KILO 18, South Sudan — The stories all begin and end the same. In the beginning, there were bombs. Those started dropping in the fall. Some people say they immediately fled to the mountains, where they scavenged for food. Others hunkered down in their villages, behind the protection of armed rebels.
Then, last month, military vehicles filled with men in green uniforms stormed into their lives, torching their homes, destroying their crops, and killing whomever was not quick enough to run away. The bodies were dumped into the wells, poisoning the water.
So, by the thousands, they fled their isolated hilly homeland in the Ingassana Hills in Sudan’s Blue Nile state, eating leaves from trees and rummaging in the ground for edible roots. Finding water was a constant struggle. Many dropped dead along the way.
By earlier this month, the survivors – 40,000 of them – had massed on the border with South Sudan, empty-handed, weak and exhausted, the human evidence of a scorched-earth military campaign by the Sudanese government, the harrowing news of which is only now reaching the outside world.
More than 10,000 refugees still have not made it to shelter and are stranded here at a spot aid workers have dubbed Kilo 18, because it lies 18 kilometers (11 miles) north of the Jamam refugee camp in South Sudan, one of three camps to accommodate the more than 100,000 refugees who’ve fled Blue Nile since war re-erupted there in September.
In interviews this week, refugees here described a Sudanese military offensive that began in May and has routed the South Sudan-aligned Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North rebels from the areas they once held in the highlands. Eyewitnesses say that soldiers actively hunted down and killed civilians.
Sheikh Awad Doka said he was inside his house in the Tego area of the Ingassana Hills when the attack started. The rebel soldiers retreated, outnumbered and outgunned. He and other villagers fled to a dry river bed, where they hid for five days. When he returned, there was nothing left.
"When the soldiers came, they started burning everything," he said. "If they catch someone, they hack them to death."
"They burnt the sorghum, they burnt the homes, they destroyed the well, and they poisoned the hafira (man-made pond) with dead animals," he said.
From the 72 households in his community, he said, 10 people died in the attack, and eight more died on the 13-day trek to the South Sudanese border.
Kukur, a major Ingassana town north of Tego, was completely destroyed about the same time, said two eyewitnesses who gave nearly identical accounts of the attack in separate interviews.
"The old men and women left behind were burned in their homes." said Juma Ali, who fled Kukur during the attack. Ali, who wore a white taqiyah cap, said he lost 20 family members in the attack and from the subsequent flight to South Sudan.
Aid workers said they have heard similar testimonies.
"What we are hearing is that people are being pushed out of their villages, homes are being burnt, sometimes with people inside," said Arjan Hehenkamp, the head of the Dutch branch of Doctors Without Borders, the international medical aid society. The Dutch are providing care here, and Hehenkamp visited Kilo 18 on Wednesday.
"Whether this is a pattern or just incidents, we can’t say," he said. But the massive influx of refugees shows that the situation inside the conflict area is "very serious."
The refugee accounts were impossible to verify. No foreign observer has been to the Ingassana Hills since the Sudanese offensive began in May. The Sudanese government, led by President Omar Bashir, has blocked access to the area, and the rebel group has not taken anybody to the area.
A spokesman for the rebel SPLA-North, Arnu Ngutulu, confirmed the government offensive but claimed that the rebels had since regained control of the Ingassana Hills.
"The fighting happened during the month of May and earlier this month," he said. When asked about the reports of burned villages, Ngutulu replied that the government troops "are doing this everywhere.”
A spokesman for the Sudanese army could not be reached by phone on Thursday afternoon.
Brutal counterinsurgency tactics have long been a hallmark of Sudan’s civil wars. Washington has labeled as genocide Sudanese tactics in Darfur, and Bashir has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
In the Darfur conflict, however, most of the atrocities were committed by a government-backed militia, known as the janjaweed. But in Blue Nile, according to the refugees, it was the Sudanese army itself that burned down their villages and slaughtered civilians.
The entire Ingassana population is estimated at 270,000. If that number is accurate, about a quarter are already refugees in South Sudan. Before the latest influx, some 30,000 Ingassana already had fled from the war, as had 40,000 other Sudanese from southern Blue Nile. The three refugee camps are spilling over. Many refugees still lack basic shelter, regular meals and adequate water.
There are no estimates of how many people have died inside Sudan.
The Ingassana refugees believe their villages are being targeted because their area is a stronghold of the rebellion in the state. But that was not always the case. While the largely Christian areas to the south in Blue Nile contributed to the rebellion during a previous war, the Ingassana are Muslim and their area – home to a largely illiterate population – was never home to a substantial insurgency.
But the SPLA-North rebel leader, Malik Agar, is Ingassana. Agar ran for governor of Blue Nile state in 2010 elections. With heavy backing from his fellow Ingassana, he won. But with the SPLA-North fighting in the Nuba Mountains in Sudan’s South Kordofan state, the Sudanese army deposed Agar in September.
Now the fear is that Sudanese forces will take revenge on civilian populations elsewhere if rebel forces lose control. A video allegedly captured from a Sudanese soldier’s cellphone and posted on YouTube this month shows government troops giving directions to burn down a village in the Nuba Mountains. The soldiers referred to themselves as the "Match Battalion."
Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His work is underwritten in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues.