An Open Letter to President Obama on the Bombing of North Sharafa, East Jebel Marra (Darfur)

From Eric Reeves, 30 November 2013

President Barack Obama
The White House
Washington, DC

Dear President Obama:

November 30, 2013 (SSNA) — The moral failure of your administration to respond to the continuing mass atrocities perpetrated by the current regime in Khartoum (Sudan) grows daily, and has done so for the past five years.  Your refusal to condemn, in the strongest terms, the continuing war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party tyranny stands in stark contrast to your urgent words as a Senator, as a presidential candidate, and as an elected President. As a senator in 2004, you called the atrocities in Darfur “genocide.”  You said so again as a presidential candidate in 2007 and chided the Bush administration for its accommodation of Khartoum. Invoking Rwanda and Bosnia as justification for humanitarian intervention in Darfur, you said, “The United States has a moral obligation anytime you see humanitarian catastrophes.” You declared further,

“When you see a genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia or in Darfur, that is a stain on all of us, a stain on our souls. … We can’t say ‘never again’ and then allow it to happen again, and as a president of the United States I don’t intend to abandon people or turn a blind eye to slaughter.” (Video recording available at:; all emphases have been added)

And as President you again characterized Darfur as the site of “genocide.”

But despite such strong language, your administration has come to substitute words of appeasement, feigned ignorance of atrocity crimes, and a grotesque moral equivalence between Khartoum and its adversaries, one that would put in balance the regime’s genocidal destruction and the actions by the various rebel groups that have emerged to resist Khartoum’s tyranny.  Your first special envoy to Sudan arrived declaring his strategy for confronting the regime’s génocidaires in words that have become synonymous with diplomatic absurdity:

“We’ve got to think about giving out cookies,” said [Scott] Gration, who was appointed in March. “Kids, countries—they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement.” (Washington Post [el-Fasher, Darfur], September 29, 2009)

In March 2009 the Khartoum regime expelled from Darfur thirteen of the world’s finest humanitarian organizations, then providing roughly half the total international humanitarian capacity for millions of people. Your surrogate diplomatic representative—then-Senator and now Secretary of State John Kerry—declared in the wake of Khartoum’s ruthless expulsions:

“We have agreement [with Khartoum] that in the next weeks we will be back to 100 percent [humanitarian] capacity,” said [Senator John] Kerry. (Reuters [el-Fasher], April 17, 2009)

This was a cruel lie, as Kerry and everyone within the humanitarian community working in Darfur well knew.  Indeed, this was such transparent mendacity that even now it carries the stench of supreme expediency.

Your second special envoy, Princeton Lyman, declared in late June 2011 that there wasn’t enough evidence to support reports of massive, ethnically-targeted killings of Nuba civilians in South Kordofan.  But in fact, overwhelming evidence was pouring out of Kadugli (capital of the region) making all too clear the nature of atrocity crimes, which amounted to incipient genocide.  Again, this skepticism bears the stench of unforgiveable expediency, the more so since a UN human rights report on the events of June 2011 in South Kordofan—based on evidence gathered by UN human rights investigators on the ground at the time—confirmed what all sources were declaring with increasing urgency throughout this terrible month.  Lyman’s disingenuous skepticism worked to convince Khartoum that the U.S. was not particularly concerned about a reprise of the genocidal campaign by this same Khartoum regime against the people of the Nuba in the 1990s.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that in the unseemly rush to secure continuing cooperation from the Khartoum regime on counter-terrorism intelligence, you and your administration have repeatedly and willfully ignored reports of the most conspicuous and brutal crimes committed by this regime, or at least decided not to speak publicly about them in any meaningful or consistent way.  And here your almost total silence over the deliberate bombing of civilians—even as every such military action is a war crime, and in aggregate constitute crimes against humanity—is most shameful, and most persistent.

Since 1999 the have been more than 2,000 confirmed reports of deliberate aerial attacks on civilian and humanitarian targets in greater Sudan; the actual number of attacks is very likely many times this, and continues to grow rapidly. This is unprecedented in the history of aerial warfare: never before has a military power been able to bomb with impunity its own civilians relentlessly, systematically, and deliberately during a detailed and lengthy reporting period, now extending over 15 years.  While most of the attacks have been by Antonovs, Khartoum has also deployed highly accurate military jet aircraft, long-range missiles, and helicopter gunships, which were used with particular destructiveness in the early years of the Darfur genocide.  On any number of occasions, helicopter gunships have fired on civilians with heavy machine-guns and rockets from extremely close range.

I write on this occasion moved not by the singularity of a particular bombing attack that occurred yesterday, but rather by its horrific familiarity.  Radio Dabanga, an extraordinarily important, indeed singular source of news from Darfur, reports today that on Friday, November 28, 2013:

[I]n North Sharafa in East Jebel Marra [in the center of Darfur], an Antonov ["bomber," i.e. retrofitted cargo plane with no militarily useful accuracy] bombed three farmers, at about 5.30pm on Friday [November 29, 2013]. The two men and a woman were riding a horse cart from their farm to their homes in Sharafa village. The three farmers and their horses were killed immediately. The names of the three farmers are Hashim Abakar Mohamed, Mustafa Eisa, and Hanan Saleh Juma.

Such criminal bombings—directly violating a UN Security Council resolution as well as international law—are a virtually daily occurrence in East Jebel Marra, part of a massif in central Darfur serving as stronghold for one of the rebel groups in Darfur, now linked throughout Sudan in the form of the Sudan Revolutionary Front.  But Khartoum is not attacking military forces: it is deliberately attacking civilians in an effort to compel surrender or displacement or starvation of the remaining rebel forces. There is no other conclusion to be reached, given the inherent inaccuracy of the Antonov “bombers,” which fly at very high altitudes and simply roll crude, shrapnel-loaded barrel bombs out the cargo bay without benefit of any sighting mechanism.  Such attacks continue occur throughout Darfur.

Antonovs are transparently instruments of civilian terror and destruction—as they are in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, areas where bombing attacks are also continuously reported, and with particular authority from the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan.  There a campaign of civilian annihilation continues unabated as agricultural production has been brought to a halt by the fear of continued bombardment.  A similarly grim narrative is playing out in Blue Nile and the result is some 300,000 refugees fleeing to South Sudan and Ethiopia, leaving behind more than one million civilians at acute risk of disease and starvation according to UN estimates.

Where are the voices of condemnation?  Here I mean not the occasional generic condemnations issued by your administration, typically qualified (and thus weakened) by inclusion of some other issue.  What prevents your administration from condemning every attack on civilians by military aircraft, per se?  The U.S. intelligence community certainly has the resources to confirm via satellite reconnaissance virtually every attack reported by Radio Dabanga or Nuba Reports, both of which are well known for their accuracy and ground-based reporting (many of their findings have been confirmed by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Enough Project, journalists, and intrepid humanitarians).  Would it simply be too embarrassing to reveal just what we and the rest of the international community are tolerating?  Would it be too shameful to make clear that, on the basis of geostrategic considerations, Syria is important while the people of the marginalized regions of Sudan are not?

Perhaps you will say that the “hybrid” UN/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) has the responsibility for reporting and condemning aerial attacks on civilians.  But this would only add to the disingenuousness of your administration in speaking about Sudan.  For as you are surely aware, UNAMID is a complete failure as a mission, particularly in fulfilling it primary mandate of civilian and humanitarian protection: for some 2 million people have been newly displaced since the mission took up its mandate in January 2008—overwhelmingly as a consequence of continuing violence, directed particularly against civilians.  You touted your support for a UNAMID-like mission in 2007, revealing either ignorance or an expedient desire to appear to be responding to the crisis by handing it off to an ill-prepared African Union Peace and Security Council, which had no dedicated military equipment or soldiers of its own.

Unsurprisingly, the poorly equipped and poorly led UNAMID mission is routinely denied access to scenes of atrocity crimes by the Khartoum regime’s security forces, as are humanitarian organizations, which struggle to work within an increasingly limited range of operations. Because of uncontrolled insecurity, the highly trained expatriate component of what was once the world’s largest humanitarian operation is down to 3 percent.  Your administration issues only infrequent boiler-plate condemnations in response to serious violations of a range of UN Security Council Resolutions.  Despite its elaborate website and nominal reporting duties, UNAMID confirms virtually no bombing attacks, no matter how egregiously in violation of international law.  Additionally and symptomatically, UNAMID has for years said virtually nothing about the epidemic of sexual violence directed against girls and women in Darfur, despite the fact that there have been tens of thousands have been victims during the conflict, now about to enter its twelfth year.  Your administration has been useless in highlighting these terrible crimes, which continue to be committed with total impunity.

UNAMID’s only virtue would appear to be that it gives the semblance of an international presence approved by the UN—at immense cost—and provides an excuse for not responding in the way you as candidate spoke about so passionately. UNAMID’s impotence, and its failure to deter aerial bombardment of civilians, is illustrated by another report of November 28, 2013 from Radio Dabanga:

Ten people were killed in aerial bombardments near Shengil Tobaya and Sharafa in East Jebel Marra. One attack took place a few kilometers from the UNAMID compound in Shengil Tobaya, while a group of 15 people was on their way to Shengil Tobaya after a visit to the market of Tabit.

A Sudanese Air Force aircraft appeared around 4pm on Friday, hitting the Toyota Hi-Lux that was transporting the 15 people, at Tangara, 3km west of the UNAMID compound in Shengil Tobaya. Seven of them died at the spot and eight were critically wounded. Several of them could not be moved due to their critical injuries. The relatives of the victims asked UNAMID to act quickly and transfer the severely wounded people to a hospital and recover the dead bodies. Yesterday evening it was unclear whether UNAMID had helped out. The victims are Abakir Yagoub Mohamed, Ali Ahmed Abdalla, Mohamed Ali Ahmed, Osman Adam Mohamed and Zahra Ibrahim. (emphasis added; the UNAMID compound at Shengil Tobaya is a significant one)

Will you and your administration continue to hide behind the diplomatic fig-leaf of UNAMID’s putative ability to halt what has become a grim “genocide by attrition”?  In fact, the genocide proceeds apace in large measure because your administration has decided, as part of its larger Sudan policy, to “de-couple” Darfur from the largest bilateral issue between Khartoum and Washington: cooperation on counter-terrorism.  That a senior official of your administration would use the term “de-couple” in speaking about Darfur and any aspect of U.S. Sudan policy amounts to declaring that despite the genocidal realities you excoriated as candidate and as president—when it was politically useful to do so—you and your administration are willing to set aside, bracket, and finally ignore this scene of unending human suffering and destruction.

Indeed, it is difficult not to see a direct connection between your silence about the ongoing and widespread aerial bombardment of civilians in Darfur and your decision to “de-couple” the region from what looms as the defining feature of your Sudan policy: an obsessive desire to retain access to the counter-terrorism intelligence provided by the regime that gave safe haven to Osama bin Laden from 1992 – 1996, the years in which al-Qaeda came to fruition.  Let us recall also that this same regime continued to assist al-Qaeda long after bin Laden’s departure for Afghanistan, providing funds, diplomatic cover, and banking conduits.

Your administration’s calculations about the value of counter-terrorism intelligence provided by Khartoum have occasioned a good deal of skepticism among Sudan experts outside of government; in any event, these calculations are certainly made with full knowledge of what the regime continues to inflict on the people of Sudan.  You and your administration also know that demonstrations beginning in late September of this year were met by the most brutal repression imaginable, with security forces given “shoot to kill” orders that resulted in some 300 deaths (many killed by bullet wounds to the chest, back and head) and some 2,000 arrests (many remain under arrest without charge).  Ordinary Sudanese are outraged at the economic shambles the regime has created, and are demanding that these hopelessly corrupt and cruelly self-enriching men be removed from power.  And yet your administration seems to be bent on throwing a political and economic lifeline to the regime.  Your former special envoy declared in December 2011, after Khartoum’s military seizure of the contested Abyei region (in violation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement) and subsequent military assaults on South Kordofan and Blue Nile:

“Frankly, we do not want to see the ouster of the [Sudanese] regime, nor regime change. We want to see the regime carrying out reform via constitutional democratic measures.” (Princeton Lyman’s response to a question by the respected Arabic news outlet Asharq Al-Awsat concerning Sudan and the “Arab Spring,” December 3, 2011)

It is the height of disingenuousness and expediency for your envoy to have suggested that the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party is in any way prepared to “carry out reform via constitutional democratic measure.”  The regime’s response to the September/October demonstrations and political protests from all quarters provides evidence that could hardly be more compelling.

And yet at the very moment in which gross mismanagement of the Sudanese economy over the past 24 years, obscenely profligate military spending, gratuitous war-making on the marginalized peoples of the periphery, and massive sequestration of national wealth by the political elite has brought about economic conditions that make democratic change a real possibility, your administration seems intent on diminishing those economic pressures that the U.S.—to its virtually singular credit—has brought to bear since 1997, both through Congressional and Presidential action.  Instead of tightening the very sanctions that increasingly threaten the survival of a regime that has exhausted its oil wealth in less than a decade and has no access to international credit or Forex reserves, we read that business between the U.S. and the regime is beginning to boom.

The Sudan Tribune reports (October 10, 2013) that Foreign Minister Ali Karti, after his meetings with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, “pointed out that several U.S. companies which applied for licenses to operate in Sudan were granted, which he said is an indicator that investments and commercial relations could overcome political difficulties.” And this would seem to be borne out by a series of reports from the Sudan Tribune and others:

White Nile Sugar Company announced on Sunday (November 3, 2013) that it has signed an agreement with the US-based General Electric (GE) by which it will receive parts and services for its billion-dollar sugar plant.  (Sudan Tribune, November 4, 2013)

In a revealingly frank statement, Sudan’s foreign ministry undersecretary, Rahmatallah Mohamed Osman, declared in August 2013 that “U.S. economic sanctions on Sudan contain some loopholes which could be exploited to boost the economy.”  Why haven’t those “loopholes,” if they exist, been resolutely closed?

Typically of dubious reliability, Khartoum’s state-controlled media recently made a specific claim that should be unambiguously confirmed or disconfirmed:

The managing director of [Sudan’s] Kenana Sugar Company (KSC) has disclosed KCS is currently dealing with 18 US companies licensed by Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in the area of production, irrigation, and harvesters despite the US economic sanctions imposed on Sudan for 16 years…

Lately, an American company has submitted a request to OFAC to import ethanol from Sudan.  Moreover, [the] U.S. has excluded gum Arabic from sanctions for its bad need of this commodity in nutritional and drug industry. US imports $40 million worth of Gum Arabic annually either directly or indirectly from Sudan. U.S. may want lift the sanctions gradually for face saving. (November 9, 2013)

Certainly the account is accurate in pointing out the exemption in U.S. sanctions made for gum arabic, an exemption secured over a decade ago through duplicitous legislative means by Robert Menendez, formerly Congressional representative from the district in New Jersey where virtually all U.S. gum arabic processing occurs.  Menendez is now, of course, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The economic sanctions put in place by previous administrations and the Congress seem to have become irrelevant by means of “technical adjustments” to the restrictions supposedly enforced by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).  The question, President Obama, is why your administration has allowed this to occur?  Is Khartoum right in suggesting that “the U.S. may want [to] lift the sanctions gradually for face-saving”?  Or is the stealth lifting of sanctions part of a larger quid pro quo with the Khartoum regime?  Is it of a piece with the preposterous claim by special envoy Lyman that this regime might preside over the democratic transformation of Sudan?

But however enmeshed in the complexities of U.S. diplomatic and political machinations vis-à-vis Khartoum, the countless bombing attacks against civilians such as occurred yesterday near North Sharafa in East Jebel Marra provide a certain stark moral clarity.  Again, one of the regime’s Antonovs…

…bombed three farmers, at about 5.30pm on Friday [November 29, 2013). The two men and a woman were riding a horse cart from their farm to their homes in Sharafa village. The three farmers and their horses were killed immediately. The names of the three farmers are Hashim Abakar Mohamed, Mustafa Eisa, and Hanan Saleh Juma.

Your own refusal to condemn—regularly, forcefully, and consequentially—such deliberate attacks on defenseless civilians brings shame on our nation and makes it ever more difficult to believe that our foreign policy is guided by anything other than a ruthless Realpolitik.

Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.  His most recent book on Sudan is Compromising With Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 – 2012.

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