Khartoum’s barbaric attack on civilians at Bieh—nine days later
Eric Reeves | March 1, 2002 | http://wp.me/p45rOG-ne
Much has been clarified in the days since February 20, when Khartoum sent two helicopter gunships to attack civilians and humanitarian food relief at Bieh in the oil regions of Western Upper Nile. We know from the report of a subsequent humanitarian assessment mission that the final death toll from the attack was 24, not 17 as originally reported. We know scores were injured. We know that Khartoum has preposterously claimed that this was another “accident of war,” despite the fact that the attacking helicopter gunship hovered low to the ground and its crew could be clearly seen by those being fired upon. And we know that the savagery and cruelty that lay behind this attack remain alive and well, and that only the most vigorous international pressure on Khartoum will be able to restrain the regime from further outrages. The urgency of a need to respond is heightened by Khartoum’s decision today to greatly increase restrictions on humanitarian aid relief to the oil regions.
Words can convey only part of the horror of the deliberate attack on Bieh by Khartoum’s military forces. Appropriately, a series of photographs recording the shocking aftermath of this attack has been taken to help preserve an accurate historical account of this barbaric act (photographs are available upon request from this source, in JPEG format). They show tukuls burned to the ground, an ominously deserted village scene, and the remains of rockets fired directly into the civilians who were gathering to collect emergency food aid from the UN’s World Food Program.
Predictably, in the face of massive evidence to the contrary, senior National Islamic Front official Ghazi Salah Edin Atabani has declared that this was an “accident of war,” that the desperate people of Bieh were “the unintended victims” of Khartoum’s scorched-earth earth campaign, which is of course directly primarily against civilians (see Associated Press wire report, Feb 28, 2002). Sudan’s embassy in Spain issued a statement declaring that the attack was the “government forces’ defensive response” (Agence France-Presse, Mar 1, 2002).
UN World Food Program spokeswoman Laura Melo was appropriately blunt in dismissing Khartoum’s account. Melo pointed out that her organization had notified the Khartoum regime of its plans to distribute food in Bieh (AP, Feb 28). The UN compound was well marked and well known. Ms. Melo further noted that “a helicopter gunship hovered over the agency’s Bieh compound and fired rockets” (AP, Feb 28). She noted that two World Program staffers were present and overseeing the distribution of food, which occurred in broad daylight; their eyewitness testimony makes clear that it was thoroughly improbable that the pilot and gunner aboard the helicopter gunship thought they were attacking a military target:
“‘The helicopter was flying low enough that our staff could see inside the helicopter and a man inside firing a machine gun. How could they not see that there was food being distributed, that women and children were receiving food?’ Melo said” (AP, Feb 28).
Though Khartoum declares that it will “investigate” this incident, it is clear from the Sudanese embassy release in Madrid that the absurd story line—justifying the attack on civilians at Bieh as “defensive”—has already been written. Indeed, the most striking and consequential response of Khartoum to this incident in Western Upper Nile is to restrict much more completely humanitarian access to the desperate civilians of this oil-rich province. An Associated Press wire report headline today reads: “Sudanese government bans aid flights to hardest-hit areas in southern Sudan.” The Khartoum regime has almost doubled the number of areas in Western Upper Nile to which it is denying all humanitarian aid flights (permission for the UN-sponsored consortium of aid groups must be secured on a monthly basis).
The concentration of aid flight denials is greatest around Bentiu, epicenter of the oil regions. As AP reports:
“The government has placed most of the area around Bentiu, 800 kilometers (500 miles) south of Khartoum, off-limits to aid workers. The newly banned areas include the region where the government and Western oil companies have tapped into a large oil field.” (AP, Mar 1, 2002))
AP also reports the response of humanitarian aid organizations to these restrictions:
“[UN World Food Program spokeswoman Laura] Melo said with the new restrictions, about 345,000 people would be denied food aid during what is known as the ‘hungry season,’ the months before the next harvest when food supplies run low.” (AP, Mar 1, 2002)
“Ariam Hehenkamp, the director of operations in southern Sudan for the aid group Medecins sans Frontieres [Doctors Without Borders], said the area now under the flight ban is one of the neediest in Sudan.”
This is Khartoum’s response to the Bieh atrocity: restrict humanitarian access, and thereby restrict the presence of the most reliable witnesses to further atrocities. That many tens of thousands of civilians are put at risk of starvation by these actions is of no consequence to the National Islamic Front.
With good reason there has been considerable speculation about the larger implications of the attack on Bieh, since a cessation of such attacks on civilians and humanitarian relief was precisely what the mission of US special envoy John Danforth sought to secure from Khartoum. Has Khartoum decided to signal overtly its continuing contempt for meaningful participation in the peace process? Are there elements within the National Islamic Front (NIF) at odds with one another, with different responses to the US effort to secure Khartoum’s commitment to negotiate a just peace? Was this attack not simply deliberate, but designed to gain advantage in controlling NIF war policy?
Given the secretive and disingenuous nature of the NIF, answers must remain mere speculation. What is clear and utterly unambiguous is that Khartoum has again deliberately ordered an attack on civilians and humanitarian relief in southern Sudan. The attack on Bieh was no mistake, any more than the attack on Akuem in Bahr el-Ghazal (February 9, 2002) was a “technical error,” as claimed at the time by the foreign ministry, which guaranteed there would be no further such attacks. Nor was the aerial bombardment of Nimne (February 9, 2002) a mistake, nor the attack on Koch (February 10, 2002). These are not “mistakes,” no more than the hundreds and hundreds of other confirmed bombings of civilian and humanitarian targets in southern Sudan have been “mistakes.”
Bombing civilians and humanitarian targets, attacking them by means of helicopter gunships and ground troops, is not occasional error but a sustained, deliberate policy. This has been confirmed by the UN’s World Food Program, by numerous other humanitarian aid organizations in southern Sudan (including Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres), by the US Committee for Refugees, by Amnesty International, by the assessment mission of the Canadian Foreign Ministry, by Christian Aid (UK), by Human Rights Watch, and by numerous news reporters working in the oil regions of southern Sudan.
The issue is not whether such military attacks as the one that killed 24 civilians at Bieh was accidental. We have incontrovertible proof that it was deliberate. And the issue is not whether the National Islamic Front is divided over how or when to continue its campaign of aerial terror.
The issue, the only issue, is whether the international community has the will not simply to condemn such attacks, but to bring sufficient pressure to bear on Khartoum to engage in a peace process that will end these atrocities forever. In the absence of a just peace, Khartoum will continue its policy of destroying civilian populations in the oil regions. Until the regime sees that the international community is intent upon bringing serious pressure to bear on continuing oil exploitation in southern Sudan, the regime will feel no obligation to work for a just peace.
This is all as clear as the terrible photographs of destruction that Bieh has yielded to the world, if civilized nations will only look and reflect on their full meaning.