state.
As night falls, our escort stops in one of the ghost villages. We are shown into a hut. We are offered a meal of roast goat. First, the liver and guts are served, then a few pieces of muscle. There is only one goat for the whole unit, roughly thirty men.
The day has been exhausting; we have travelled for hours on bumpy tracks in temperatures of 40 to 45°C. We sleep outside on string beds.
The Blue Nile is a province that has been deliberately abandoned by the Sudanese government over the years. There is no water, no electricity, let alone a telephone network. Nothing here has changed for thousands of years.
The next day, we set off at sunrise. Our escort takes us into what remains of one of the largest markets in the Blue Nile. Everything is closed except for two stores. There are a few products for sale; they are all imported from Ethiopia and South Sudan. The village is dotted with craters; the hospital was destroyed by a bomb dropped by the Sudanese Air Force.
We finally meet some residents who chose to hide in the bush. They live with nothing - no water, no food. Some shelter in caves. They receive no aid since the humanitarian NGOs have been expelled by Khartoum. The rainy season will begin in a few days. The rains will turn the area into a bog. In some places, there will be up to 50 cm of mud. Vehicles will get stuck, paralysing the region, and the already difficult situation of the Blue Nile’s displaced people will become impossible.