The recent upsurge in reported aerial attacks on civilian and humanitarian targets in the oil regions of southern Sudan is entirely in keeping with the military logic of the National Islamic Front (NIF) regime in Khartoum. By destroying civilian populations, and the fabric of civil society, the NIF hopes to weaken any resistance to their full securing of the oil regions. By attacking humanitarian workers (present during the recent attacks on Akuem, Nimne, and Bieh), they hope to force the exit of those who can bear witness to their ongoing atrocities. The result will be a vast cordon sanitaire within which there will be none from the international community to report on the furthering of Khartoum’s genocidal assault.
Eric Reeves [February 22, 2002]
Northampton, MA 01063
The Los Angeles Times concludes its revealing report of today with an account of the view from diplomats in Nairobi:
“Western diplomats in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital said the Sudanese government was unlikely to abandon its strategy of attacking civilian targets. ‘If people die and starve, they don’t make good guerrillas,’ one diplomat said. ‘That’s the government’s strategy—to deny civilians all food resources and safe havens.'” (Los Angeles Times, February 22, 2002)
As shockingly blunt and widespread as this assessment may be, it seems not to matter to those whose interests lie exclusively in Sudan’s oil and in the commercial contracts funded by petrodollars. In turn, fully understanding this cynical posture by Canada, the Europeans, and Asian countries, Khartoum has taken the logical next step: insure that there will be no further witnesses from the international community to their ongoing atrocities.
Slowly but surely, all of Western Upper Nile—where Sudan’s oil reserves are concentrated—is being stripped of any international humanitarian presence. Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) was forced to abandon Nimne after Khartoum bombed their facilities on Feb 9, 2002—killing an MSF worker and a number of civilians (including children). Both MSF and the UN’s World Food Program have abandoned Bieh after the immensely destructive helicopter gunship attack of Wednesday (Feb 20, 2002).
There have been numerous other attacks on civilians in this time period, reported by highly reliable regional sources; lacking international witnesses, however, they do not occasion wire reports or newspaper accounts. But the UN’s Operation Lifeline Sudan knows what is occurring, and the most recent detailed chart of “red no-go” sites makes clear how much of Western Upper Nile Province has become inaccessible for humanitarian relief workers.
The area where Khartoum’s attacks are most concentrated presently is in oil concession Block 5a, where Lundin Petroleum of Sweden was forced to suspend operations last month. Bieh is very close to Lundin’s new elevated, all-weather road leading south from Bentiu. In an effort to provide the security that Lundin (along with its Austrian and Malaysian partners) is demanding, Khartoum has intensified an already brutal campaign of civilian destruction, displacement, and intimidation.
But Khartoum wants this to become again “the invisible war.” It wants to attack without witnesses, without additional authoritative reports on its barbarous aerial assaults on civilians. It does not want the Los Angeles Times to be able to provide further accounts coming from people like the UN World Food Program’s spokeswoman Laura Melo:
“On Wednesday afternoon, two helicopter gunships hovered above 4,000
people lined up for rations of beans, vegetable oil and corn porridge for their children. As soldiers in one helicopter kept guard, their comrades in the second aircraft fired at least five rockets into the crowd, according to World Food Program spokeswoman Laura Melo. A soldier in the second helicopter reportedly fired his machine gun indiscriminately at women, children and aid workers.” (Los Angeles Times, February 22, 2002)
Or further statements like these from Catherine Bertini, head of the World Food Program:
“World Food Program chief Catherine Bertini said its aid distribution had been approved by the Sudanese government. She called Wednesday’s attack ‘an intolerable affront to human life and humanitarian work.’
‘Such attacks, deliberately targeting civilians about to receive humanitarian
aid, are absolutely and utterly unacceptable.'” (Los Angeles Times, February 22, 2002)
This is the face of war in the oil regions of southern Sudan. This, above all else, defines the investment decisions of oil companies like Talisman Energy (Canada), Lundin Petroleum (Sweden), Austria’s OMV, Petronas (Malaysia), China National Petroleum Corp., and Russia’s Slavneft/Tatneft.
And it is in this context that the “peace process” for Sudan must be understood. The Nuba Mountain cease-fire, for example—though of great importance for the civilian population to which Khartoum had laid humanitarian siege for over a decade—has allowed for a significant re-deployment of Khartoum’s forces to the oil regions. Highly reliable reports from a number of regional sources indicate a massive upsurge in military deployments by Khartoum to the oil regions.
Khartoum is clearly intent on using for military purposes the putative “momentum” for peace” created by the Nuba Mountain cease-fire. The regime also hopes to trade on its own medacious talk of “desiring peace,” even as savage scorched-earth warfare continues. Indeed, the Nuba Mountain cease-fire has already been consequentially violated by Khartoum. There is great skepticism among diplomats and aid workers in Nairobi and Lokichokio (Kenya) that the cease-fire will hold beyond the time it serves Khartoum’s military purposes, or the submitting of the (US special envoy) Danforth report.
Recent high-profile weapons acquisitions and production development by Khartoum also make clear that the regime’s ambition is military victory, not a negotiated just peace. Highly advanced MiG-29 combat aircraft, HIND-24 helicopter gunships, and Russian T-55 tanks are only the most conspicuous acquisitions. But just as telling is the vast increase in Khartoum’s domestic armaments industry, e.g., at the huge GIAD complex outside Khartoum. Several authoritative accounts put Khartoum in the category of self-sufficient in small- and medium-size arms—all thanks to the oil revenues that go to Khartoum unencumbered by any mechanism for equitable distribution or productive investment.
Wednesday’s attack on Bieh reveals all too much of Khartoum’s thinking about Sudan’s future. The regime’s self-declared “jihad” against the peoples of the south and other marginalized areas will continue, with an intense concentration in the oil concessions of Western Upper Nile, most particularly in the Lundin concession south of Bentiu. Though Khartoum’s military forces have taken punishing losses from the southern military opposition, they are not yet so punishing as to deter the regime from its larger genocidal ambitions. Helicopter gunships, for example, operate with impunity, as there is nothing in the southern arsenal that can deter their deadly attacks. The same is true of the high-flying Antonov bombers.
Civilians in the south are easy to kill, especially when they have been displaced by oil development and are desperate for food relief. Humanitarian organizations can ask their personnel to take only acceptable risks—not to operate in what are becoming the “kill zones” of southern Sudan.
What the world simply must understand is that all of this is perfectly clear, perfectly well understood by the now united southern opposition, comprising a fully integrated SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) and SPDF (Sudan People’s Defense Force). The southern military opposition will not allow Khartoum’s genocidal assault to go unchallenged. Khartoum’s strategy, which aims for a rapid and brutal annihilation, can succeed in killing additional tens of thousands of civilians. They can displace even more.
But in direct military confrontation with the forces of people who see their fight as one for survival, they will continue to absorb punishing losses. Just this week, a very large armored convoy from an important garrison headquarters near Nhialdiu (southwest of Bentiu) was beaten back (Feb18), and in a counter-attack the garrison itself was captured by the SPLA under Peter Gadet; Khartoum suffered major losses of men and materiel. Strategically, of course, the SPLA will continue to make oil installations and infrastructure their primary target for all the reasons that Bieh makes so clear.
If the world desires to work for peace in Sudan, it too must accept the fundamental realities of oil development in southern Sudan, and not allow them to be obscured through a factitious “constructive engagement” or “critical dialogue.” These have yielded nothing but a further slide toward civilian annihilation in the south, and a more obdurate National Islamic Front regime in Khartoum. Peace will not come until Khartoum surrenders its ambitions for military victory. Bieh is the symbol of that all too insistent ambition.