Sudan: Civilians Under Fire

By Roy Gutman

May 31, 2001

A fresh burst of conflict violates a ceasefire-and poses new problems for U.S. policy in Africa Even as it was announcing a May 25 ceasefire in its 18-year-old civil war, the government of Sudan was sending ground troops and helicopter gunships into the Nuba Mountains in a major operation against civilians, according to well-placed humanitarian-aid sources in the region.

TROOPS TORCHED THE HUTS, sent civilians fleeing for their lives and displaced thousands of Muslim and Christian civilians in a region it did not control, a source in one aid group said. The government's actions came on the eve of renewed negotiations with the Sudanese opposition in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi and just as Secretary of State Colin Powell was traveling into the immediate region with plans for a new, more activist U.S. policy for Sudan.

The operation poses a major challenge to U.S. diplomatic efforts in Sudan and reveals a serious weakness in America's intelligence-monitoring capability. Powell and aides told NEWSWEEK they were unaware of the offensive and the destruction of the habitat of a large number of civilians. And even after checking all available sources, they still could not confirm details five days later, a senior official accompanying Powell said aboard his plane Wednesday night.

First word about the offensive came from John Garang, head of biggest faction of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, who told NEWSWEEK in Nairobi last Sunday that 14 villages in the area of Heiban had been torched and more than 5,000 households destroyed with residents having to flee into the mountains, Garang said.

U.S. officials accompanying Powell said they had no immediate information and, even after consulting the U.S. missions in the region, were unable to provide any confirmation. Humanitarian-aid experts, described by top Powell aides as highly reliable, used their own independent sources to confirm the assault Wednesday.

They said between 2,000 and 5,000 families were burned out of their modest quarters. With households averaging five or six people, this means between 10,000 and 30,000 people were forced to flee.

There were no major attacks on military targets, says an informed source, who calls it "very much a civilian-targeted" operation. The source says there was no way of knowing the number of casualties. "If people are wounded, they generally don't survive" due to the paucity of medical facilities, the source adds.

Unlike much of southern Sudan, where a mostly Christian and animist population is under frequent assault by the fundamentalist Islamic regime in Khartoum, Heiban county has both Arabic-speaking Muslims and Christians who do not want to submit to the Khartoum regime and its insistence on applying Islamic religious law. It has become a major target by the government following the discovery of oil in the area.

According to Garang, the Sudanese government dropped bombs over Tonj last Saturday and launched an offensive in three places. He said five brigades of troops-more than 10,000 soldiers-attacked in the Nuba Mountains, and they also attacked the SPLA in the southern Blue Nile and in Bar el Ghazal. (The SPLA has since faxed a statement to Reuters's Cairo office claiming its fighters killed 400 government troops and won three battles on the southern front lines Tuesday.)

"This is a war against the civilian population. Not against the SPLA as such," Garang told NEWSWEEK.

The more activist U.S. policy on Sudan is the result of strong pressure by a combination of evangelical Christian groups, the Congressional Black Caucus and the human-rights community. A policy review is nearly completed, but Powell has already announced that Andrew Natsios, the director of the Agency for International Development, will be special coordinator for food aid in Sudan.

A special envoy- experienced diplomat Chester Crocker is reported to be under consideration by Powell-will be named to coordinate U.S. diplomacy and overall policy in Sudan.

While in Nairobi, Powell announced that the United States will send 40,000 tons of grain to both the government-controlled north and southern Sudan in an effort to avert a looming famine. The United States also has released some $3 million in assistance to the National Democratic Alliance, an umbrella group in which Garang's SPLA is a major component.

Despite the heightened U.S. interest, Powell declined to receive Garang while in Nairobi. Instead, he sent Natsios to talk with both Garang and the Sudanese ambassador. Powell's next step is unclear. But it's painfully obvious that one of Washington's biggest challenges will be getting the kind of real-time data that its special envoy will need to proceed.