“Monitoring Attacks on Civilians in Sudan: A Dismaying Start”
On September 21, 2002, military jet aircraft of Khartoum’s National Islamic Front regime strafed and dropped bombs on a Dinka cattle camp outside the village of Mundri, very near the hospital town of Lui, 150 kilometers northwest of Juba. Its geographic location in Western Equatoria insured that it was nowhere near any military hostilities. We thus know that when Khartoum’s aerial attack killed 13 people (including four children), the victims were innocent civilians. A recent report by a US-led force to monitor attacks on civilians in Sudan has declared that these victims were “collateral damage,” since this particular aerial attack appears to have focused on a “target of opportunity”: a Khartoum-purchased 105mm Chinese artillery piece that was in all likelihood inoperative and unserviceable. But whether or not civilians were the primary target on this occasion, we know that in recent years many hundreds of similar attacks have indeed been directed at civilians, as well as humanitarian relief sites. We know that thousands of civilians have been killed, directly or indirectly—and that countless tens of thousands have been displaced by aerial assaults. It is thus intensely dismaying that the military experts of this monitoring team provide so little of the relevant military context for their findings. Their primary recommendations, concerning the removal of unexploded ordnance and the painting of inoperable and unserviceable military equipment for visual identification from the air, seem preposterously irrelevant in the war theaters of southern Sudan
Eric Reeves [December 15, 2002]
Northampton, MA 01063
In March 2002 an historic breakthrough in Sudan’s civil war was reached when Khartoum reluctantly agreed to a US demand—made through the offices of US Special Envoy for Sudan John Danforth—that a force be deployed in Southern Sudan to monitor reports of attacks on civilians. Since such attacks have been the primary military tactic of the Khartoum regime for many years, such an agreement was highly significant and promised to end some of the terrible civilian suffering and destruction that has defined Sudan’s conflict.
But the US—and in particular Walter Kansteiner’s Africa Bureau at the State Department—did not do nearly enough to see that this breakthrough was meaningfully realized in a timely fashion. In July, when Assistant Secretary Kansteiner was questioned sharply by Senator Russ Feingold (Chair of the Africa subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) about the timing for a deployment of this force, Kansteiner declared that an end of August date was reasonable. This was, of course, already four months after the agreement was signed by Khartoum and the SPLA/M, and over half a year since Human Rights Watch had provided a full-scale proposal to the State Department on how to constitute an effective monitoring force (December 2001).
But it would take yet another three months beyond the end of August for the monitoring force to begin its work—nine months after the agreement was originally signed. This scandalously belated start almost certainly reflects the State Department’s—and Kansteiner’s—inability to secure from Khartoum an actual commitment to implement the monitoring agreement. It certainly wasn’t a case of logistical difficulties: the State Department and Kansteiner had repeatedly been offered assistance on this score by members of Congress, including key Senators from both parties. Rather, it was the case that Kansteiner was unwilling to embarrass Khartoum publicly by declaring that it was the regime’s recalcitrance—once again reneging on a signed agreement–that was the real problem.
Now we have the first report of the Civilian Protection Monitoring Team (CPMT), operating out of Rumbek in Southern Sudan. Dated December 3, 2002, the report gives an account of a mission in late November. Though it provides a great deal of precise technical information about the attack of September 21 near Mundri and Lui, it does not provide any of the context that will allow readers to understand the implications of the fine-grained “aerial ordnance delivery and target assessment.” And even in its technical conclusions, it draws unwarranted inferences, betraying a lack of understanding of the larger military context in which they are investigating.
Moreover, in various of its recommendations, the CPMT reveals itself to be hopelessly ignorant of the realities obtaining in a country torn by twenty years of brutal civil war. It is these recommendations that should be examined initially if we are to understand the nature of what has, and has not, been accomplished with this first, highly belated report.
The CPMT report notes, in a telling comment on one of its many photographs of the area, that the hospital at Lui has not been “marked IAW Geneva Convention,” and is “at grave risk to air attack.” No doubt the team is unaware that the hospital at Yei has been bombed so many times by Khartoum that the Red Cross on top of the building has been painted over with camouflage green, to avoid giving the regime’s aircraft a clear target. The idea that somehow the hospital at Lui, which has itself been bombed several times in the past, would be at less risk if were to paint a Red Cross on its roof is a telling measure of how little understanding the CPMT has of the nature of war in Southern Sudan.
The CPMT also recommends that “military equipment, damaged or destroyed, should be removed or clearly marked by being painted all white with black ‘X’s’ to indicate it is not serviceable.” And further that “coordinates of such equipment should be provided to both Parties so as to remove them from any further Target Lists.” Perhaps the CPMT thinks that local Sudanese can go into a local hardware story and buy some spray paint (in rather significant quantities), and that while they are there they can rent a backhoe to remove the damaged military equipment (and just where is it to be put? in a local landfill?). The idea of communicating the location of all the military equipment carcasses in Southern Sudan invites the same sort of questioning. The utter absurdity of arriving at this as the only substantive recommendation, given the desperate plight of Southern Sudan and the even more desperate lack of resources, is an unfortunately revealing measure of how far the CPMT must go if it is to have any relevance to the larger issues that have defined Khartoum’s war on civilians.
As the CPMT does demonstrate, the aerial strafing and bombing attack of September 21 was probably directed against a “target of opportunity”—an abandoned and no doubt inoperable 105mm artillery piece of Chinese manufacture, which was certainly purchased by Khartoum and perhaps abandoned when the area changed military hands several years ago. But the emphasis must be on the inoperable nature of the artillery piece; for as the CPMT establishes, all other weaponry in the area of the artillery piece had been “inoperative/unserviceable” for quite some time (this includes two other artillery pieces, a T-54 tank, and recoilless rifles). It was almost certainly the case that this status obtained for the 105mm artillery piece that was of such interest to the CPMT.
The Team noted that there was evidence of recent damage to this artillery piece, and this was probably inflicted during the September 21 attack:
“The probably Chinese artillery piece was the main target of a recent attack, with substantial physical evidence which indicates that this was seen as a ‘target of opportunity’ for the attacking aircraft.”
But this does nothing to sort out the obvious problem in chronology: was the artillery piece in question already “inoperable/unserviceable” (like all the other military equipment in the immediate area)? In other words, was the “recent damage” a gratuitous addition to damage already inflicted? It matters little except that the CPMT does not consider the issue, and this can hardly encourage us in our regard for their analytic capacity. And to the extent we may glean anything from the possibility that the artillery piece was already “inoperable/unserviceable,” it is that the SPLA would have had no particular reason to be anywhere near this equipment (as the CPMT notes, all the other equipment had already been fully cannibalized).
But there are much more serious issues at stake in the analysis offered of the September 21 attack. We must remember, as the civilian monitoring team evidently has not, that there were no military ground targets of the Khartoum regime for dozens of miles. There was nothing for even operational artillery to be shooting at. In other words, this cannot possibly be considered a case of a military effort to suppress artillery fire. Moreover, when the Khartoum regime was given an opportunity to explain the attack, the following declaration was issued after inquiries to the Air Force in Juba:
“On Saturday morning the 21st, at between approximately 09:30-10:00 hours a section of two Sudanese Air Force aircraft executed a bombing mission against the Mundri Bridge, which lies several kilometers West of Mundri where the road crosses the Yei River. The purpose of the mission was to deny use of a reported footbridge to SPLA forces that could be approaching Juba from the West.”
But as the CPMT tersely reports, after extensive examination of the bridge: “It is doubtful to highly unlikely that any recent attack was conducted against the bridge site.”
This should tell us that [a] Khartoum is lying about the events of September 21, and the purpose of its aerial attack, and [b] that what the CPMT describes as “attacking a target of opportunity” (i.e., the single Chinese artillery piece) was in fact aerial strafing and bombing that occurred with reckless disregard for the civilians in the Dinka cattle camp almost immediately adjacent to the abandoned weaponry. It may be that greater human destruction could have been achieved had the camp been directly targeted; but given the proximity of large numbers of civilians and cattle to the targeted artillery piece, there was clearly no concern for Southern Sudanese human life on the part of the aircraft pilots.
But our greatest concern about this report—and its incongruous recommendation that inoperable military equipment be painted or removed—should be that it reveals no understanding of the greater reality of Sudan’s civil war. Here it is important to acknowledge that the SPLA has committed serious human rights abuses, and these deserve unequivocal condemnation. But the massive human destruction in the South is clearly the policy and the overwhelming responsibility of the Khartoum regime. Theirs is the military strategy of engineered famine, scorched-earth clearances—and the deliberate aerial bombing of civilian and humanitarian targets in an effort to collapse Southern civil society.
We simply cannot forget the hundreds of bombing attacks that have been logged, confirmed, and publicly reported by various organizations, including the US Committee for Refugees, Focal Point Sudan (Africa), Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders, and many others. Nor should we forget that in the summer of 2000, Khartoum’s aerial attacks on both civilian and humanitarian targets were so intense, deliberate, and sustained that the UN’s Operation Lifeline Sudan was forced to suspend all aid operations.
And nor should we forget more recent attacks and what they reveal of Khartoum’s military ambitions. We should recall the as yet uninvestigated February 2002 helicopter gunship attack on innocent women and children at Bieh (Western Upper Nile), where civilians had gathered to receive food from an authorized UN World Food Program distribution center. In broad daylight at a clearly marked cite, with UN personnel as witnesses, Khartoum’s gunships poured heavy machine-gun fire and rockets into thousands of desperately hungry civilians.
And the barbarism has continued—for example, the bombing at Malual Kan (Bahr el-Ghazal) in June 2002. There was no need for a monitoring force on this occasion: the immensely distinguished International Rescue Committee (IRC) declared at the time: “The IRC strongly condemns Sunday’s bombing by the Government of Sudan of a peaceful village in southern Sudan”; the IRC went on to note that the village is “far from the frontlines and is an established centre for relief operations for the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies, including IRC” (Reuters, June 26, 2002).
Nor should we forget the continual aerial bombardment of towns like Isoke, south of Ikotos in Eastern Equatoria—bombed on August 19, on August 27, on August 28, 2002. And on August 30, 2002 another attack in this region was reported from Hiyala, one of the most densely populated villages in Eastern Equatoria. The attack of August 27 on Isoke destroyed the store of Catholic Relief Services, a member of the UN’s Operation Lifeline Sudan. There is no military presence near Isoke, or the nearby villages of Mairo and Imee, which were also bombed. As the spokesman for the Diocese of Torit declared, “these villages are all inhabited by innocent, defenseless and unarmed population and have no military presence. The frontlines are well known to the government so it should directs its war efforts to the military locations rather than putting the innocence to havoc on daily basis” (Press Release, Catholic Diocese of Torit, August 29, 2002).
In the narrowest of technical terms, we should be grateful for the information that the Civilian Protection Monitoring Team has provided in its account of the September 21 bombing attack that saw 13 innocent people killed, including four children. And perhaps we will get nothing more than such technical information. Certainly the recommendations that emerge from the report seem absurdly out of touch with the larger realities of war in Southern Sudan.
What the CPMT must not be allowed to do is contribute to Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Walter Kansteiner’s policy of “moral equivalency,” equating for diplomatic purposes the military actions of the Khartoum regime and those of the Southern opposition. There is only one air force in this war, and it has been used relentlessly, deliberating, and with devastating effect against civilians and humanitarian targets. This fact is unblinkable, and the CPMT should waste no time before going on to investigate other aerial attacks that have occurred after the March 2002 signing to the agreement by Khartoum. The choices for investigation are all too numerous, but the CPMT should take its cue from the international humanitarian organizations that can provide much more detailed and unintimidated information than was available near Mundri.