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The Citizen Journalists on the Frontline in Sudan
For months, Ryan Boyette’s name and his presence in the Nuba Mountains remained a closely-held detail, never mentioned in public reporting about the atrocities that have been unfolding in the area since June. But as Enough’s Jonathan Hutson noted to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof for his Sunday column, Boyette is “irreplaceable” through his role as a rare foreign witness to the Sudanese government’s aerial bombardments and ground attacks. “There is no substitute for someone on the ground,” Hutson said.
Working with 14 citizen journalists, Boyette and his clandestine reporting team have documented atrocities committed by the Sudanese government through photos, video, and testimonies gathered from survivors and eyewitnesses—information that is then passed to organizations including the Enough Project and Satellite Sentinel Project, or SSP. Often, the team includes GPS coordinates for the location of specific attacks, which can be used by SSP to corroborate the evidence via satellite imagery. The details, transmitted via a solar-powered laptop and satellite phone, are raw and highlight the indiscriminate nature of the government operations. “Bombing continues every day in Southern Kordofan,” one email sent to Enough on October 2 read. “But these are the bombings that have been confirmed” by their team, they wrote:
- Date of Bombing: Sept. 28, 2011
- Location: village of Abri in Delami, County.
- Time: Bombs were dropped at 2 to 3 pm
- 5 Bombs dropped by Antonov Plane
- 4 Civilians killed:
- Dead - 41 year old man named Nattat. He was a disabled man that was using a wheel chair to move around. When the bomb landed near him a piece of shrapnel cut off his head. The man was buried with no head.
- Dead - 22 year old man named Janjawied.
- Dead - 13 year old boy
- Dead - 12 year old boy
- 6 people were wounded.
- One of the bombs landed on a house and wounded 3 of the six people
- Location: Tongoli village, Delami County
- Date: Sept. 28, 2011
- Time of bombing: 2 to 3 pm
- 2 Bombs dropped by Antonov plane
- Date: Bombing on Sept. 30, 2011
- Location: Between the villages of Sabat and Tujur in Delami County.
- Type: Mig fighter jet
- Time: Late afternoon hours.
- The bombs were hitting near the location where many IDP have been gathering from the surrounding areas. These IDP are taking refuge in the mountains in that region.
- Several goats were killed in the bombings but no one was killed or injured.
The details of such attacks are often difficult to independently verify, but the team has established a strong reputation for accuracy, bolstered by the information provided by several other sources in the area and by satellite imagery. “The value of their reporting rests on their credibility,” Hutson explained during an internal discussion at Enough about collecting information when access is limited. “Sometimes, [the citizen journalists] are able to photograph bomb craters or unexploded ordinance, to corroborate eyewitness interviews of indiscriminate bombing in the Nuba Mountains. And usually, they obtain multiple eyewitness interviews of key events,” he said.
But as in any war zone, it is unrealistic to expect that local sources could be neutral bystanders. Boyette, though originally from Florida, is inevitably influenced by his eight-year stay in Sudan, during which he witnessed and experienced the hardships unavoidable in this long marginalized region of Sudan. “Accuracy has always been a key to our work,” Boyette said, explaining how the team has learned to diligently sort out the facts from the the rumors that inevitably circulate.
Meanwhile, official channels for reporting on the conflict in Southern Kordofan continue to provide limited details on the human impact. Recent humanitarian overviews provided by the U.N. humanitarian coordination office frequently draw from the Sudanese government’s own assessments on the situation inside the state, via the Sudan’s Humanitarian Aid Commission, or HAC—an organization with a record of denying access to aid groups, notoriously in Darfur, and of downplaying the humanitarian implications of the conflict. (By way of illustration, as state media reported a major clash between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the SPLA-N in the neighboring state of Blue Nile on October 20, HAC issued a statement “confirm[ing] that the humanitarian situation is stable and under control” in the state. HAC further stated, “[T]here is no need for foreign NGOS to provide humanitarian service,” because the government and “the people of the Sudan from various states” had filled the gap in food—even as an estimated 28,500 people have amassed just over the border in Ethiopia.)
Nearly 15,000 people from Southern Kordofan have arrived at a camp in South Sudan’s Unity state, just over the border, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Several hundred from Nuba—those with means—have made their way to Juba. But the number of people who have fled Southern Kordofan is far fewer than the estimated 200,000 thought to be affected by the ongoing violence, prompting questions about what is preventing people from fleeing.
Boyette’s decision to leave the Nuba Mountains and why he will soon return—albeit to an even more dangerous situation now that his identity is well known—derived from frustration at the lack of attention the crisis has received globally. Boyette said he was translating the testimony of an elderly man who had fled the fighting when he realized he needed to bring the stories directly to influentials in the United States. “The man passionately described seeing his house burn down and talked about how his family didn’t have shoes,” Boyette said. “I felt selfish staying in Nuba when I know I have a voice people will listen to.”