A Familiar Acquiescence follows Khartoum’s Bombing of MSF Hospital in South Kordofan (June 16, 2014)

By Eric Reeves

June 25, 2014 (SSNA) — Nothing on the ground has changed since Khartoum’s warplanes struck the hospital of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Frandala, South Kordofan last week.  We don’t know the fate of the three people "severely injured," according to the June 17 MSF press release (altogether five were reported injured in and around the hospital).  But we do know that damage was considerable, indeed that MSF declared the hospital was "partially destroyed."  It remains the case that Khartoum’s Military Intelligence knows precisely where the hospital is located, as it did before the attack—something stressed in the MSF press release.  MSF evidently believed that apprising Khartoum of their coordinates would deter attack.  Both recent and more distant events call into serious question the wisdom of such an assumption.

MSF is silent on the question of what sort of military aircraft were involved in the attack, but there is an obvious inference: while Antonov aircraft may have been involved, it is certainly the case that at least one more advanced, true military aircraft—with sophisticated targeting equipment—was used.  The MSF press release states: "As bombs struck the village of Farandalla [more commonly Frandala] on June 16, two hit the MSF hospital there."  The chances of an Antonov dropping multiple bombs in such a tight radius are vanishingly small; nor is the damage as reported by a non-MSF source consistent with the barrel bombs used by Antonovs (their explosive impact is relatively low, although they are deadly by virtue of the hail of shrapnel they throw out).  Together, these two features of the attack—the extent of the damage caused by bomb explosions in a substantial compound, and the closeness of the bombs landing within the hospital and surrounding village—indicate that it was carried out by a plane such the Sukhoi-24 air-to-ground attack aircraft used in Khartoum’s attack last month on the Mother of Mercy Hospital in Gidel, near Kauda.

It is worth recalling the details of this attack, since Dr. Tom Catena, the surgeon at Mother of Mercy Hospital and an eyewitness, provided such a detailed account of this entirely deliberate attack (see my full analysis of the event, Sudan Tribune, 6 May 2014):

The Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) attempted to kill Dr. Tom Catena, an American citizen, in Mother of Mercy hospital in Gidel (Catholic Diocese of el-Obeid).  Dr. Catena is sure that he was specifically targeted in the May 1, 2014 attack by virtue of a number of compelling facts:

[1]  He is the only surgeon performing life-saving operations on civilians wounded during Khartoum’s relentless aerial assault on the people of the Nuba Mountains; the Mother of Mercy hospital is the only one in the Nuba mountains, and treats some 150,000 civilians per year; the unmistakable intent on the part of the regime is to block all humanitarian assistance to the people of the Nuba, even if it means attacking a civilian hospital marked with a red cross and far from any active fighting;

[2]  Dr. Catena saw an observation drone over the hospital in the days before the attack;

[3]  The bombing was carried out by a Sukhoi-24 air-to-ground attack aircraft; it is a sophisticated weapon from the arsenal of the former Soviet Union and has a good deal of advanced targeting equipment; and indeed one bomb caused major damage to the facility;

[4]  The following day (May 2, 2014) an Antonov aircraft again attacked Dr. Catena and the Mother of Mercy Hospital; many patients, even seriously injured ones, have fled to the hills, as have many staff, thus diminishing the capacity of the hospital significantly; one person was seriously injured.

(All information here comes by way of an email received from Tom Catena, May 2, 2014; see also, however, the highly detailed account of the attack by Nuba Reportshttp://nubareports.org/sudan-targets-only-hospital-in-nuba-mountains)

There can be no real doubt that the bombing of the MSF hospital, also in South Kordofan, followed the same pattern, given the evidence at hand.  Moreover, if we needed any reminder of the inconsequential nature of mere words of "condemnation" or "outrage," declarations that such attacks are "unacceptable" or "deeply disturbing" or "appalling," this bombing surely provides it.  For the same language accompanied the bombing of the Mother of Mercy Hospital on May 1—as it has countless other bombings of hospitals, humanitarian operations, schools, and refugee camps.  Khartoum has become utterly inured to such moral flatulence as proceeds from the European Union, the UN, the AU, and indeed the U.S.

For Khartoum knows that none of these actors takes such bombing attacks seriously enough to work hard enough to halt them; and knowing of this refusal to act, Khartoum’s bombings have continued relentlessly.  Recent attacks on civilians and hospitals in South Kordofan (as well as Blue Nile) are a direct reflection of the impunity conferred by previous statements that have been without meaning or specification of consequences for further attacks; unsurprisingly, these attacks are again accelerating (see recent dispatches from Nuba Reports on the intensity of aerial attacks on civilians).  Khartoum simply doesn’t take seriously the various international words of condemnation or expressions of perturbation; indeed, the attack on MSF’s hospital, an egregious war crime in itself, had been preceded (by four days) by what seemed a distinctly more robust U.S. statement on attacks that had preceded the bombing of MSF’s hospital:

The US ambassador to the United Nations accused Sudan Thursday [12 June 2014] of intensifying attacks on civilians in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, and of deliberately bombing schools and hospitals. Samantha Power condemned "in the strongest possible terms" attacks she said were being carried out by the Sudanese government and its rapid support forces against ordinary people. Ground and air attacks have increased since April, with hundreds of barrel bombs and other ordnance dropped on towns and villages, deliberately targeting hospitals and schools, she said. (Agence France-Presse [UN/New York], 13 June 2014) (all emphases in quotations are added unless otherwise indicated)

It is difficult to know whether the attack on the MSF hospital was simply another brutal step in Khartoum’s war against the African peoples of South Kordofan and Blue Nile—or an act of extraordinary contempt for any U.S. response, which in the event was little more than a regurgitation of points made in Ambassador Power’s UN statement.  In either event, however, the stakes and consequences are high, as the MSF statement stresses:

“Damage to the Farandalla hospital is significant, but MSF will continue to work there,” Moller said. The MSF facility, with both outpatient and inpatient wards, began operating in 2012.  Nearly 65,000 consultations have been carried out since then, along with close to 2,300 admissions. MSF is one of the few health care providers in South Kordofan.  In addition to running the Farandalla facility, MSF supports five health centers in the area.

This was the target Khartoum chose to attack.

A more forthright MSF

The knock-on effect of international acquiescence is that humanitarian organizations everywhere in the Sudans feel themselves in greater danger, and at distinct risk of being attacked from the air.  This did not, however, prevent MSF itself (MSF-Switzerland, or MSF-Sw) from publishing in 2000—fourteen years ago—an account of repeated bombings of the organization’s hospital in Kajo Keji (now Central Equatoria).  Responding to the appalling number of hospital bombings throughout Equatoria, where the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) had been largely confined by Khartoum’s superior military firepower, MSF-Sw published in February 2000 a remarkable if almost completely unread study: Living under aerial bombardments: Report of an investigation in the Province of Equatoria, Southern Sudan.  The findings of the report should be sobering to those who think that expressions of moral outrage are sufficient to halt the Khartoum regime in its attacks against civilians, schools, hospitals, and any other target that might the support lives of African civilians in South Kordofan and Blue Nile:

Since the beginning of the year 1999 until this very moment, we [MSF-Sw] have been experiencing and witnessing direct aerial bombings of the hospital, while full of patients, and of the living compound of our medical team (10 bombings in 1999, a total of 66 bombs dropped, with 13 hitting the hospital premises[emphasis in original]. Facing the sharp increase of aerial bombardments in this region during 1999, frequently aimed at civilian structures such as hospitals, in November 1999, we requested an investigation of these events and their consequences for the civilian population in the area.

The elements of this investigation, included in the report herewith, tend to demonstrate that the strategy used by the Sudanese Air Force in this region, is deliberately aimed at targeting civilian structures, causing indiscriminate deaths and injuries, and contributes to a climate of terror among the civilian population.

MSF-Sw also reported:

MSF is particularly worried about the use or alleged use of prohibited weapons (such as cluster bombs and chemical bombs) that have indiscriminate effect. The allegations regarding the use of chemical bombs started on 23 July 1999, when the villages of Lainya and Loka (Yei County) were bombed with chemical products. In a reaction to this event, a group of non-governmental organizations had taken samples on the 30th of July, and on the 7th of August; the United Nations did the same.

Although the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is competent and empowered to carry out such an "investigation of alleged use," it needs an official request made by another State Party. To date, we deplore that OPCW has not received any official request from any State Party to investigate, and that since the UN samples taking, no public statement has been made concerning these samples nor the results of the laboratory tests.

MSF offers several eyewitness accounts of chemical weapons in bombs, including a grim narrative of events in Yei County (now Central Equatoria):

The increase of the bombings on the civilian population and civilian targets in 1999 was accompanied by the use of cluster bombs and weapons containing chemical products. On 23 July 1999, the towns of Lainya and Loka (Yei County) were bombed with chemical products. At the time of this bombing, the usual subsequent results (i.e. shrapnel, destruction to the immediate environment, impact, etc.) did not take place. [Rather], the aftermath of this bombing resulted in a nauseating, thick cloud of smoke, and later symptoms such as children and adults vomiting blood and pregnant women having miscarriages were reported.

These symptoms of the victims leave no doubt as to the nature of the weapons used. Two field staff of the World Food Program (WFP) who went back to Lainya, three days after the bombing, had to be evacuated on the 27th of July. They were suffering of nausea, vomiting, eye and skin burns, loss of balance and headaches.

After this incident, the WFP interrupted its operations in the areaand most of the humanitarian organizations that are members of the Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) had to suspend their activities after the UN had declared the area to be dangerous for its personnel.

There have been repeated reports of chemical weapons use after 1999; not one has been investigated by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—certainly not at the behest of the United States, which under the Bush administration professed such profound concern for chemical weapons in the hands of Saddam Hussein.

In the body of the report, MSF—which had been working in eastern Equatoria since 1997—finds that their teams have:

…several times been victims and witnesses of these bombings that are only aimed at the civilian population and civilian targets. Hospitals and schools in particular, are deliberately chosen as targets.

The hospital in Yei town—run by the nongovernmental Norwegian People’s Aid and marked with a large and conspicuous red cross on its roof—was also a particular target of Antonov bombing attacks in 1999. Yei was bombed on 15 different occasions during the year, and a total of 138 bombs were dropped.  Ten people were known to have been killed, more were wounded, a number of civilian houses were destroyed, the hospital infrastructure was seriously damaged, and the facilities of two other humanitarian organizations were destroyed or damaged (the UN water facility was targeted in one of these attacks).  A measure of the inaccuracy of the Antonov bombing is the fact that more than half the attacks did not cause casualties or damage, the bombs fell so wide of their targets.  Again, such inaccuracy strongly suggests that the tight bombing radius for the bombing of the MSF hospital in Frandala was created by jet attack aircraft such as the Sukhoi-24, already implicated in the Mother of Mercy Hospital in Gidel.

Although little considered, the data for these attacks are in many cases available.  I provide below links to specific sections of my monograph analyzing aerial attacks throughout greater Sudan ("They Bombed Everything that Moved": Aerial Military Attacks on Civilians and Humanitarians in Sudan, 1999 – 2014 www.sudanbombing.org):

[a]  Introduction and overview, including language from the Rome Statute making abundantly clear that these aerial attacks, in aggregate, constitute crimes against humanityhttp://wp.me/p45rOG-1lh

[b]  Year-by-year synoptic history of aerial attacks throughout greater Sudan, including South Sudan, Darfur, South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and eastern Sudan.  A number of the bombing attacks on South Sudan occurred after Khartoum had signed the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement: http://wp.me/p45rOG-1lj

[c]  Lengthy bibliography (30pp.) of news wire reports of individual incidents that define the history of this grim military strategy: http://wp.me/p45rOG-1lib

For those interested in the data spreadsheet and updates recording more than 2,000 confirmed aerial attacks on civilians and humanitarians, see the complete report at: www.sudanbombing.org.

When will there be an appropriate response to these continuing war crimes, in aggregate crimes against humanity?

I began writing about the bombing of civilians and humanitarians in South Sudan in 1999; several early publications could not have been more explicit about the very same realities we are witnessing now, fifteen years later.  It is the continuity of such savagery that gives Khartoum’s bombing campaigns their unique status.

•  “An Ultimatum to Sudan on the Bombing of Civilian Hospitals,” The Ottawa Citizen, October 7, 1999

•  “Ending Schoolyard Violence—In Sudan,” The Catholic New Times (Toronto), April 30, 2000

•  “A UN Seat for Genocide,” The Washington Post, August 15, 2000

The latter piece, read by people with a great deal of power in shaping U.S. foreign policy, included the following summary account:

Nominally Khartoum is the “government” of Sudan. What Khartoum really governs are the country’s military resources—and the choices of civilian targets. Their favorites are undefended villages, schools, hospitals, herds of cattle, refugee centers and emergency feeding stations. One attack on a school in the Nuba region killed 14 young children as they began their English lesson book, “Read With Us."

This air war is without question the cruelest and most destructive military effort by a recognized government anywhere in the world. In this case, not only is the government recognized, it is set to take a seat on the U.N. Security Council this fall. The same body that should even now be issuing the harshest condemnation of Khartoum’s actions will instead be welcoming Sudan’s envoy.

It is important to recognize the terrible ambitions this envoy will represent. For what makes the government’s air war on civilians so destructive is not just the number of people killed and maimed by the shrapnel-loaded bombs. The larger effect of these attacks is terror, and a dispersal of the civilian population. The consequence is much less efficient agricultural production in a land continually stalked by famine.

This is all quite deliberate on Khartoum’s part. Civilian destruction and dispersal are the means of ensuring that the opposition military forces in the south are denied food, or the aid of a cohesive society. It is a crude but terribly effective “weapon of mass destruction.”

To make sure of the genocidal efficacy of the bombing campaign, the Khartoum regime has also escalated its assaults on humanitarian efforts. It is attacking, with much greater frequency, the medical and food relief programs of those trying heroically to save the people of the south from disease and starvation. Many of the hospitals and clinics that have been targeted are run by the world’s finest humanitarian organizations.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is but one example. Its clinic at Chelkou, in one of the most distressed regions of southern Sudan, was deliberately bombed on July 14. Reliable sources confirm that there was no military presence near Chelkou. Moreover, as part of its standard protocol, the ICRC had fully apprised the Khartoum regime of its presence in Chelkou and had secured permission. It was bombed anyway.

On July 25, some 200 miles to the southeast in the village of Billing, the Khartoum regime again bombed the Red Cross. Pilots on the ground, who had an approved flight plan from Khartoum, heard the bombers coming and desperately spread out a large Red Cross flag on the ground. It did no good. The bombs fell anyway.

This is the government that will soon be represented on the U.N. Security Council. It is a disgrace that it has not been criticized in the most direct and forceful way for its barbarous cruelty. It is beyond disgrace and moral conception that it will smugly take its place at the table of the world’s governing body.

Rumbek. Malakon. Akwem. Lui. Kauda. Names that for the most part don’t show up even on detailed maps of Sudan. But all have become targets for a campaign of aerial terror that has as its clear goal creating dislocation and famine among the African populations of the south. The regime in Khartoum, which looks to the Arabic and Muslim world for political and cultural identity—as well as support—is conducting a war that is animated by viciously destructive racism. Its ultimate goal is to destroy as many people as possible who might constitute an obstacle to its domination of vast oil resources inconveniently located in the south.

In the event, outrage at the time was great enough to deny Khartoum a seat on the UN Security Council.  The regime has, however, suffered no serious consequences since this defeat, even for countless attacks as brutal and barbaric as that on the MSF hospital in Frandala, South Kordofan.  All it has to fear are the tepid words that seem to flow so easily from the lips of those with the power—but without the inclination—to bring real pressure to bear on Khartoum to halt these atrocity crimes.

Eric Reeves’ new book-length study of greater Sudan (Compromising With Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 – 2012; www.CompromisingWithEvil.org).

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