“Khartoum Attacks the International Committee of the Red Cross,” The International Herald Tribune, January 23, 2001
The International Committee of the Red Cross—the very symbol of neutral, international humanitarian aid—was savagely attacked at its medical base in Chelkou, southern Sudan, on January 12. The attack was carried out by militia forces allied with the radical National Islamic Front regime that rules from Khartoum. All buildings were destroyed, all expatriate workers withdrawn, villagers have been killed, and the ICRC is deeply concerned about the fate of their Sudanese workers.
This act of barbarism by the Khartoum-backed Popular Defense Forces (PDF) completely destroyed the ICRC medical facilities at an important humanitarian site in the southern province of Bahr el-Ghazal. Reuters newswire, as well as extremely reliable sources from the ground, reported the destruction, as well as the likelihood of additional such government-backed attacks on civilians and humanitarian relief
The ICRC medical facility at Chelkou had been the target last year of a brutal bombing attack by the air force of the Khartoum regime. Indeed, ICRC facilities at both Chelkou (Bahr el-Ghazal) and Billing (Western Upper Nile) were targeted by the regime’s bombers. Evidently not content with aerial bombardment, the regime has now loosed its brutal PDF militia on Chelkou as well. This extraordinary escalation of assaults directed against humanitarian organizations bodes extremely ill for other relief efforts in southern regions, and for the hundreds of thousands of Sudanese who depend on such relief.
For a sense of the magnitude of the disaster impending, it is important to know that the UN World Food Program recently declared that more than 3 million people in Sudan, mainly in the south, are at risk from famine and drought.
In considering the larger implications of the attack at Chelkou, it should be borne in mind that the International Committee of the Red Cross is scrupulous in its neutrality. It has always secured permission from the Khartoum regime when operating in southern Sudan. It did so for its medical relief at Chelkou. It also made perfectly clear that Chelkou is not close to opposition military forces.
None of this stopped the Khartoum regime’s Antonov aircraft from bombing Chelkou last summer, and now Khartoum-backed militia forces have finished the job in brutal fashion. If this action is not met with the sternest international condemnation, with significant consequences attaching to any further attacks on humanitarian relief, we may be sure that we will be hearing of more such barbarism.
As things stand, the National Islamic Front in Khartoum is the regime that oil companies such as Talisman Energy of Canada, Lundin of Sweden, Petronas of Malaysia and China National Petroleum Corp. have decided to do business with. They are all, quite literally, business partners of a regime that has decided that war can be conducted by attacks on neutral, international medical relief. All revenues from the oil development project in the south go to the Khartoum regime in the north, which has made no secret of its military ambitions for these revenues.
Indeed, the regime announced this month that it would continue its campaign of aerial assaults on civilian targets throughout southern Sudan as part of its military strategy. Attacks on schools, churches, hospitals and undefended villages would continue. The shocking announcement came directly from Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail. And of course the military means for continuing the promised aerial destruction of southern Sudan are being purchased with oil revenues.
Will the world continue to avert its eyes from this savagery and barbarism—and Western corporate complicity? Will oil development be allowed to proceed in the midst of civil war defined by attacks on the International Committee of the Red Cross, and on innocent civilians? Day by day, a terrible answer is being fashioned out of the silence of those with the power to speak out and halt this ghastly complicity, this monstrous human destruction.
[The writer, on leave from the faculty of Smith College, is preparing a book on Sudan. He contributed this commentary to the International Herald Tribune.]