“Stop the Planes”—Now!

By Eric Reeves

February 23, 2013 (SSNA) — The plea could hardly be simpler, or more urgent: "Just stop the planes." This cry for help came from "Khadija," a woman interviewed by Amnesty International (see below) while standing in front of the bombed remains of her home in a small village in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan.  

"Just stop the planes."

And yet more than twenty months after Khartoum launched its military assault on the Nuba people of South Kordofan, the bombing continues relentlessly.  The same is true in neighboring Blue Nile State.  And yet neither Amnesty International nor Human Rights Watch nor the International Crisis Group nor any other major organization analyzing and reporting on the situation in South Kordofan has proposed actions or policies that will oblige the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime in Khartoum to "stop the planes."  In its latest analysis (February 14, 2013), besides offering the obvious urgings, ICG pleads for a comprehensive response to greater Sudan’s interlocking crises.  But its specific recommendation to non-Sudanese parties amounts to a referral to incompetence and ensures inaction

"To Members of the UN Security Council, AU Peace and Security Council, Council of the League of Arab States, and Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the Government of Ethiopia: Demand and work for a single, comprehensive solution to Sudan’s multiple conflicts…."

For its part, the Obama administration has for more than four years responded weakly and irresolutely to the crises most pressing in greater Sudan, including those in the Nuba and Blue Nile.  The administration has done little more than tepidly condemn, with a weary repetitiveness of language, the bombing of civilians by Khartoum; certainly these "condemnations" have been without discernible effect.  Khartoum’s aerial attacks have been directed, relentlessly, against civilians in Darfur since 2003, in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan since June 2011, and in Blue Nile since September 2011. These areas are all in (northern) Sudan, but there have also been many attacks directed against civilians in South Sudan—bombings confirmed by UN investigators as well as journalists present during the attacks.  On one occasion (November 2011) Khartoum’s military attacked the Yida refugee camp, housing tens of thousands of civilians who had fled the Nuba for the relative safety of the South.  One bomb landed just outside a school where hundreds of children had been in attendance (it malfunctioned); journalists for the BBC and Reuters were present at the time.  The most recent bombings were in the Kiir Adem area of Northern Bahr el-Ghazal in November and December 2012, killing more than a dozen Southern civilians (including women and children) and wounding many more.  Khartoum baldly denies all such attacks, despite confirmation my UN investigative teams and journalists who are eyewitnesses to these extraordinary violations of national sovereignty and international law.

In the Nuba and Blue Nile, attacks have as their primary purpose not direct violent killings—though these occur frequently—but a relentless destruction of agricultural production in the regions.  I spoke recently with Tom Catena, a courageous American physician who has functioned as the only surgeon in the Nuba Mountains since the beginning of conflict.  The shrapnel wounds he has treated and photographed are stomach-turning, but they are also significant because of what they represent to the people of the Nuba (the Nuba are an African tribal grouping, who follow—with remarkable mutual accommodation—both Islam and Christianity).  The ghastly shrapnel wounds and killings have instilled such fear that people are afraid to farm their lands, staying close to the shelter of caves, ravines, and rocky outcrops.

The sorghum harvest this year—the staple crop of the region—was very poor, according to Dr. Catena.  People in large numbers are on the verge of joining more than 200,000 refugees who have already fled to South Sudan and Ethiopia.  Many spot nutritional surveys reveal Severe Acute Malnutrition above the emergency threshold; the most recent of these found a 30 percent Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) rate among children under five; this is double the international threshold for a humanitarian emergency (see below).  Moreover, a frightening percentage of children under five are experiencing Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM), a condition typically fatal without therapeutic intervention.

Let us be perfectly clear: all this is intentional.

It is a campaign of annihilation in response to military rebellion by the indigenous Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-North (SPLM/A-N).  The SPLA-N has repeatedly mauled Khartoum’s regular and militia forces, especially in the Nuba, and the response has been a systematic aerial campaign to destroy agricultural production.  It is on the verge of success, as people are simply too fearful to plant, tend, or harvest most of their larger fields.  At the same time, Khartoum maintains a complete humanitarian embargo on regions under rebel control (the great majority of territory in the Nuba).

The weapon of choice is the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) Antonov "bomber."  Of course the Antonov is not a military bomber, but rather a retrofitted Russian cargo plan from which crude but deadly barrel bombs are simply rolled out the cargo bay, spreading a hail of shrapnel in all directions on impact.  The have no militarily purposeful precision, but they are extraordinarily efficient in creating civilian terror.  Early on in the conflict, Khartoum also deployed Sukhoi-25 military jet aircraft, also based at el-Obeid, but Dr. Catena told me that the SAF has settled into a pattern of sufficient regularity with Antonovs to keep fear so high that people are unable to farm.

Khartoum is presently concluding a deal with Ukraine to purchase five more Antonovs.

The conspicuous precedent here is the genocidal campaign against the Nuba in the 1990s, which very nearly succeeded in destroying them.  Current efforts are neither surprising not out of character for this regime.  And yet former U.S. special envoy for Sudan Princeton Lyman, in a moment of outrageously ignorant presumption, declared in late June 2011 that,

"Nuba Mountain people are fighting back and I don’t think the North is capable of dislodging large numbers of people on an ethnic basis….  Second, I’m not sure that’s the objective of the government." 

Lyman has been proved profoundly wrong on both counts of his assessment, and yet there has been no accountability for his egregious misjudgment, even as it sent to Khartoum a signal that has at the very least has prolonged and extended the bombing campaign.  That the regime’s goal is to "dislodge large numbers of people on an ethnic basis" certainly can no longer be doubted.

As reported by Amnesty International, "Khadija" did not say "send troops to the Nuba," or even "send food," desperately hungry though her people are.  She demanded only that the world "stop the planes"—and allow her and others to farm their lands.  The Nuba are a fiercely independent people, but they have no way to "stop the planes" and resume agriculturally productive lives.  Despite these cruel realities, all that has come from the Obama administration are perfunctory condemnations of Khartoum’s aerial barbarism; here it has much company, including the UN, the EU, the African Union, and other regional and international actors of consequence.  Indeed, so perfunctory have the "condemnations" been that they serve only to convince the regime it will pay no real price for these continued aerial assaults on civilians, all of which are war crimes—and which in aggregate constitute crimes against humanity as defined by the Rome Statute that is the treaty basis for the International Criminal Court.

Many others—individuals and organizations—have called for an end to the bombings, but without offering politically or militarily realistic means for changing Khartoum’s behavior.  And until Khartoum is convinced it will pay an unacceptably high price for the bombings, they will continue.  It’s long past time to make unambiguously clear that this is intolerable, and that the planes will be stopped.

What must be done

After seeking what international support might be available (likely little), the Obama administration should issue an ultimatum: "Every time there is a confirmed aerial military attack on civilians in the Nuba Mountains or Blue Nile, we will destroy one of your military aircraft at the el-Obeid air base, using a cruise missile or other precision-guided ordnance.  This will continue seriatim until the bombing stops."  Khartoum will certainly test whether there is any resolve underlying the ultimatum—but will likely do so only once or twice.  Their military aircraft are simply too valuable to them, and they have lost many over the past several years.  If the attacks are carried out in the very early morning, chances for collateral damage are minimal.  Firing from the Red Sea off Sudan’s northeast coast would entail no violation of any other international border.

A bold gambit?  No doubt, but with a clear chance for success.  Are there risks from retaliation by Khartoum?  Certainly—and most likely such retaliation will be directed against those most vulnerable: international humanitarian efforts in various regions of Sudan.  Contingency planning for any such retaliation must be serious and detailed.  We should bear in mind, however, just how abusive of international humanitarian operations this regime has already been during its 24 years of tyranny.  First in South Sudan during the UN-coordinated Operation Lifeline Sudan, where aid was constantly manipulated and the bombing of hospitals was routine (the Nuba was subject to a total humanitarian embargo, as both it and Blue Nile are today).  Subsequently efforts in Darfur were targeted, where more than twenty major humanitarian organizations have been expelled or forced out of the region in the past four years, and those that remain have an increasingly tenuous presence outside the major urban areas.  Further, just last year the regime expelled from eastern Sudan—one of the poorest and most marginalized of Sudan’s peripheral regions—four international humanitarian organizations, including Save the Children/Sweden and Ireland’s Goal.  The reasons given were wholly factitious.

Things could certainly be made worse, especially in Darfur; here the responsibility for confronting this challenge should fall to the large, extravagantly funded, and hopelessly ineffective UN/African Union Mission in Darfur.  But it has proved so inept and ineffective that serious concerns must be registered about its adequacy to protect humanitarians (exceedingly few of whom are expatriate) and the UN’s World Food Program food pipeline.  A UN response should be forced by the U.S. and EU at the Security Council if Khartoum attacks humanitarian operations, either directly or through its militia proxies.

There are considerable risks here.  But the question is whether we are prepared to allow the people of the Nuba and Blue Nile to be held hostage to what this viciously resourceful regime might do, given the indisputable realities now prevailing in these regions.  Here one would hope that the U.S. would find considerable international support in confronting men who are in fact serial génocidaires, and who feel comfortable using pressure on or violence against humanitarian relief efforts as a means of waging war.

For those uneasy about the unilateral use of U.S. military power, a simple question must be answered: "with no other means of stopping the bombing of civilians and civilian agricultural production, how do you propose halting the attacks?"  Cries of outrage are easy; committing to serious action is the hard part, and so far the Obama administration and others have shown no stomach for such seriousness.  To be sure, President Obama last April convened an "Atrocities Prevention Board" with stirring words from his August 2011 Presidential Study Directive:

"Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States. Our security is affected when masses of civilians are slaughtered, refugees flow across borders, and murderers wreak havoc on regional stability and livelihoods.  America’s reputation suffers, and our ability to bring about change is constrained, when we are perceived as idle in the face of mass atrocities and genocide. Unfortunately, history has taught us that our pursuit of a world where states do not systematically slaughter civilians will not come to fruition without concerted and coordinated effort."  (Presidential Study Directive 10, August 4, 2011)

But the "Board" so sanctimoniously announced has been inaccessible, inert, and indeed invisible. To date it has been an instrument of "atrocity prevention" in name only.  But halting further atrocities in the Nuba and Blue Nile—and Darfur—can’t be stopped by bureaucracy or committee; it can be accomplished only by actions that Khartoum takes seriously.  No such actions have been proposed by the U.S. or any other international actor of consequence.

Why we must act

The UN estimated last October that almost 1 million people had been displaced or deeply imperiled by Khartoum’s aerial campaign—almost 1 million people, and the number has surely grown significantly in the past four months.  Moreover, a great many children, the elderly, the infirm, and others are simply too weak to make the arduous trek southward to join more than 200,000 others who have already fled to refugee camps in Unity State and Upper Nile State in South Sudan (tens of thousands of others have fled from Blue Nile into Ethiopia).  Those who must remain will simply be waiting to starve if current circumstances continue to prevail.

Dr. Catena witnessed a very poor sorghum harvest this November/December, and a great many people are fully prepared to move when their meager food supplies are exhausted.  For over a year, accounts of people reduced to eating leaves, bark, and insects have become a commonplace in reports from both Blue Nile and the Nuba:

• Declaring the situation "incredibly alarming," John Ging, director of operations for UN OCHA, declared last month of Blue Nile and South Kordofan: "nearly one million people are in dire need, but out of reach of aid workers, forcing some to rely on roots and leaves for food." (January 8, 2013)

• Eight months ago reporter Tristan McConnell declared following a trip into the Nuba: "Without any crops, they’ve started eating leaves. To see a woman sitting down and cooking supper for her eight children and all she’s got in the pot is a load of boiled leaves is just horrendous. That sort of thing just shouldn’t happen." (PBS NewsHour, May 9, 2012)

• Almost a year ago the warnings were fully explicit: "Local officials say the conflict [in the Nuba] has severely affected agricultural production, and estimate that the next harvest will be only 20 percent of normal, leaving most of the population dependent on outside aid. They warn that unless supplies are brought in within the next few weeks, the onset of the rains will make it virtually impossible to distribute the relief, just when the annual pre-harvest hungry season reaches its peak" (IRIN, March 22, 2012).  Only minimal food aid was provided, and the 2012 sorghum harvest was even poorer than expected.

• Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times reported from the Nuba last June: "Perhaps hundreds of thousands of people here have no food and are reduced to eating leaves and insects, as Sudan’s government starves and bombs its own people in the Nuba Mountains. Children are beginning to die."

• Mukesh Kapila, former UN humanitarian coordinator for all of Sudan and now working with Aegis Trust (UK), reported on the results of his second courageous assessment mission into the Nuba and Blue Nile regions: "Malnutrition rates in Sudan’s war-torn border states have doubled to 30 percent as starving people, denied humanitarian aid, eat just one meal every three days, activists said on Friday as they urged the African Union (AU) to launch an inquiry into what they called ‘crimes against humanity.’

"’This is one of the world’s biggest humanitarian and human rights disasters,’ said Mukesh Kapila of the Aegis Trust lobby group, which campaigns against genocide and crimes against humanity, after returning from a 10-day trip to the region. The 30 percent malnutrition rate refers to the percentage of children under five who are deemed to be critically malnourished. This is double the World Health Organisation’s 15 percent emergency threshold for acute malnutrition, which should trigger a humanitarian response." (Reuters AlertNet [Nairobi], January 18, 2013)

Given this exceedingly grim picture of malnutrition, plans for opening an emergency humanitarian corridor into both the Nuba and Blue Nile should begin immediately; indeed, such planning is long overdue.  But these will require both security on the ground and protection from aerial assault.  And for this, the world must first "stop the planes."



January 2013

By Alex Neve

Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada

"Just stop the planes." That was the plea made by the feisty, determined Khadija when I interviewed her in front of the remains of her home in a small village in Sudan’s Southern Kordofan state last week.  If only it could be that simple. It certainly ought to be.

A month earlier a lumbering Sudanese Antonov aircraft had passed overhead and unleashed a deadly cargo of five bombs in rapid succession. Khadija was at the nearby market at the time and therefore escaped injury. But when she hurried back to her home, pure horror awaited her. One elderly woman, unable to run, had been literally blown apart and Khadija later undertook the grim task of collecting her neighbour’s body parts.

A woman in her twenties, mother to five children and pregnant with her sixth, was cut in half by the vicious and totally unpredictable shrapnel that is the greatest peril of these cruel Antonov bombs. Khadija also found that her tukul had been burned by the bomb and that all of her clothing and worldly possessions had been destroyed. Another woman, just passing by at the time, lay with a shrapnel injury in her foot.

Khadija’s story is one among very many that I heard. This campaign of death, fear and destruction against the civilian population of Southern Kordofan has been ongoing for close to 20 months now. Indiscriminate bombs are wantonly rolled out of the back of the Antonovs, flying high above, with no ability to guide them to proper military targets. And, inevitably, many of the bombs fall where civilians live, sleep, grow food, go to market, fetch water, pray or attend school.

I travelled through numerous villages in the parts of Southern Kordofan now under the control of the armed opposition, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North (SPLA-N) and everywhere the accounts and visible evidence of the aerial bombardments were the same.

Sometimes, fortunately, no one had been hurt. Other times nearly entire families had been killed. There was no community I visited that has been spared. And in none of the sites I inspected was there indication of a valid military target anywhere remotely close by [all emphases added—ER]. A father told me of his 10 and 5-year-old sons who ran to hide under the branches of a fruit tree when they heard the unmistakeable drone of an approaching Antonov in mid-November. This time the bomb fell almost directly beside the tree, killing them both. I saw the damage done, massive branches sheared off the tree and the bomb crater only 2 or 3 metres away.

Another man took me to his home at the top of a hill. On 26 December 2012 he was a short distance away from his own house visiting his brother when the Antonov arrived. His home was in sight, but he could not reach it in time. On its first fly-pass the plane dropped three bombs and then returned to drop another three. The first of that second batch of bombs fell in his compound as he watched helplessly from an adjoining hill top. When the plane had left and he was able to rush to his home he found his mother, wife and 5-month-old daughter all dead.

They had made it to the hoped-for safety of their foxhole, but the bomb itself landed less than a metre from where they were hiding. They did not stand a chance.

Neither did the five people – a woman, her daughter, two nieces and a neighbouring boy – who hoped that a foxhole would keep them safe when an Antonov dropped two bombs on 18 December. It was chilling to stand where they would have been hiding and see how close the bomb had fallen: only four or five paces away.

This relentless campaign of death raining down from the skies has killed or injured untold numbers of people over the past 20 months. Its impact, however, is more insidious than the harrowing toll of deaths and injuries alone. Because by now the mere mention of an Antonov, let alone the sound of its approach, is a source of panic and terror. People run for the nearest foxhole (nearly everyone has dug one in their compound) or they run for the safety of rocks and caves in the region’s Nuba Mountains. And they hide and they wait.

And everything about their lives is turned upside down. While fleeing and hiding they cannot tend crops. They cannot look out for livestock. And day by day, therefore, food supplies have dwindled to nothing. Add to that the Sudanese government’s cruel refusal to allow independent humanitarian access to this area so that food and other relief can be distributed and the gravity of this crisis has become beyond measure.

There is absolutely no doubt that this indefensible bombing campaign violates international humanitarian law—the repeated indiscriminate air attacks, as well as possibly direct attacks on civilians, by the Sudanese armed forces, constitute war crimes. So why does it attract so little international attention? Security Council resolutions urge and encourage but do not condemn and deplore what is happening. The Sudanese government plays games with UN, African Union and other officials, promising that aid access will open up, but consistently failing to follow through.

I was asked "why" at every turn. "Why don’t we matter? Why doesn’t anyone care about us?"

Or, as Khadija put it, why doesn’t someone just stop the planes. That is precisely what has to happen.

Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College, is author most recently of Compromising with Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 – 2012; www.CompromisingWithEvil.org

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