"They Bombed Everything that Moved" Aerial military attacks on civilians and humanitarians in Sudan, 1999 – 2011

(release of a comprehensive report and database, www.sudanbombing.org)

Dissent Magazine (on-line), May 9, 2011
http://www.dissentmagazine.org/atw.php?id=446

Eric Reeves

Over ten years ago I published a condemnation of the aerial bombardment of civilians and humanitarians in South Sudan. Khartoum's National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime had for years deliberately attacked schools, hospitals, emergency feeding centers, churches, and a wide range of other non-military targets. In a 2000 Washington Post op-ed, I offered as particular examples the bombing of the International Committee of the Red Cross at their well-known and clearly identified locations in Chelkou and Billing, South Sudan. I also noted a bombing attack on a school in the Nuba Mountains region that killed fourteen young children as they began their English lesson book, "Read With Us. " In none of these instances was there a military presence by southern Sudanese forces to justify bombings. And the examples seemed endless at the time.

I had noted that the bombings were carried out by Russian-made Antonov cargo planes, retrofitted to be "bombers" from which crude but deadly barrel bombs—loaded with shrapnel—were simply rolled out the back cargo bay. There were no bomb racks or bays, nor any useful targeting mechanism; it was impossible for these aircraft to achieve militarily purposeful accuracy. They were, and remain, instruments of civilian terror and destruction.

I was initially encouraged by the outrage my piece seemed to generate. The Khartoum regime appeared at the time to have a lock on the "Africa seat" on the UN Security Council, but by September opposition had grown substantially and Khartoum was forced to withdraw its bid (Mauritius joined the Council instead). I like to think that my column helped prevent this travesty.

But these suggestions of partial success were mere wisps of hope. I am issuing with the publication of this post a report and data spreadsheet representing all confirmed aerial attacks on civilian and humanitarian targets in Sudan from 1999 to the present. The report includes confirmed bombings in the South, the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile, Eastern Sudan, and of course Darfur. Data sets and data-rich documents are highly numerous and dismayingly replete; yet they have never been collected, collated, and systematically organized. The assembly and rationalizing of the data have been highly time-consuming, but as I say in the preface, "I find the almost complete anonymity and invisibility of Sudanese civilian victims of targeted aerial military assaults morally intolerable."

In the years since August 15, 2000, there have been more than 1,000 aerial attacks on civilians and humanitarian operations in Sudan. Altogether, the data spreadsheet contains more than 1,400 such incidents; individual entries provide locations, sources, dates, casualties, and observational notes. A great many of these attacks involved not only retrofitted cargo planes but helicopter gunships and advanced jet aircraft; these have been reported as well.

There have been many thousands of casualties, and human displacement has been in the hundreds of thousands. Agriculture has suffered badly, as the attacks have deeply demoralized farmers in both the South and Darfur. Water points and livestock herds have also been bombed, strafed, and rocketed. The assault has been not simply on civilians and humanitarians but on a way of life.

These attacks are all violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. Individually, they are war crimes; collectively they come within the legal ambit of "crimes against humanity." Moreover, the figures for attacks and casualties that I have confirmed vastly understate the actual numbers, perhaps by an order of magnitude. As one human rights report noted, "There are reports of frequent bombing in Blue Nile…but local people are so accustomed to it that they see no point in keeping records."

Revealingly, most entries for "number of casualties" simply read "unknown." The international community has no way of investigating reported attacks, despite the presence of a UN-authorized peacekeeping force in Darfur. Nominally guaranteed "freedom of movement," the UN/African Union "hybrid" force (UNAMID) has been virtually paralyzed by Khartoum and its security forces. It conducts exceedingly few investigations, and only very rarely publishes its findings.

In the end little has changed since my column of August 2000. I have already recorded more than eighty aerial attacks in 2011. Khartoum still faces no serious pressure to halt aerial attacks on civilians, and will persevere in this savagery until the world community specifies—explicitly and credibly—intolerable consequences. Tragically, international actors of consequence, especially the U.S., see normalizing relations with this brutal regime as the more important basis for Sudan policy going forward. And so the bombs will continue to fall.

May 9, 2011
Northampton, Massachusetts