Massive Air and Ground Attacks Against Civilians in Darfur: New Reports from the Satellite Sentinel Project, 28 March 2014

Eric Reeves, 28 March 2014            •

In a series of recent reports, the Satellite Sentinel Project has provided substantial, professionally analyzed satellite imagery indicating unambiguously the continuing escalation of assaults on Darfuri civilians, primarily those from ethnically African tribal groups.  Numerous reports from the ground confirm these findings (my commentary appears following these texts).  The most recent reports on Darfur and the Nuba Mountains are of particular importance:

[1]  Janjaweed Torches South Darfur IDP Camp Next to UNAMID Base,” March 28, 2014

http://www.enoughproject.org/blogs/janjaweed-torches-south-darfur-idp-camp-next-unamid-base

Confirming reports that first emerged from local sources and Radio Dabanga, new Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) imagery from March 26, 2014 shows more than 400 huts, tents, and temporary shelters burned by Sudanese government-backed Janjaweed forces in Khor Abeche, at a South Darfur camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) located near a peacekeeping base. DigitalGlobe Intelligence Solutions (DGIS) image analysis finds that most of the destruction affected the structures adjacent to the African Union – United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) peacekeeping compound, which itself was not damaged.

[CAPTION TO SATELLITE PHOTOGRAPH: The temporary shelters adjacent to the UNAMID camp and a portion of Khor Abeche village suffered significant fire damage, as observed on DigitalGlobe imagery dated March 26, 2014. DGIS analysis estimates over 400 huts, tents, or shelters are destroyed in the areas closest to the UNAMID camp, including groupings of residences in “family unit” configurations. No damage was found to the UNAMID compound.]

UNAMID has said it is protecting thousands of displaced civilians at several bases, including Khor Abeche, and the SSP image shows a large group of people towards the top middle area inside the UNAMID compound.

A UNAMID spokesman tells SSP that peacekeepers and IDPs at Khor Abeche were first alerted of a possible attack to the camp on March 21. The population of the camp, about 3,000 people, took refuge at the UNAMID’s base. The following day, while the peacekeepers protected those within the compound, about 300 heavily armed men set fire to the nearby IDP camp.

Eyewitnesses to the attack on Khor Abeche camp say the assailants burned to death a sheikh, injured many residents, kidnapped local leaders, and looted property and livestock while also destroying water wells, homes, and a hospital.

Despite praise UNAMID has received for its efforts from the African Union, the deaths and injuries raise critical questions about the will and capacity of the peacekeeping force to deter such attacks and implement its civilian protection mandate outside its compound.

News reports indicate that Sudanese government-supported Rapid Support Forces (RSF), also called the Rapid Response Forces (RRF) led the attack on Khor Abeche. The group of 6,000 fighters is attacking civilians and torching homes throughout the area. In North Darfur’s mountainous East Jebel Marra area, some areas have been both bombed and burned as Janjaweed ground attacks and Sudan Air Force (SAF) attacks escalate.

SAF air strikes and Janjaweed attacks have exacerbated conditions for 215,000 people who are newly displaced across Darfur since the beginning of the year, including almost 68,000 who are displaced in South Darfur’s violence. Humanitarian organizations estimate that some 59,000 people are displaced from South Darfur’s Um Gunya area, in the wake of clashes between the RSF and the rebel Sudan Liberation Army-Minni Minawi (SLM-MM) group.

Civilians throughout areas beyond South Darfur are also fleeing waves of violence, including  infighting among rebel forces, political power struggles, and intercommunal clashes in North Darfur.

Without holding the government of Sudan responsible for the atrocities committed by the Janjaweed militia, the U.S. Department of State condemned the attack in Khor Abeche and expressed concern at the escalating violence committed by Sudanese government-backed forces and rebel groups.§

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[2]  Bombed & Burned: Darfuri Civilians Flee East Jebel Marra En Masse,” March 27, 2014

http://www.enoughproject.org/blogs/bombed-and-burned-darfuri-civilians-flee-east-jebel-marra-en-masse

[Introduction]

New Satellite Sentinel Project imagery provides independent confirmation of Sudan Air Force, or SAF, bombardments in the mountainous Jebel Marra area of North Darfur, where civilians have been bombed for years. The use of indiscriminate aerial bombardment in densely populated areas like East Jebel Marra constitutes a war crime under international law. With these images, showing at least 17 bomb craters across six villages, SSP has confirmed the government’s long-standing practice of indiscriminately dropping bombs that devastate civilians living in the area solely because it is currently controlled by rebel forces.

Ground attacks led by reconstituted Janjaweed forces are exacerbating the impact of the government’s aerial bombardment campaign. DigitalGlobe Intelligence Solutions’ (DGIS3) analysis of satellite imagery found evidence of both air strikes and ground attacks—some in the same location.

As SAF air strikes escalate, Sudanese government-backed Janjaweed militias are also burning and destroying villages in the area at a magnitude not seen since 2003. SSP imagery from March 21, 2014 shows more than 311 huts burned in six villages in East Jebel Marra.

DGIS found approximately 95 burned huts in the south-central section of Dolma, a small village approximately 63 kilometers southwest of the North Darfur capital of Al Fashir. The huts were burned between February 5 and March 21, 2014.

Some 6,000 government-backed Janjaweed fighters called the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) or Rapid Response Force (RRF) are attacking civilians and torching homes throughout the area. Adding a deadly new dimension to the violent attacks in Darfur, North Darfur’s political power struggles for control of the state are pitting armed militias against one another as inter-communal clashes also erupt.

According to eyewitness reports from March 16-20, the paramilitary RSF, a newly reconstituted Janjaweed force backed by the Sudanese government, are conducting vicious ground attacks as SAF conducts heavy airstrikes in this area.

Striking among the damage visible from the sky, approximately 126 huts were torched in Hemeda, a town located two kilometers south of Dolma and 65 kilometers southwest of Al Fashir. A comparison of imagery between February 5 and March 21 shows that most damage was concentrated in the village center.

Before moving into North Kordofan and Darfur, the RSF had led attacks for the Sudanese government on rebels in South Kordofan10 and Blue Nile states. In late February RSF attacked more than 35 towns in South Darfur, killing and raping civilians as they torched homes.11 RSF attacks across North Darfur have destroyed 16 villages west of Mellit town and 25 towns north of Kutum.§

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[3]  Another report details satellite imagery capturing the immense destruction caused by the newly revitalized Janjaweed, now operating as the “Rapid Response Force.” DigitalGlobe imagery focuses in particular on Saraf Omra, North Darfur:

March 25, 2014

http://enoughproject.org/blogs/forgotten-genocidal-war-darfur-revealed-new-satellite-photos

[excerpt]

New images from the Satellite Sentinel Project offer the first independent confirmation of the reprisal of Janjaweed attacks in Darfur this year. Sudanese government restrictions on access to the conflict zone mean that reporters and human rights groups have to rely on second- or third-hand descriptions of this fighting. These accounts, smuggled out through a network of activists and civil society groups, are still our best source of evidence. But Digital Globe satellite images dated March 17, 2014 corroborate their stories.

In the photographs we can see at least 150 homes reduced to black ash on the western side of the Darfuri town of Saraf Omra, where Janjaweed fighters are once again wreaking havoc. Our expert analysts say confidently that the patterns of destruction in Saraf Omra mean that the damage was intentional—not accidental. The damage leaps across natural firewalls, leaving an indisputable trail of destruction.§

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Yet another report offers a view into the continuing aerial assault on the people of the Nuba Mountains—people who are force to survive without humanitarian assistance because of an aid embargo imposed by the Khartoum regime.  There have been hundreds of such attacks, beginning in June 2011; to date, no meaningful or consequential condemnation of these war crimes has emerged from any quarter of the international community other than human rights organizations.  Nuba Reports/Darfur Recording

[4]  Bible School in Nuba Mountains Bombed for Second Time”

Satellite Sentinel Project, March 27, 2014

http://www.enoughproject.org/blogs/heiban-bible-school-nuba-mountains-bombed-second-time

[Introduction]

The Heiban Bible College, located in the Nuba Mountain region of Sudan, was bombed on March 23, 2014, for the second time in a little over a year. The Nuba Mountains, alongside the Blue Nile region, have been the staging ground for the conflict between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) rebel group and the government of Sudan for more than three years. Although no injuries or damage were reported by the Heiban Bible College, this recent attack exemplifies…a punishing campaign of starvation warfare and aerial bombardment by the government of Sudan in South Kordofan and Blue Nile States, or the “Two Areas.”§

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Commentary, Eric Reeves

Recent violence in Darfur has dramatically escalated with Khartoum’s use of the “Rapid Response Force”—a reconstituted Janjaweed militia.  But despite reports suggesting that this violence is new, it is in fact continuous with violence that has been accelerating for more than two years and which has never truly ceased (if sometimes punctuated by lulls in fighting).  Attacks on displaced persons, in camps and outside them, have been a feature of Khartoum’s genocidal counter-insurgency efforts from the beginning of conflict in 2003.  An example of what has been lost in a revisionist history of Darfur being written by the African Union leaders is the August 2012 attack on Kutum camp and nearby Kassab camp.  An expatriate relief worker on site at the time sent me an email declaring:

Kutum [a major town in North Darfur—ER] town has been overrun by Arab militia since last Thursday [August 3, 2012]…all of the INGOs [International Nongovernmental Humanitarian Organizations] and UN offices in the area have been thoroughly looted and their staff relocated to el-Fasher.  All of the IDPs from Kassab IDP camp have been displaced.  The markets in Kutum and in Kassab have booth been thoroughly looted. (email received August 5, 2012; also source for following two quotes)

This source went on to note that in the case of the fighting in and around Kutum, while beginning in a personal dispute between individual members of two Arab tribal groups:

The fighting, however, has not been between the two tribes but focused on looting the IDP camps and the INGOs and the markets in the town.

The implications of this violence were not reported anywhere—by the UN, UNAMID, or even Radio Dabanga.  But they loomed large at the time:

Most of the north part of North Darfur (all the way to Chad) is served from Kutum and now all [humanitarian] organizations have lost all capacity because of the looting, and I do not see the humanitarian community reinvesting in the basic infrastructure because of what has happened.  This is going to cause huge humanitarian issues in Kutum and the IDP camps there.  All the fuel at the INGOs was looted.  This fuel is for vehicles but also for the generators to run water pumps in town and outside of town.  This could turn bad, as it is the rainy seasons right now.

And in fact humanitarian conditions in Darfur have continued to deteriorate significantly throughout Darfur.  The continuous reports from Radio Dabanga about shortages in camps—food, clean water, primary medical care, and fuel for cooking—are primarily linked to such violence as was witnessed in Kutum in 2012.  There is simply no dissociating humanitarian shortcomings with ongoing violence, as well as denial of aid access by the Khartoum regime.

Nigeria’s Ibrahim Gambari, the immediately preceding AU/U special representative to UNAMID, gave a rather different sense of Darfur’s realities when he declared at his retirement party (September 2012): “I am gratified to note that barely 31 months on, all the objectives I set out to meet have largely been met.”  This was the month following the violence in Kutum, the total displacement of Kassab camp, continuing aerial bombardment in Jebel Marra and elsewhere, and security for humanitarians that was at that very moment deteriorating badly.  It seems unclear just what “objectives” Gambari achieved, although with some statistical sleight of hand—using UNAMID data—he was able to declare that violence was diminishing.  In fact, just the opposite was true.

Particular features of the Satellite Sentinel Project deserve highlighting:

[CAPTION TO SATELLITE PHOTOGRAPH: The temporary shelters adjacent to the UNAMID camp and a portion of Khor Abeche village suffered significant fire damage, as observed on DigitalGlobe imagery dated March 26, 2014. DGIS analysis estimates over 400 huts, tents, or shelters are destroyed in the areas closest to the UNAMID camp, including groupings of residences in “family unit” configurations. No damage was found to the UNAMID compound.]

This should alert us immediately to the gross failure of the UN/African Union “hybrid” force (UNAMID) to protect civilians, the key feature of its mandate—and it makes a further mockery of Gambari’s bizarre self-celebration.  The timeline provided by UNAMID makes clear that failure in this instance only compounded itself:

A UNAMID spokesman tells [the Satellite Sentinel Project] that peacekeepers and IDPs at Khor Abeche were first alerted of a possible attack to the camp on March 21. The population of the camp, about 3,000 people, took refuge at the UNAMID’s base. The following day, while the peacekeepers protected those within the compound, about 300 heavily armed men set fire to the nearby IDP camp.

Knowing an attack was imminent, why didn’t UNAMID in Khor Abeche call for reinforcements from Nyala, UNAMID headquarters for South Darfur: it is approximately 60 miles away on one of the better roads in the region.  And why did the UNAMID force make no effort to protect civilians and civilian possessions that were not brought into the compound?  SSP also reports:

Eyewitnesses to the attack on Khor Abeche camp say the assailants burned to death a sheikh, injured many residents, kidnapped local leaders, and looted property and livestock while also destroying water wells, homes, and a hospital.

Radio Dabanga offers a fuller account of the same assault:

The Rapid Support Force troops looted all belongings and livestock from the displaced, as well as shops, schools, and other facilities. They destroyed all the water wells, and set the houses and buildings on fire, including a hospital managed by the World Vision organisation.

During the attack sheikh Hassan Ibrahim Digeila (70) was burned to death. Others were injured, one of the sources said. “The Janjaweed also abducted the son of the sheikh of the area, Eisa Abdallah Hileilo; the deputy omda of the Zaghawa, Hussein Abakar Mohamed; Osman Adam Ahmed, a guard working for World Vision, and Sileik Jarelnabi.” (Radio Dabanga [Khor Abeche], March 23, 2014)

For UNAMID to claim to have protected civilians within their compound but to ignore and remain silent about the destruction that occurred immediately adjacent to the compound is disgraceful disingenuousness.  What was the UNAMID force size?  Did they have Armored Personnel Carriers (a significant force multiplier in such a military confrontation)?  And again, why did the officers in Khor Abeche not call for reinforcements from Nyala, where many UNAMID personnel are reported to be doing little more than lounging?  The Khor Abeche destruction was precisely the sort of incident that UNAMD was deployed to halt.

And still the violence in Khor Abeche continues, a number of days after the initial assault.  Radio Dabanga reports today (March 28, 2014):

Pro-government militias looted and set fire on a health centre and a kindergarten in Khor Abeche camp for internally displaced people in Niteaga locality, South Darfur, on Wednesday. Dr Ismail Hussein Fadul, Member of Parliament for the Khor Abeche constituency, told Radio Dabanga that the displaced people living in Khor Abeche, totalling more than 2,000, refused to receive an aid relief convoy from Niteaga. The convoy was headed by Commissioner Osman Jibril and accompanied by militias driving in cars and others riding on camels. “These very militias were accused of committing acts of murder, kidnapping, looting and arson last Saturday, together with the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by Mohamed ‘Hemeti’ Hamdan. (Radio Dabanga [Khor Abeche], March 28, 2014)

Clearly, UNAMID is quite simply powerless to anticipate or halt the violence, or to confront the threats of violence. This is not a force that will ever be willing to confront the Janjaweed or SAF. Instead, despite its mandate, the mission moved into a fully defensive posture.  More than fifty UNAMID soldiers have been killed in the course of the Mission’s six years in Darfur, and the valor of many of these men cannot be denied; and certainly some elements within UNAMID remain strongly committed.  But the overwhelming preponderance of evidence, from the Satellite Sentinel Project, Radio Dabanga, and sources on the ground makes clear that the mission is failing and that the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations doesn’t know which way to move (two years ago, the head of UN peacekeeping, Hervé Ladsous, preposterously declared that improved security conditions on the ground would permit a drawdown of the force).

International failure to confront the realities of Darfur and the gross inadequacies of UNAMID has brought us to a point where only the most robust actions and the most aggressive pressuring of Khartoum has any chance to rein in the violence.

***

New Satellite Sentinel Project imagery provides independent confirmation of Sudan Air Force, or SAF, bombardments in the mountainous Jebel Marra area of North Darfur, where civilians have been bombed for years. The use of indiscriminate aerial bombardment in densely populated areas like East Jebel Marra constitutes a war crime under international law. With these images, showing at least 17 bomb craters across six villages, SSP has confirmed the government’s long-standing practice of indiscriminately dropping bombs that devastate civilians living in the area solely because it is currently controlled by rebel forces. Ground attacks led by reconstituted Janjaweed forces are exacerbating the impact of the government’s aerial bombardment campaign. DigitalGlobe Intelligence Solutions’ (DGIS3) analysis of satellite imagery found evidence of both air strikes and ground attacks—some in the same location.

The combined use of aerial military assets and ground forces against civilian villages harkens back to the very worst days of the genocide (2003 – 2005).  And while bombing attacks have been reported with a numbing regularity by Radio Dabanga, the world seems to think that because UNAMID does not report them, they are not occurring.  But in fact UNAMID is denied access to the reported bombings in Jebel Marra and elsewhere, and has long since ceased to ask, with any authority, that Khartoum’s Military Intelligence grant such access.

The amount of devastation such aerial attacks can cause is also captured in SSP satellite imagery:

As SAF air strikes escalate, Sudanese government-backed Janjaweed militias are also burning and destroying villages in the area at a magnitude not seen since 2003. SSP imagery from March 21, 2014 shows more than 311 huts burned in six villages in East Jebel Marra.

And yet the attacks have continued relentlessly, remorselessly, and indiscriminately for over ten years.  I have chronicled these war crimes—in aggregate, crimes against humanity—since they began, and the data spreadsheet at www.sudanbombing.org reveals that there have been more than 700 confirmed bombing attacks on civilians in Darfur alone (the actual number is almost certainly many times this figure).  Most recently, in just the past week, Radio Dabanga reports with typical detail on yet more bombings:

Air raid kills father, two sons in Darfur’s East Jebel Marra

EAST JEBEL MARRA (27 March 2014) – A man and two of his children were killed in Khazan Tunjur, East Jebel Marra, in aerial bombardments on the area today (Thursday). A relative of the deceased told Radio Dabanga… FULL STORY

Bomb craters, burned villages revealed in photos of Darfur’s Jebel Marra

EAST JEBEL MARRA (27 March 2014) – New satellite imagery showed more than 300 burned huts in villages bombed by the Sudanese Air Force and attacked by government-backed militias in Darfur’s East Jebel Marra last… FULL STORY

Bombardments on areas in Mellit, North Darfur, kill at least five

MELLIT (21 March 2014) – At least five people were killed and 15 others injured by bombardments on areas in Mellit locality, North Darfur, on Thursday and Friday. The Sudanese Air Force heavily bombarded… FULL STORY

Jebel Marra bombardments, attacks on Darfur towns intensify

TAWILA (20 March 2014) – Intensified aerial bombardments by the Sudanese Air Force killed and wounded a number of people in East Jebel Marra on Wednesday and Thursday. Sudan has continued and intensified… FULL STORY

And what is the position of the Obama administration in the face of these intensifying atrocity crimes?  The most recent SSP report notes:

Without holding the government of Sudan responsible for the atrocities committed by the Janjaweed militia, the U.S. Department of State condemned the attack in Khor Abeche and expressed concern at the escalating violence committed by Sudanese government-backed forces and rebel groups.

Such condemnation is vacuous, as U.S. policy on Darfur and Sudan generally is morally vacuous; it threatens no consequences, makes no announcement of measures to halt accelerating genocide, and seems content to scold the Khartoum regime only indirectly (“by Sudanese government-backed forces”).  But these forces operate in the main at Khartoum’s behest; and the mayhem created by the fracturing of militia groups and the competition among various paramilitary and security forces also serves Khartoum’s purposes: humanitarian relief continues to contract, more and more land is appropriated from African farmers by Arab pastoralists (typically heavily armed), and the violence has fully cowed UNAMID.  If not fully orchestrated by Khartoum, the violence in Darfur is certainly countenanced by the regime.  Given the bankrupt economy over which this regime presides, it has no ability to pay militia forces and thus is content to let them fight among themselves, paying and arming only those who do its bidding.  This is the real significance of the relatively new Rapid Response Force: these are Janjaweed the regime can largely count on to mount a new campaign to kill and displace civilians the regime believes are supporting the rebellion.

Even as this brutally cynical counter-insurgency strategy is deployed by the regime, the U.S. seems to remain committed to the view of former special envoy Princeton Lyman:

“[W]e 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.” (Interview with Asharq Al-AwsatDecember 2011)

Nobody seriously believes that the present Khartoum regime can oversee the democratic transformation of Sudan, nor is there a shred of evidence to suggest it has any serious inclination to do so. And given Khartoum’s overwhelming responsibility for the slaughter that has continued for more than a decade in Darfur, we must urgently ask what it means for American foreign policy if such a view—offering a vital diplomatic lifeline to a genocidal regime—fulfills the campaign promise of candidate Barack Obama:

“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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEd583-fA8M#t=15)

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Eric Reeves
Smith College
Northampton, MA  01063
413-585-3326
ereeves@smith.edu

Eric Reeves’ new book-length study of greater Sudan (Compromising With Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 – 2012; www.CompromisingWithEvil.org)
Review commentary at: http://wp.me/p45rOG-15S)

Website: www.sudanreeves.org