Ongoing Aerial Assaults in Sudan Against Civilians and Humanitarians: An Update

Dissent Magazine (on-line), July 25, 2011

By Eric Reeves

July 25, 2011 (SSNA) — Since my report and data spreadsheet on aerial targeting of civilians and humanitarians in Sudan were released on this blog on May 6, 2011, the Sudan Armed Forces—at the direction of the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime in Khartoum—have not only continued their onslaught in Darfur, but have begun a massive, ethnically targeted military campaign in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan, including sustained and extremely destructive aerial attacks on civilians. Khartoum has also engaged in military actions in very tense border regions, including Abyei and the northern border of oil-rich Unity State (South Sudan). The latter actions have included repeated aerial bombardments within Pariang County, which have displaced thousands of Southerners. Ominous reports—from the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), from Malik Agar (leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in North Sudan and Governor of Blue Nile), from satellite imagery, and from regional sources—suggest that the southern regions of Blue Nile State (North Sudan) may also soon become a war zone.

In Darfur—increasingly a parenthetical subject in discussions of Sudan—several attacks in a three-day period in May killed and injured dozens of civilians. On May 15 Khartoum’s warplanes bombed the town of Labado and the village of Esheraya in South Darfur, killing thirteen and wounding many more. Reuters reports that on May 17 the village of Sukamir was bombed, with casualties unknown. Bloomberg News reports that the targets of the May 18 bombing included the civilian villages of Umm Rai and Hashaba in North Darfur; ten civilians were killed (Baashim village was also attacked). The powerless UN Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), led by Nigeria’s feckless Ibrahim Gambari, was prevented by Khartoum from investigating these atrocity crimes, as it has been so many times previously. Information about such aerial attacks, including the names of many victims, comes much more often from Radio Dabanga, the essential news clearinghouse for Darfur. Radio Dabanga estimates, on the basis of UN figures and its own, that some 140,000 people have been newly displaced by aerial and other military violence since mid-December 2010 (this comports closely with an aggregation of data from the UN and humanitarian organizations).

Now, the regime’s June 5 assault on South Kordofan—following its May 20 – 21 military seizure of the contested Abyei region—has concentrated aerial firepower with extraordinary ferocity on the Nuba people of the region, especially in the Nuba Mountains in the center of South Kordofan; some seventy bombing, strafing, and helicopter gunship attacks have been confirmed in the last six weeks, but reports from the ground suggest that this vastly understates the actual number. An internal and unreleased document produced at the very end of June by human rights personnel of UNMIS gives a general sense of the scope of aerial assaults on civilians:

"Since the eruption of the conflict, the SAF has carried out daily aerial bombardments into the Nuba Mountains and in several towns and villages populated by Nubans. The consequences of these bombardments on the Nuban people and in particular civilians, including women and children, are devastating. They have resulted in significant loss of life, destruction of properties, and massive displacement." (UNMIS Report on the Human Rights Situation During the Violence in Southern Kordofan)

The Nuba are a large and indigenous group of African tribes who have had the temerity to resist Khartoum’s campaign of Arabism and Islamism (although a significant number of Nuba are themselves Muslim). The Nuba became strong supporters of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army in the 1990s, and for this reason were targeted by Khartoum for genocidal destruction. A fatwa was issued by Khartoum in January 1992, bringing a military jihad and blockade of humanitarian relief that came perilously close to exterminating the Nuba. Julie Flint, an expert on the region, has estimated on the basis of her research that "in the early 1990s, regular Sudanese army troops and paramilitary Popular Defense Forces killed 60,000–70,000 Nuba in just seven months." Many hundreds of thousands were killed, otherwise succumbed, or were displaced from their fertile lands—some of the richest in Sudan.

I have supplemented the Excel spreadsheet of May 6 to reflect all confirmed aerial assaults in Darfur, Unity State (South Sudan), and South Kordofan (North Sudan) through July 15, 2011. The total number of confirmed attacks exceeds eighty. The attacks in the Nuba Mountains have been confirmed by (highly limited) UN investigations, by journalists who have now reported from the remote Nuba Mountains region (including photographically), by massive photographic evidence from the ground, by satellite imagery from the Satellite Sentinel Project, and by the Nuba themselves. It is impossible to confirm all these latter reports as fully as might be wished, but with so much redundancy among all the reports, there is no reason to exclude Nuba accounts.

The consequences of this indiscriminate aerial assault are evident everywhere: people have been forced to abandon their villages and lands at the height of planting season, fleeing to caves in the mountainsides; humanitarian access to the Nuba Mountains has been shut down; a great many Nuba have been killed or wounded. Evidence strongly suggests that hundreds, perhaps thousands, have been killed directly or as a consequence of the bombings and the lack of relief aid. Tremendous numbers of people have been displaced, and the peculiarly static UN figure of "73,000 displaced" is simply an estimate based on what can be surmised from the highly constrained UN presence in Kadugli (capital of South Kordofan). Abdel Aziz el-Hilu, former deputy governor of South Kordofan, has estimated on the basis of preliminary data that the figure is closer to 500,000, and at least it very likely exceeds 250,000.

There are many reports of house-to-house arrests and summary executions of Nuba in Kadugli during the early weeks of the onslaught, typically on the pretext of their having "Southern sympathies." Roadblocks reminiscent of those in Rwanda during the spring of 1994 have also targeted Nuba, who are arrested or executed. Often these people are simply trying to escape, especially to the South. There is now compelling satellite photographic evidence of mass graves, and the UN cannot account for some 7,000 Nuba who were in their protective custody until compelled by Khartoum’s Military Intelligence to leave for Kadugli Stadium. They have not been seen since their forcible removal from the UN security perimeter.

But the aerial assaults are what will destroy the Nuba, if Khartoum succeeds in its genocidal ambitions. Nearly all the relief groups that haven’t already left will have to withdraw, particularly those with expatriate workers. It is presently the rainy season and the widespread loss of shelter is particularly dangerous, but it will be the loss of next autumn’s crops that will bring the Nuba to the verge of starvation. If this planting season and crop-tending are disrupted by continuous aerial bombing and rocket attacks, starvation will be an inescapable reality. Such starvation in the 1990s compelled many Nuba to seek out Khartoum’s "peace camps,"where receiving food was contingent upon conversion to Islam. Those who refused where often tortured, mutilated, or killed. Memories of the "peace camps" run deep among the Nuba.

Khartoum is making good on its demand that UNMIS withdraw entirely from North Sudan after secession by the South on July 9. This removes the last vestiges of yet another failed and extravagantly funded UN peacekeeping mission—the last international presence that might be able to confirm the scale of human suffering and destruction in the Nuba Mountains. The United States and others have objected, but Khartoum is not listening.

Absent a robust international response that is nowhere in evidence, the most likely course of events will be a continuation of the present pattern of civilian bombings in Darfur, South Sudan, and South Kordofan. But war might easily expand significantly following recent international recognition of the new Republic of South Sudan (whose UN membership became official on July 14). Since Khartoum has been the conspicuous aggressor in all reported military violence, the international right of self-defense by South Sudan has significantly new meaning. This is especially true since the Khartoum regime is clearly supporting militia groups in the South that have only one goal: to destabilize the region through attacks on civilians. This can be seen in the example of Peter Gadet, a dangerous military leader in Unity and Warrab states who has repeatedly changed sides during and after Sudan’s twenty-two-year civil war.

Once war begins to expand, there is simply no saying where it will end. After much talk about how war was too expensive for either side, Sudan pundits are now speaking of more ominous possibilities. There will be enormous pressure on Juba, capital of South Sudan, to aid the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/North, both in the Nuba Mountains and in Blue Nile State (in the North), where there has been a major but underreported military build-up by both sides. Soldiers from both the Nuba and southern Blue Nile fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the SPLA in the South; these regions have already been excluded from the self-determination process that was laid out by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. It is doubtful that Juba will let their compatriots down again. As Salva Kiir, the President of the Republic of South Sudan, declared on independence day, July 9, 2011, "I want to assure the people of Abyei, Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan that we have not forgotten you. When you cry, we cry. When you bleed, we bleed. I pledge to you today that we will find a just peace for all."

It is unclear all that this implies militarily. What we may be sure of is that Khartoum’s conduct of war will continue to include systematic, widespread, and ethnically targeted aerial attacks on civilians and the humanitarian resources upon which they depend.

Eric Reeves has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade. He is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.

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