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Are U.S. and U.N. Officials Ignoring New Evidence of Atrocities in Sudan?

Sudan seems to bring out a perverse diffidence in both the Obama administration and the international community. This is especially clear in their response to a growing body of evidence that atrocities are being committed in South Kordofan, a border state in what is now Northern Sudan. Indeed, the more proof that accumulates about the targeted destruction of the African Nuba people, the less the White House and the U.N. seem inclined either to speak out forcefully or to announce a course of action.

U.S. special envoy for Sudan Princeton Lyman offered only a passing reference to the violence in South Kordofan during his Senate testimony on July 14 and, this week, said he could not confirm whether evidence has revealed mass graves in the vicinity of Kadugli, the capital of South Kordofan. The U.S., meanwhile, has preemptively taken a military response off the table. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon continues to indulge in vague exhortations, and the head of U.N. humanitarian operations has said the world can’t really be sure of what’s happening in South Kordofan.

This, however, is simply not true: We do know what’s happening, by virtue of a now-leaked report from U.N. human rights investigators working in Kadugli in June. The report contains 19 pages of accounts of mass graves and brutal actions—from air assaults to arrests to beatings—taken against the Nuba. There is also information from a variety of other sources that corroborates the report. Why isn’t this evidence being taken seriously?

THE U.N. REPORT contains numerous eyewitness accounts of mass graves, gathered independently by U.N. investigators in June. A few examples:

On 10 June, UNMIS [U.N. Mission in Sudan] Human Rights interviewed residents from Murta village, outside of Kadugli Town [the capital of South Kordofan], who stated that they saw fresh mass graves located in a valley southeast of the Murta bus station near the Kadugli police training centre.
[Two men interviewed by UNMIS] reported that, following their release from SAF [Sudan Armed Forces] custody, they saw fresh mass graves between the SAF 14th Division Headquarters and Kadugli Market. On 16 June, UN military observers, while on their way between the SAF 14th Division Headquarters and Kadugli Market in an attempt to verify the existence of these mass graves, were arrested, stripped of their clothes, and believed that they were about to be executed when a senior SAF officer intervened.
On 22 June, an UNMIS independent contractor reported witnessing SAF elements fill a mass grave in Al Gardut Locality in Tillo with dead bodies. She reported that SAF elements transported the bodies to the site, dumped them in the grave and used a bulldozer to cover the grave.

Bolstering these reports, the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) recently published dramatic photography taken July 4 that shows three parallel mass gravesites, each approximately 16 feet by 80 feet. It also captured images of heavy earth-moving equipment and many white bags piled up near the gravesites, all consistent with human proportions.

Of course, we can’t say for sure who or what is in either the bags or what seem clearly to be graves—but, given the violence committed again them, it’s reasonable to guess it’s the bodies of Nuba. Consider that, on June 20, some 7,000 Nuba who had sought U.N. protection were forcibly removed from international custody by government security agents disguised as Red Crescent workers. The U.N. still doesn’t know where these people are. Then, there are the victims of Khartoum’s ongoing aerial assault throughout the Nuba Mountains, which the U.N. report from June details:

Since the eruption of the conflict, the SAF has carried out daily aerial bombardments into the Nuba Mountains and in several towns and villages populated by Nubans. The consequences of these bombardments on the Nuban people and in particular civilians, including women and children, are devastating. They have resulted in significant loss of life, destruction of properties, and massive displacement. UNMIS Human Rights has received photographs of mangled and mutilated bodies of civilians, some cut into halves, including women and children.

The consequences of such bombings were also described in a July 13 dispatch in England’s The Independent:

“The injuries are horrifying,” said the mission doctor who comes from upstate New York, “a girl with her feet blown off, another with her abdomen sliced open.” The victims pouring in from the villages in Sudan’s Nuba mountains were being bombed by their own government, he discovered. Grass thatch villages were being turned to charnel houses as an air force dropped bombs from the back of ageing cargo planes. The government in Khartoum insists it is targeting armed rebels but the Antonovs it is using are non-military aircraft and are randomly destructive.

John Ashworth of the Sudan Ecumenical Forum and a close observer of Sudan for more than 25 years—he is based in Juba, the capital of the newly independent South—also reports that recent conversations with the Nuba have a frightening congruence:

The conflict in South Kordofan continues, even if it is not so much in the news these days. I have just this minute talked to three Nuba, including one very old friend, who found their way separately to Juba with firsthand news of Kauda, Kadugli and Dilling. All confirm that the targeting of Nuba and suspected SPLM sympathisers is continuing. These days it is Arab militia rather than government forces which are searching vehicles and removing people on the road between the Nuba Mountains and El Obeid. Security forces in El Obeid continue to search for “SPLM sympathisers” and anyone who has come from the conflict area, and Nuba report that they don’t even feel safe in Khartoum. There is still a feeling that educated people are being singled out. (E-mail received July 13)

YET U.S. AND U.N. officials continue to speak ambiguously or insufficiently about South Kordofan. Citing unspecified U.S. intelligence assets, Princeton Lyman has said of the SSP photos, “We can’t confirm the conclusion in the Sentinel project that there are mass graves in Kadugli.” This claim could mean that U.S. surveillance has not been directed at the particular site captured on film, but Lyman also said of the white bags also visible in the surveillance, “[W]e see those same items in those same places before the fighting started” in early June—which would seem to imply that U.S. surveillance has been ongoing. Problem being, SSP has photographic evidence from June 7 and June 17 indicating that the white bags were not there. (Putting aside the question of why the accounts from Lyman and SSP are so different, one has to ask what the excavated sites might be, if not graves. Lyman, however, offered no alternative explanation.) Also, in more than 3,000 words of Senate testimony last week, Lyman said, “We are extremely concerned by credible allegations of targeted and ethnic-based killings and other gross human rights abuses [in South Kordofan]. These abuses must end, an investigation must be conducted.” That’s just 27 words on the matter.

Moreover, Valerie Amos, the head of humanitarian operations for the U.N., claimed on July 15 that “[w]e do not know whether there is any truth to the grave allegations of extra-judicial killings, mass graves and other grave violations in South Kordofan”—despite her own organization’s new report on those very allegations. Then, there’s Hillary Clinton, who, in early July, according to Agence France-Presse, “expressed concern over a recent flare-up of violence in the [South Kordofan] region, which she said ‘cannot be allowed to return and jeopardise the larger peace.’” Clinton made no mention of the evidence of atrocities, and her language suggests that the governing U.S. priority is not the immediate fate of the Nuba people.

To be sure, the “concern” expressed by the U.S. and U.N. is warranted, but it’s far from a satisfactory response. That response should entail putting considerable pressure—pressure that I’ve outlined before—on Khartoum to stop what it is doing in South Kordofan. Somehow, though, both current evidence and the echoes of mass atrocities in the not-too-distant past aren’t finding an audience in Washington, New York, or Europe. Or, worse, they are being ignored. Why can’t the world find its voice—or its conscience? We have seen this play before, and we know that it will end terribly.

Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College and author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.