North Africa, West Asia

Does anyone remember the chemical attacks on Sudanese civilians?

In 2016, Omar al-Bashir's government committed yet another war crime in Darfur by using poisonous gas against civilians - and got away with it.

Sabrîna Azad
13 May 2020
Sudan's Rapid Support Forces (RSF) march in Khartoum, Sudan, May 13, 2017
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Picture by Mohamed Babiker/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved

There was a time when Darfur was all the rage among western, and particularly American, policy-makers. According to Richard Cockett, the SaveDarfurCoalition was once “the most politically inclusive and effective foreign-policy lobby group on Africa since the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s.” But by 2016, when former Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir carried out chemical attacks in the Jebel Marra region, Darfur was far from the spotlight.

Indeed, while much media attention is rightfully given to the Syrian Arab victims of Assadist chemical warfare as well as Iraqi Kurds on the annual anniversary of the Halabja massacre, practically no coverage has been dedicated to the Bashir regime’s chemical attacks against Darfuri civilians. “The evidence of chemical weapons use provided in 2016 by Amnesty International is overwhelming,” long-time Sudan researcher Eric Reeves has stressed. “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that non-Arab/African lives in Darfur are suffering from a shocking moral discounting, the source of which is a ghastly combination of narrow self-interest and racism. The hypocrisy is beyond reckoning…or forgiving.”

The use of chemical warfare in Jebel Marra by the Bashir regime should not be seen as an isolated massacre but as a crime against humanity within a larger context of genocide in Darfur. Like many other countries in Africa, Sudan flirted with democratization during the last two decades of the 20th century. However, the push towards anti-authoritarianism never fully materialized and ultimately provided the Sudanese people, to quote Amir Idris, “neither a lasting peace nor a sustainable democracy.”

No coverage has been dedicated to the Bashir regime’s chemical attacks against Darfuri civilians

The failures of the post-colonial Sudanese state have been particularly evident in Darfur, located in the western region of the country. Darfur was an independent state in 1650-1874 and 1898-1916; it became part of Turco-Egyptian Sudan in 1874 and then Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, which became the Republic of Sudan, in 1956. Idris continues: “The violent political conflicts in the Sudan are manifestations of legacies of the past, namely slavery and colonialism.”

Despite it being presented as the only glue that could unite the numerous tribes in Sudan, the hegemonic status of the north’s Arabized culture was, prior to counter-revolutionary violence by Khartoum, opposed peacefully by marginalized groups in the periphery — such as the non-Arab Muslims of the west and the Christians of the south (eventually leading to South Sudan’s independence). “In the 1980s, women and men in the south led non-violent protests against the regime of Sudanese dictator Gaafar Nimeiry,” note Nisrin Elamin and Tahani Ismail. “This history of non-violent resistance, led by women (and men) in South Sudan, Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and Eastern Sudan, has purposefully been erased and written out of Sudan's history books and public memory.”

Following Sudanese independence in 1956, proxy wars between Sudan, Chad, and Libya stirred chaos in Darfur. Many Darfuri Arabs began taking up the Arab supremacist ideology espoused by Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi — a reality which was later weaponized by the Sudanese government, which itself sought to institutionalize and intertwine Arabism and Islamism, as it armed nomadic Arab militias on horseback known as the janjaweed. The logic behind the regime’s policy of supporting the janjaweed, a separate entity from the military, is clear. As one Human Rights Watch report details: “Distrusting the armed forces, many of whom were originally from Darfur, the Sudanese government recruited the ‘Janjaweed’ militias as the main ground forces for the government’s counterinsurgency campaign in Darfur.”

At the start of the 21st century, by which time Omar al-Bashir had already risen to power, the conflict in Darfur erupted into all-out war, as scattered Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa (non-Arab ethnic groups in Darfur) resistance movements joined forces to form a relatively cohesive rebel front against the Bashir regime and allied janjaweed militias. “By the beginning of 2003,” state Julie Flint and Walex de Waal, “Jebel Marra was surrounded by government forces and under attack from government-supported militias supported by Antonov bombers and helicopter gunships.” In the subsequent years, the war quickly morphed into a state-sanctioned genocide against Darfur’s non-Arab population.

By late 2015, a government front consisting of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), Rapid Support Forces (RSF), and the janjaweed began strategically encircling Jebel Marra. Echoing the Grozny doctrine used by Russia to first crush Chechnya and later Syria, the vast majority of regime assaults on Jebel Marra leading up to the chemical attacks “began with aerial bombardment followed by the arrival of ground forces … [who] would attack the village, kill civilians, and forcibly displace the population.”

The available evidence strongly points to the use of “poisonous gas” between January and September 2016 by the Sudanese government under Omar al-Bashir, despite Sudan being a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention forbidding the use of such weapons. According to an Amnesty International investigative report released in 2016, 52 residents of Jabal Marra — either survivors of the attacks or those who took care of them — provided substantial proof to defend the allegation, which was found credible by multiple chemical weapons experts. “Some of the most telling evidence came from the testimony of the many victims who had escaped bomb, rocket, and gun attacks without any injuries,” explains Jonathan Loeb at The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “only to develop wounds hours or days later.”

Hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced during the first seven months of 2016 due to the horrors unleashed in Darfur

Many, if not most, of the victims were children. In the damning Amnesty report, Salmah, a thirty-year-old Darfuri, described the chemical bombing from aircrafts: “It smells worse than rotten eggs… Everyone was vomiting and coughing... My youngest child was walking before the attack. Now she is only crawling.” Iraqi Kurdish survivors of Saddam Hussein’s chemical assaults also compared the smell of the chemical agent(s) used against them to the smell of rotten eggs — a telltale sign.

Based on numbers provided by the UN Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced during the first seven months of 2016 due to the horrors unleashed in Darfur. Yet the Bashir regime’s use of chemical weapons with impunity has implications far beyond violently displacing civilians; it serves as a reminder that international law means nothing if the international community does not actually enforce it. Arms embargoes imposed by the UN Security Council on both state and non-state actors in Darfur were ultimately ineffective. “Chemical weapons are being used against Darfuris,” read a headline by the Guardian at the time. “This is a war crime.”

The chemical assault on Jebel Marra was indeed a war crime, but the label itself did not scare Omar al-Bashir away from committing such a violation when dictatorial counterparts like Bashar al-Assad have gotten away with the same in Syria.

The transnational slogan “We are not free until we are all free” rings especially true in today’s world, where the price of inaction in one place means a green light for the next chemical tyrant. In practice, this call for liberation will require the active dismantling of selective solidarity — for victims of weapons of mass destruction anywhere to be seen as worthy of justice, not just those whose tragedy is trending on social media.

The chemical attacks in Darfur are the latest in a series of atrocities against a people who, for too long, have only suffered. “We want a better life, without war or bombing,” exclaimed one Darfuri woman in 2019, during the Sudanese revolution that ultimately ousted Bashir from power. “In Darfur we were murdered like dogs.”

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