Genocidal Counter-Insurgency in Darfur Continues: Amnesty International reports on Khartoum's Jebel Marra offensive


Eric Reeves | September 29, 2016 |

"Scorched Earth, Poisoned Air: Sudanese Government Forces Ravage Jebel Marra, Darfur," Amnesty International (109 pages; released September 29, 2016)

There could be no sharper prodding of the conscience of a world that has chosen to let Darfur become "yesterday's genocide." In this extraordinarily researched report from Amnesty International we learn of just how brutal, how savagely destructive the military offensive by Khartoum's forces in the Jebel Marra region of Darfur has been since mid-January 2016. The detail, provided to lead researcher Jonathan Loeb in the form of 231 interviews, is excruciating and makes for unbearably painful reading. It also makes inescapable the conclusion that Khartoum has used horrific chemical weapons in pursuing its campaign of civilian destruction.

We learn from interviews-with 184 survivors of the onslaught-just how utterly indifferent to civilian life in Darfur the Khartoum regime is: the primary military efforts were not directed against the rebel Sudan Liberation Army/Abdel Wahid faction (SLA/AW), but the Fur civilians who live in Jebel Marra. These attacks included the aerial bombardment of villages with no military presence, ground assaults on civilians and villages that took place far from any SLA activity or presence, and the frequent use of chemical weapons that have killed more than 250 people-perhaps many more. Rape, murder, torture, looting, village burning, and massive displacement have defined the Jebel Marra offensive. And while the offensive slowed with the onset of rains in late May, October will see the beginning of the long dry season and Khartoum is preparing even now to resume its onslaught in the region, aided by militia forces, primarily the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

Jebel Marra is the traditional home of the Fur, the largest ethnic group in Darfur, and the Jebel Marra massif has been the last major military redoubt of SLA forces (the SLA faction led by Minni Minawi, a Zaghawa, controls very little territory, and the Justice and Equality Movement led by Jibril Ibrahim also controls little territory). The assault on the Jebel Marra massif followed several years of intense scorched-earth warfare in the area east of the massif in North Darfur, known broadly as East Jebel Marra. See:

"Changing the Demography":  Violent Expropriation and Destruction of Farmlands in Darfur,  November 2014 - November 2015"   |  December 1, 2015  |

"Continuing Mass Rape of Girls in Darfur: The most heinous crime generates no international outrage" | January 2016 | (covering the period 2014 - 2015)

In "Scorched Earth, Poisoned Air," Amnesty reports that as many as 250,000 people have been displaced by Khartoum's 2016 Jebel Marra offensive; the death toll is almost certainly many thousands; countless rapes and brutal assaults have been committed; scores of villages have been wholly or partially destroyed---Amnesty reports that "hundreds of villages were attacked between January and September 2016" (page 5) (all emphases in bold in quoted material has been added).

Regular readers of Radio Dabanga will know much about the nature of Khartoum's 2016 assault on the Jebel Marra massif. But Amnesty International provides a more extensive, wider-ranging, and more comprehensive account than anything we have seen to date. Individual narratives are almost too painful to read, but that pain must be endured by those who care about the fate of International Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law. So egregious are the crimes detailed here that the very idea of international law is at risk if the Khartoum regime is not held accountable-and dissuaded from renewing its onslaught this coming dry season, traditionally the major season of fighting in Darfur.


I will be returning to the implications of this extraordinary human rights report in the future. For the present, I have attempted to distill the essential findings in the report about the use of chemical weaponsIt is crucial, however, that the larger character of Khartoum's campaign in Jebel Marra not be overshadowed by the particularly egregious crime of chemical weapons use.

The evidence of chemical weapons use-based on numerous interviews and scores of photographs of victims-has been analyzed by professionals in the field of unconventional weapons. Although definitive proof requires physical forensic evidence-body tissue samples, bomb fragment or soil samples-that forensic evidence is not necessary in drawing compelling conclusions, given what the world has learned of the organic effects on human beings of various chemical weapons.

Khartoum permits no international presence in Jebel Marra-not even for the impotent UN/African Union "Hybrid" Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), despite freedom of movement granted UNAMID in the Status of Forces Agreement signed by Khartoum in January 2008, the time of UNAMID's official deployment. Humanitarian organizations working in Jebel Marra have been expelled, and no humanitarian access-even for essential medicines-has been granted for years. The embargo on Jebel Marra is complete-for UNAMID, for humanitarians, for journalists, and for human rights researchers. Like most of Darfur, Jebel Marra is a "black box," from which information comes only by the erratic serendipity of Internet or telephone communications.

Nonetheless, there is a terrifying consistency to the accounts of the chemical weapons attacks. Although there is some variation in the accounts-and more than one weaponized chemical agent in Khartoum's arsenal-pages 69 - 94 provide so many consistent details, so many similar photographs of the bodies of victims, and such telling accounts from the two highly respected professionals recruited for analysis by Amnesty International, that there simply can be no reasonable doubt about the regime's use of chemical weapons. This demands international inquiry per the terms of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to which Sudan is nominally a party. The legal obligations to investigate are presented in cogent and compelling fashion in the report.

The basis for Amnesty International's conclusions

Amnesty frames its lengthy section on "Chemical Weapons Attacks" as follows:

Amnesty International interviewed 57 residents of Jebel Marra, 47 civilians and ten members of SLA/AW, who alleged that Sudanese government forces utilized "poisonous smoke" during attacks in Jebel Marra between January and September 2016. These individuals provided Amnesty International with substantial testimonial and photographic evidence in support of the allegations. The evidence collected from the attacks was broadly consistent and strongly suggests that Sudanese government forces repeatedly used chemical weapons during attacks in Jebel Marra. The residents included survivors and people who care for survivors and victims. Several of the survivors were also caregivers. Many of the survivors witnessed multiple attacks.

Based on testimony from caregivers and survivors, Amnesty International estimates that between 200 and 250 people may have died as a result of exposure to the chemical weapons agents, with many - or most - being children. Caregivers also provided Amnesty with what they observed to be the proximate cause of death.

Amnesty International documented 32 suspected chemical weapons attacks in Jebel Marra between January and September 2016. The earliest attacks occurred during the start of the government's offensive in mid-January; the last attack Amnesty documented occurred on 9 September.

The alleged chemical weapons attacks took place in each of the four areas in Jebel Marra that experienced major violence in 2016.

Of the experts (wisely unnamed) who rendered their assessment of the photographic and interview evidence, Amnesty says:

Amnesty International asked two chemical weapons experts, to review the clinical signs and symptoms revealed by the photographic and video evidence and the interview notes. Both are respected experts with experience in unconventional munitions, including biological and chemical warfare agents, and experience in the diagnosis of exposure to chemical weapons agents.

The conclusions of these experts cannot, of course, be professionally definitive until there is physical forensic evidence in their possession (e.g., samples of soil or bomb fragments or human tissue). But absent definitive confirmation, there can be no reasonable doubt that Amnesty International has revealed overwhelming evidence of chemical weapons used against civilians.

The photographs of individuals affected are particularly strong evidence: the similarity of the strange lesions on their skin cannot be explained by any disease that could be identified by the experts. The congruence of accounts of changes in color as the smoke from bombs and shells diffuses is also compelling evidence. And most compelling of all is the similarity of symptoms among those affected or killed by the chemical weapons (disproportionately children). The report demands to be read in its entirety, but here are some of the accounts given to Amnesty researchers, and photographs received by Amnesty (all ©Amnesty International).


  • "Hassantold Amnesty International that he treated numerous people for ailments that he believes were caused by exposure to chemical weapons. Hassan described the most common symptoms, including many which he said he had never seen before:

‘The main thing that the victims complain about is the bombing with the poison... The poison comes from some bombs, not all bombs... It causes lung infections... it causes lots of coughing. Victims are always coughing... It also causes eye infections... And vomiting and diarrhoea... When shrapnel hits the body it causes blisters... but it is mostly the smoke that causes the problems... The smoke changes the colour of skin to white. And sometimes the skin becomes rotten and I am compelled to cut away the rotting part... The smoke also causes pimples on the body... And children's eyes become swollen... White water is coming out of their eyes... Sometimes [the white water] is like tears but sometimes it's different than tears, more white...

Pregnant woman have had miscarriages [after being exposed to the smoke]. I have treated [many] ... the women [who have the miscarriages] are bleeding a lot... Elderly patients have pain in their joints, in a way that wasn't common before.'" (pages 82 - 83)

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Amnesty caption: This victim's right arm shows large circular lesions with some scarring. The top layer of skin from one of the wounds has come off showing healing skin. These wounds appear to be healing normally. There are also pimple-like nodules seen between these scars, and there is a linear scar on the top of the hand near the wrist. This photo was taken two weeks after exposure. The circular nature of these lesions is consistent with healing blisters that might be observed after exposure to a chemical warfare blister agent (vesicant) such as sulphur mustard.

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Amnesty caption: The skin of this victim's back shows multiple circular wounds that appear to be from freshly popped blisters revealing fresh pink skin. The outer layer of skin is visible surrounding some of these wounds. A colored liquid is visible on the skin and appears to be coming from the wounds. This liquid is either coming from another lesion or perhaps applied as a treatment. Smaller blisters appear to be present surrounding the leftmost wound. These circular wounds appear to be from blisters and are consistent with exposure to a chemical warfare blister agent such as sulphur mustard.

  • "Amnesty International interviewed Hassan again and he gave additional description of symptoms.

‘There are changes to victims' urine. It becomes yellow/orange and then red... In some people it is already red when I see them... The urine changes colour over several days... The urine sometimes smells rotten, sometimes like bile ... sometimes when you give them medicine it changes back [to its original colour] ... Their breath smells very bad. It smells like rotten meat... [The breath] smells different than the urine... Some people's eyes change colour to yellow, some change to red/brown... The white part of the eyes changes to red/brown... The eyes are not normal... sometimes the eyes get better, sometimes they do not... The blood pressure is often very high...

Almost everyone suffers from severe headaches, which do not go away with paracetamol... I have seen nine people who had seizures... they were shaking like they had epilepsy. Four of them died.'" (page 83)

"Hassan told Amnesty International that he personally observed the alleged chemical weapons several times.

‘[The smoke] has a very bad smell... [The smoke] is dark black right after it explodes then it turns white. It turns grey and then it turns white... this takes about 20 minutes... I saw it in the areas of Kutrum, Kwila, Kude, and Buri... One bomb fell by water and turned water completely red... some bombs changed the colour of the water.'" (page 83)

Terribly similar accounts come from a wide range of people interviewed in different parts of Jebel Marra. "Hassan" (all names in the report are pseudonymous) was speaking of what he saw in western Jebel Marra. Of southern Jebel Marra Amnesty reports:

"Abduljabbar, a caregiver and member of the SLA/AW, told Amnesty International that he treated 45 civilians and armed opposition group fighters in western and southern Jebel Marra. ‘10 died, 30 improved, and five are still sick,' he said. When Abdulajabbar spoke with Amnesty International, he was in the process of treating victims from an attack around the area of Golol in early August. He described the signs and symptoms that he had observed from victims during the preceding seven months.

‘Guys are wounded by bombs and they develop strange symptoms... their skin changes... Those exposed to the poison experience severe vomiting, diarrhoea, and coughing... People affected, their skin turns dark black, and it becomes tough... sometimes [the skin] changes in just two hours... sometimes it returns to normal after a strong dose of medicine.... They develop blisters. The blisters become wounds... Their eyes turn yellow/green, some turn red... The eyes usually change after two to three days... Their urine turns different colours, to red, maroon, and black... the urine doesn't change immediately, it usually takes seven to eight hours... Their defecation smells abnormal... Their breath is not normal, it reeks. [Their breath] usually changes later in the day... Some people have gone unconscious... Some people start to shake uncontrollably... Two died after these seizures, five survived.'" (page 91)

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Amnesty caption: This victim has large areas of dark red skin and in some areas the outer layer of skin has sloughed off. These areas are adjacent to areas of unaffected skin. The pink mottling in some of the dark areas may be a current wound or may be scars. The victim's wounds were described as itchy, so some of the pink mottling could also be due to scratching resulting in removal of dead skin. Additionally, many causes of extreme trauma to the skin, such as exposure to high concentrations of a chemical warfare blister agent like sulphur mustard, can lead to skin sloughing.

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Amnesty caption: The lower right calf shows a large ulcerated lesion that appears to be swollen and infected. Swelling surrounding the wound is consistent with a severe infection. This wound was described as forming entirely from poisoning and not from a conventional weapon. The photo was taken five days after exposure. This lesion could have been caused by a chemical warfare blister agent (vesicant) such as sulphur mustard but is atypical in some ways for that kind of exposure and might have been caused by exposure to other chemicals, including corrosive chemicals.

Of northern Jebel Marra Amnesty reports:

"Ishaq, said that he had helped to care for 38 victims of alleged chemical weapons attacks and that 18 of those had died. Most of the people he cared for told him that they became sick during attacks in January and February. He also said that he had seen numerous children in the area who displayed signs of exposure to the suspected chemical weapons who have not received treatment. He described the signs and symptoms that he commonly observed in the people he cared for.

‘These are the most common symptoms from the bombardment and the rocket fire, which diffused poison, which changed the colour of eyes and induced vomiting and diarrhoea, which was sometimes bloody and caused many miscarriages... Sometimes people with diarrhoea get a high fever and then their diarrhoea becomes bloody... Sometimes you can see the colour of the body change and the colour of the eyes and then, all of a sudden, they die... their skin becomes dark black and there are rashes and blisters and they turn into wounds... Some people's eyes become yellow/green, some become yellow/orange, and some become maroon... and if you open the eyelid, the inside changes to red with black spots...

‘In two cases it looked like [the eyes] were going to pop out of the head... Some children suffered hair loss... The patients' urine changes to different colours. To orange and then red. Sometimes [the urine] is mix of black and dark blue.... Some people have trouble breathing... and they have a very fast heartbeat... Sometimes the blood pressure is low and sometimes it is very high... Many children have swollen bodies... [In three cases] adults had seizures. Two died... Once we noticed the sick person shaking uncontrollably... we needed three or four people to keep him on the bed until one part of the body became paralyzed. Fifteen minutes later, he passed away.'" (pages 85 - 86)

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Amnesty caption: The buttocks and upper back show multiple circular lesions that are sometimes touching. Their centers are often red and one appears to be bleeding. The circular shape and location of these lesions is consistent with exposure to chemical warfare blister agents (vesicants) like sulphur mustard. These wounds are atypical in some ways for blister agents and might have been caused by exposure to other chemicals or a combination of chemicals.

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Amnesty caption: A roughly circular lesion shows a deep uniformly pink base with a central cavity. This victim was described as having walked through an area that was bombed. This wound, although circular, is very deep and not consistent with vesicant exposure. However, jagged skin surrounding the wound is suggestive of blister formation. These wounds are consistent with exposure to a chemical warfare blister agent (vesicant) such as sulphur mustard but they are atypical in some ways for that kind of exposure and might have been caused by exposure to other chemicals or a combination of chemicals.

Of central Jebel Marra Amnesty reports:

"Khamis described the most common signs that he observed in his patients who were exposed to the alleged chemical weapons.

‘I have treated patients for normal wounds and some who are suffering from poison... Every patient [who was suffering from poison] had diarrhoea and it was not treatable. It looked like the food was not being digested... The diarrhoea usually started about two to three hours after [exposure]... Many people vomited. The diarrhoea usually starts first and then vomiting. Some people vomited blood... Most of the people who vomited blood died... Their urine smells very bad... [the urine] changes colour to yellow and then to maroon.... Some people lose their vision... problems with the eyes usually start a few hours after the diarrhoea begins... sometimes the actual eye shrinks. Sometimes the eyes look like they are popping out... sometimes the white part of the eyes turns green/yellow... The patients' breath smells very bad... and the breath seems hot, even though the patient has no fever... Some patients have trouble breathing. They are breathing very fast... some of their tongues are swollen... the patients have high blood pressure...

‘Some patients had seizures, especially their heads. Their heads start shaking uncontrollably... [the seizures] usually start three or four days later... [everyone who had a seizure] died... the smoke also causes many women to have miscarriages... sometimes [the miscarriages] occur on the same day. Sometimes a little later. The women often feel sick and weak for months.'" (pages 88 - 89)

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Amnesty caption: The right side of the patient in this photo shows where the outer layer of the skin has sloughed off forming sharp borders of apparently unaffected skin. This photograph was taken about one month after the attack. Skin sloughing began approximately two weeks after the attack. Exposure to high concentrations of a chemical warfare blister agent like sulphur mustard, and other forms of extreme skin trauma, can lead to skin sloughing. Some subtle aspects of the sloughing seen here may be atypical of blister agent exposure and indicate that exposure to other chemicals or a combination of chemicals could be responsible.

There can be no mistaking the consistency of these accounts, all by caregivers. Nor can there be any doubt that the symptoms are the result of chemical agents. No human disease causes this symptomology. The evidence is overwhelming, even as the international response to Khartoum's past violation of international law has been disgracefully underwhelming.

What to make of Khartoum's conspicuous use of chemical weapons against civilians?

What should be noted first is that there have been many previous reports of chemical weapons (as well as banned cluster munitions) used by the Khartoum regime over a number of years. Forensic obstacles have proved largely insurmountable, given the restrictions on movement into and out of areas where these attacks have been reported, and remoteness of locations of attack, and the urgent priorities of humanitarian organizations.

But a report from 2000 by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (Switzerland) should long ago have prompted action by signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention.  In its preface to a February 2000 study ("Living under aerial bombardments: Report of an investigation in the Province of Equatoria, Southern Sudan"), MSF-Switzerland reported that:

Since the beginning of the year 1999 until this very moment, we have been experiencing and witnessing direct aerial bombings of the hospital, while full of patients, and of the living compound of our medical team (10 bombings in 1999, a total of 66 bombs dropped, with 13 hitting the hospital premises). Facing the sharp increase of aerial bombardments in this region during 1999, frequently aimed at civilian structures such as hospitals, in November 1999, we requested an investigation of these events and their consequences for the civilian population in the area.

The elements of this investigation, included in the report herewith, tend to demonstrate that the strategy used by the Sudanese Air Force in this region, is deliberately aimed at targeting civilian structures, causing indiscriminate deaths and injuries, and contributes to a climate of terror among the civilian population. Furthermore, evidence has been found and serious allegations have been made that weapons of internationally prohibited nature are regularly employed against the civilian population such as cluster bombs and bombs with ‘chemical contents.' (emphasis added)

The use of chemical weapons by Khartoum has never been properly investigated by the UN; nor has the international community pushed effectively for such investigation. Despite very strong prima facie evidence that the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) had engaged in chemical warfare on a number of occasions, a decade after the end of the Iraqi Anfal the international community again showed no interest in investigating:

MSF is particularly worried about the use or alleged use of prohibited weapons (such as cluster bombs and chemical bombs) that have indiscriminate effect (emphasis added). The allegations regarding the use of chemical bombs started on 23 July 1999, when the villages of Lainya and Loka (Yei County) were bombed with chemical products. In a reaction to this event, a group of non-governmental organizations had taken samples on the 30th of July, and on the 7th of August; the United Nations did the same.

Although the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is competent and empowered to carry out such an ‘investigation of alleged use,' it needs an official request made by another State Party. To date, we deplore that OPCW has not received any official request from any State Party to investigate, and that since the UN samples taking, no public statement has been made concerning these samples nor the results of the laboratory tests. (emphasis added)

MSF offers several eyewitness accounts of chemical weapons in bombs, including a grim narrative of events in Yei County (now Central Equatoria):

The increase of the bombings on the civilian population and civilian targets in 1999 was accompanied by the use of cluster bombs and weapons containing chemical products. On 23 July 1999, the towns of Lainya and Loka (Yei County) were bombed with chemical products. At the time of this bombing, the usual subsequent results (i.e. shrapnel, destruction to the immediate environment, impact, etc.) did not take place. [Rather], the aftermath of this bombing resulted in a nauseating, thick cloud of smoke, and later symptoms such as children and adults vomiting blood and pregnant women having miscarriages were reported...

These symptoms of the victims leave no doubt as to the nature of the weapons used. Two field staff of the World Food Program (WFP) who went back to Lainya, three days after the bombing, had to be evacuated on the 27th of July. They were suffering of nausea, vomiting, eye and skin burns, loss of balance and headaches.

After this incident, the WFP interrupted its operations in the area, and most of the humanitarian organizations that are members of the Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) had to suspend their activities after the UN had declared the area to be dangerous for its personnel. (emphasis added)

There have been repeated reports of chemical weapons use after 1999; not one has been investigated by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which requires a demand for investigation from a state signatory. OPCW notes

A unique feature of the CWC is its incorporation of the "challenge inspection," whereby any State Party in doubt about another State Party's compliance can request the Director-General to send an inspection team. Under the CWC's "challenge inspection" procedure, States Parties have committed themselves to the principle of "any time, anywhere" inspections with no right of refusal. (emphasis added)

In the body of the report, MSF-which had been working in eastern Equatoria since 1997-finds that their teams have:

...several times been victims and witnesses of these bombings that are only aimed at the civilian population and civilian targets. Hospitals and schools in particular, are deliberately chosen as targets.

The hospital in Yei town-run by the nongovernmental Norwegian People's Aid and marked with a large and conspicuous red cross on its roof-was also a particular target of Antonov bombing attacks in 1999. Yei was bombed on 15 different occasions during the year, and a total of 138 bombs were dropped. Ten people were known to have been killed, more were wounded, a number of civilian houses were destroyed, the hospital infrastructure was seriously damaged, and the facilities of two other humanitarian organizations were destroyed or damaged (the UN water facility was targeted in one of these attacks).

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the international community would simply rather not investigate allegations of chemical weapons attacks in Sudan, despite the intensity of focus on ascertaining the use of chemical weapons in the war in Syria and the overheated rhetoric indulged in by Secretary of State John Kerry. We may rightly wonder what Kerry's response will be to the overwhelming evidence of chemical weapons use by Khartoum. For the present callous moves toward rapprochement with the Khartoum regime by Obama administration and Europe may be differently motivated, but in concert they have the inevitable effect of encouraging Khartoum to believe that it may use genocidal counter-insurgency tactics of any kind in completing the military subjection of Darfur.

The use of chemical weapons is the most extreme example of Khartoum's sense of impunity-an impunity it has come to depend upon in conducting its barbaric domestic military campaigns, orchestrating vast human rights abuses and a wide range of repressive measures, and supporting radical Islamists (for example, Libya Dawn in Libya). So long as the Europeans are more interested in stanching the flow of refugees from Africa to continental Europe, and so long as the governing interest in the bilateral relationship between Washington and Khartoum hinges on the putative "counter-terrorism intelligence" the regime provides, we may expect to see more egregious violations of international law of the sort Amnesty International has chronicled in such authoritative detail.



Eric Reeves, Senior Fellow at Harvard University's François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights


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