Eric Reeves •
The number is so shockingly large as to defy casual comprehension. We must exercise both moral and statistical imagination to understand the evil represented: 1.7 million human beings, the most recent U.N. estimate for people in southern Sudan deliberately being denied humanitarian aid by Khartoum’s National Islamic Front regime. Such denial of food and medical assistance, given the distressed condition of so many of these people, is nothing less than a terribly crude but equally effective “weapon of mass destruction.” If our elected officials care about the deployment of such weapons, as we have so often heard since Sept. 11, they cannot ignore what is transpiring in southern Sudan.
For the past 13 of Sudan’s almost 20 years of civil war, humanitarian aid for the desperately poor and underdeveloped south has mainly taken the form of Operation Lifeline Sudan. Lifeline is a consortium of U.N. organizations and other international aid groups that work under a common umbrella with a common mission: to avert catastrophe among civilians caught up in the world’s most destructive conflict. The fundamental principle of the organization has always been neutral humanitarian aid to civilian populations, wherever the battle lines of war exist.
But this principle has been deeply compromised, and the continued existence of Operation Lifeline Sudan is now in doubt as a result. For there is simply no mistaking the ambitions of the Khartoum regime in denying humanitarian aid to immense parts of southern Sudan: human annihilation, especially in the lucrative oil regions of Western Upper Nile Province. This part of southern Sudan has been without Operation Lifeline Sudan aid since May 16.
What will be the consequences of such denial as we enter the traditional “hunger gap” before the next harvest? Four years ago we had a terrible glimpse of this future when famine struck Bahr el Ghazal Province and killed perhaps 100,000. Though there were a number of causes for the famine, nothing was more destructive than Khartoum’s precipitous denial of access to Operation Lifeline during the most critical period of food shortage.
Again this year, with extremely ominous signs of food shortage and malnutrition, humanitarian access has been dramatically reduced. Khartoum’s method is to list an increasing number of Lifeline relief sites as “denied” in monthly access agreements. The situation had become critical even before the mid-May denial for Western Upper Nile, where Khartoum is attempting to secure territory for further oil development. Their primary tactic is a well-chronicled campaign of scorched-earth warfare against the indigenous populations on behalf of international oil companies. There, in addition to denying aid access, Khartoum also deliberately attacks humanitarian efforts in progress.
For example, on Feb. 20 at the village of Bieh, in the heart of the oil regions, Khartoum’s helicopter gunships attacked thousands of women and children gathered at a U.N. World Food Program distribution center. It was broad daylight, the center was well-marked, and there was no military activity anywhere nearby. Yet from a low hover, one of the helicopter gunships directed machine-gun fire and rockets into food-distressed civilians, killing and wounding scores. All this was witnessed by U.N. personnel so close they could see the faces of the pilot and gunner.
But the savagery of the attack at Bieh is no greater than that in denying the World Food Program and other humanitarian organizations access to the desperate people of the oil regions. There is no crueler death than starvation.
The United States must take the lead in reversing Khartoum’s accelerating power of aid denial. A good place to begin is in passing the Sudan Peace Act, now languishing in the Senate because of Republican obstructionism and lack of commitment on the part of Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Daschle professes himself committed to the Sudan Peace Act but refuses to put a conferencing motion for the bill on the Senate agenda.
Why is this important? Both House and Senate versions of the Sudan Peace Act direct the president, through the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, to “revise the terms of Operation Lifeline Sudan to end the veto power of the Government of Sudan over . . . relief flights and to end the manipulation of the delivery of those relief supplies to the advantage of the Government of Sudan on the battlefield.”
President Bush himself recently highlighted aid denial to southern Sudan, but evidently without changing Khartoum’s attitudes. Certainly the modest accomplishments of Bush’s special Sudan envoy, former senator John Danforth, will mean little if the basic realities of humanitarian access do not change.
U.S. commitment alone will not end the crisis in southern Sudan. But unless we start to wield what influence we have with Khartoum, in ways that make it clear the current catastrophic situation will not be allowed to continue, the regime will calculate that its weapon of mass destruction can be deployed without consequence. In the world after Sept. 11, this is unacceptable. If we know that Khartoum is waging daily terror against its own people, and we are serious about terrorism, we cannot confine our concerns to our own shores and our own people.
The writer is a professor at Smith College and has written extensively on