“Khartoum Captures Leer in an Accelerating Offensive in the Oil Regions”
Both Reuters and the UN’s Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) are reporting today, as are reliable regional sources and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement Movement/Army (SPLM/A), that the strategic town of Leer has fallen to Khartoum’s forces in Western Upper Nile. This continues what is now a month-long offensive campaign by the regime—a massive, flagrant violation of the October 15 cease-fire agreement. The motives for taking Leer in particular are not hard to discern. International oil companies, including Lundin Oil of Sweden and OMV of Austria, have made clear their “security requirements” for further oil exploration in this contested area. The all-weather, heavily militarized oil road that runs south from Bentiu by Koch must pass through Leer and ultimately continue to Adok on the Nile to provide the required access, as well as the construction platform for a future oil pipeline. For this to occur the area must be cleared of all civilian presence and military resistance. What is now occurring south and west of Bentiu is thus a terrible reprise of the ferocious scorched-earth campaigns in the oil concessions north of Bentiu in 1998 and following. That Khartoum’s sustained offensive, employing helicopter gunships and regular ground troops, has met with only verbal criticism from the US State Department—and silence from the rest of the international community—will surely encourage the regime to think that it will pay little price for further military actions in Western Upper Nile and elsewhere.
Eric Reeves [January 27, 2003]
Northampton, MA 01063
Voices everywhere in South Sudan and other marginalized areas are asking the same question: given the enormous human suffering and destruction of the past, and given the renewed civilian carnage in Western Upper Nile, where is the international community? Why is there no forceful condemnation of Khartoum’s outrageous and continuing violation of the October 15 cessation of hostilities agreement? Why is there no consequential pressure being brought to bear on Khartoum, which is clearly the instigating party in this extremely serious fighting? How can the Machakos peace process succeed if Khartoum is abrogating with impunity the terms of an agreement just over three months old?
The chances for success at Machakos have been declining steadily since the talks broke off in mid-November. The military action by Khartoum that began on December 31, 2002 has now precipitated a major crisis, one that has so far been papered over with glib words of optimism and further obscured by a refusal to acknowledge what is plainly evident. For all too clearly, the regime has not given up on its ambition to prevail militarily over the southern resistance, either in the oil regions of Western Upper Nile or the numerous other areas to which major offensive military assets have been redeployed, including Wau, Juba (western side of the Nile), Adok, the Kassala region, and elsewhere.
Either the questions urgently being asked by the people of the South are answered or the entire Machakos peace process will quickly unravel. To be sure, representatives of Khartoum’s National Islamic Front regime may remain for purely expedient purposes, but with no real intention of confronting the serious and difficult issues outstanding. This is not negotiating; rather, it merely allows for the starting of major offensive actions on terms most favorable to the regime. Two to three months of the dry season remain, which creates an ample window of opportunity for the use of newly deployed tracked and motorized vehicles, as well as the movement of artillery.
The evident thinking of the Africa Bureau at the US State Department and the variously feckless European foreign ministries has been, until very recently, that Khartoum mustn’t be provoked by having their actions held up for criticism. The Machakos talks need a “conducive” atmosphere, and this has evidently included giving Khartoum a pass, even when such failure to criticize only encourages more intransigence. Today’s more robust declaration from the State Department is long overdue, but still does not go far enough:
“The United States is deeply concerned at the reports of a continuing offensive undertaken by the Government of Sudan and its proxies in southern Sudan, as well as the Government’s continuing build-up of forces at garrisons in the south.”
The evidence consists of much more than amorphous and anonymous “reports”—it includes voluminous aerial and ground photography, interviews with injured civilians, numerous first-hand accounts from humanitarian aid workers in the region, direct satellite phone conversations from the battlefield, and a good deal more.
The State Department continues:
“Any ongoing offensive by the Government in Western Upper Nile, as well as related build-ups of military forces at garrisons in the south, constitute a flagrant violation of the cessation of hostilities agreed-to in a Memorandum of Understanding signed in Machakos, Kenya on October 15, 2002 between the Government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. If these reports are true, Khartoum risks losing its credibility as a serious partner for peace with both the United States and the international community.”
The extraordinary agnosticism here—“if these reports are true”—leads one to wonder what that State Department has been doing for the last month, for certainly it can’t have made a real effort to gather and synthesize the intelligence readily available from a wide range of regional sources. Certainly the military build-ups at Wau, Juba, Adok, and elsewhere have been clearly evident—as has the continuing military barge traffic down the Nile.
And not only has Khartoum violated the October 15 agreement, but it has also clearly violated the March 2002 agreement that civilians should not be the object of deliberate military assault.
An IRIN news account from today (January 27/Nariobi) reports that:
“Humanitarian sources told IRIN that over the last four weeks, fighting in Western Upper Nile (Wahdah State) had been concentrated in Mayom county and around the oil fields south of Bentiu. In Mayom county there appeared to be a deliberate attempt to attack relief sites, thereby cutting off local people from humanitarian assistance, said one source.”
Another reliable regional source reports that Khartoum’s “militia force under the command of Major Paulino Matip is deliberately targeting relief centers in Western Upper Nile in a bid to depopulate the region.” For example:
“Two groups of [Government of Sudan/GoS] militia left the GoS garrison at Wangkei on 20 January. One group was sent to attack and burn the village of Lel (also called Chotchara). The people of this village are internally displaced persons (IDPs). The majority fled the Rubkona area in 1999 and settled in Nhialdiu. They were attacked again in Nhialdiu in February 2002 and fled to Lel. Now, it seems that the GoS is intent on moving these IDPs who are a mixture of Bul, Lek, Jikany and Jagei Nuer into Bahr el Ghazal.”
Equally disturbing is the conclusion that:
“It seems more than a coincidence that attacks on villages are taking place only days after visits by the Civilian Protection Monitoring Team and often on days when OLS assessments or distributions are scheduled to take place. The SPLA [alleges that it] has intercepted radio messages from Cdr. Peter Gadet that have explicitly stated that relief centers are not to receive assistance. Prisoners of War state that they were given instructions to burn the relief centers of Mayen Jur and Lel by Cdr. Mutriek in Wangkei. The people of Western Upper Nile are being forced to decide whether to take their chances on going into garrison towns or moving into Bahr el Ghazal.”
In a press release today (January 27, 2003) the SPLM declares that:
“After occupying Leer, the GOS army is now on aerial and artillery bombardment of the surrounding villages resulting in heavy displacement of civil population. This bombardment has forced UN agencies and other humanitarian NGOs to withdraw particularly from Thonyor and Dublual which have been particularly targeted by Antonovs and helicopter gunship fire. News is just in that the GOS forces have retaken and occupied Dublual at 1:00pm today.”
(As a result of these attacks, Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders-Holland has announced that it has been forced to evacuate five of its staff members from projects in Thonyor and Dublual.)
Furthermore, interviews with civilians injured over the past month in the Leer and Mayom county area consistently reveal that helicopter gunships have been deployed in Khartoum’s attacks on noncombatants, cattle, and villages. This clearly implicates senior officers in Khartoum’s military forces—not the proxy “militias” that have been disingenuously put forward as the source of this escalating fighting.
The consequential nature of Khartoum’s military build-up and ambitions is also clearly revealed by aerial photographs of Adok, 15 miles southeast of Leer on the Nile. The military compound has tripled in size since the October 15 agreement, as a steady stream of military transport barges has moved down the Nile. There is good reason to believe that Khartoum’s goal is to complete the oil road from Bentiu to Adok before the coming rainy season, and this would explain both the capture of Leer, the build-up at Adok, as well as the determination to destroy or displace all sources of humanitarian relief south and west of Bentiu.
This is the grim scene that will present itself to those who will only look, to those who will turn away from the factitious optimism that now defines the Machakos process and register honestly the reality of the renewed slaughter of innocent men, women and children in South Sudan. This is a time not for words alone but for words that spell out consequences—words that will make clear to Khartoum that the price for refusal to negotiate peace in good faith, for continued massive violation of the cease-fire, will be high—and it will be exacted.
There is nothing to be gained by a policy of appeasement, but there are countless thousands of lives to be lost.