Bombs landed on civilians, and then their skin fell off
by PETER DOERRIE
The conflict in Darfur is now well into its second decade. Since 2003, the Sudanese military and various allied militias have fought rebels in this part of western Sudan, one of the multiple fronts in the country’s several ongoing civil wars.
Violence directed at civilians has been sad routine in this conflict since the beginning. Khartoum has been accused of targeting civilians, hospitals and villages in a deliberate strategy to undermine the rebels’ base of support.
But a new report by Amnesty International levels additional charges against the Sudanese regime — the alleged use of chemical weapons, most likely mustard gas.
The report, Scorched Earth, Poisoned Air, details dozens of attacks that took place during the Sudanese government’s 2016 offensive in Jebel Marra, a volcanic massif in central Darfur measuring around 2,000 square miles that rises to almost 10,000 feet at its highest point.
Jebel Marra is the traditional homeland of the Fur people and the original stronghold of Darfur’s anti-government rebels. Most of the attacks closely resemble previous government assaults characterized by the indiscriminate use of conventional weapons aimed at terrorizing local populations.
But a subset of attacks identified by Amnesty International indicate the use of chemical weapons. These bombs have emitted colored smoke instead of exploding in a hail of shrapnel. Afterward, those nearby suffer extreme nausea, will vomit and often develop blisters on their skin.
The symptoms “appear to be the result of chemical exposure,” one expert consulted by Amnesty International said. “Much of the photographic and testimonial evidence is consistent with vesicant, or blister agent, exposure. Agents in this class include sulphur mustard, lewisite, and nitrogen mustard.”
Sulfur mustard is more commonly known as mustard gas, a chemical substance first weaponized on a large scale by Germany during World War I.
Exposure to skin will result in large and painful blisters, or in the lungs when inhaled, making protection by anything less than a full hazmat suit ineffective. The report includes graphic first-person accounts and horrifying imagery of children with these symptoms.
“ My [three-year-old] son, he was not injured,” one witness to a government bombing attack told Amnesty International. “But since the day of the attack he started coughing and had difficulty breathing, and he started vomiting and having diarrhea … and then his skin started falling off.”
Mustard gas is not immediately deadly in many cases, but it is a comparatively stable substance and will stick to clothes, buildings and soil. This makes it a frightening area-denial weapon, and both sides in World War I deployed mustard gas in exactly this manner.
You are unlikely to be able to brew together a jug of the stuff with a home chemistry set, but its production is less complicated than nerve gas — and it’s certainly within the capabilities of a determined government. The chemicals and tools involved in producing mustard gas are common in industrial plants.
Amnesty International alleges that as many as 250 victims, many of them children, died as a result of exposure to the chemical agents.
It should be noted that this is not the first time the Sudanese government has been accused of gassing its own citizens. Similar reports go back to at least 1999. Attacks consistent with the use of chemical weapons in the Nuba Mountains have occurred as recently as March 2016, according to the journalist network Nuba Reports.
“The people who were exposed to the smoke said they became paralyzed, had blurred vision, vomiting and some with diarrhoea,” Dr. Tom Catena, a surgeon in the town of Gidel, told Nuba Reports regarding a 2012 attack.
It’s extremely difficult to send journalists and researchers into Sudan’s battlefields. But it’s not unrealistic to believe Khartoum would deploy mustard gas, despite being party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits the use, production and stockpiling of chemical weapons.
The regime of Pres. Omar Al Bashir has been accused of routinely committing war crimes in the pursuit of his many civil wars, with Al Bashir himself being technically a fugitive after the International Criminal Court in The Hague indicted him in 2009 on charges of crimes against humanity.
So why would the Sudanese regime deploy this kind of weapon — and what could be done to stop them? The first part of this question is relatively easy to answer.
Because it can.
The Sudanese army and allied groups have shown no restraint in their wars with the various insurgencies opposing them. Motivated by a racist-religious ideology which elevates Arab-Muslims above black Christians and animists, the regime has been in perpetual war with one group or another for decades.
Battered by an economic crisis, Khartoum put a lot of hopes into its 2016 offensive, as the rebels are currently without a prominent regional sponsor.
Mustard gas is also relatively ineffective as a battlefield weapon, as the insurgents in Jebel Mara are highly mobile and dispersed. But it is highly effective in terrorizing civilians into fleeing their villages, thus robbing the rebels of their support base.
In fact, Amnesty International writes that as a result of the offensive, the rebels now “control less territory than at any point since the start of the conflict.”
We also can’t rule out similar events in Syria as contributing to the Sudanese government’s willingness to deploy chemical weapons. The well-documented use of nerve gas in Syria didn’t result in any meaningful military intervention, despite threats by the Obama administration to the contrary.
With Darfur’s brutal conflict receiving even less attention that Syria’s civil war, Sudan’s leaders may have decided they could simply get away with it.
Chemical weapons are horrific in their effects — both physically and psychologically —but their use is only symptomatic of the broader suffering of civilians in the Darfur conflict and elsewhere in Sudan.
It’s unlikely this suffering will end anytime soon, although the international community certainly would have the capability to intervene with enough political will.
Sudan spends around 70 percent of its national budget on its military and is already a highly indebted country. Khartoum has the local industrial capabilities to produce small arms and ammunition, but it must import complicated hardware such as transport aircraft and bombers.
An arms embargo could seriously harm the regime’s ability to wage war. Likewise, the oil industry dominates Sudan’s exports, a trade that could equally be undermined by an embargo.
Sudan would also unlikely resist a serious military intervention, provided it didn’t pose an existential threat to the regime. After all, Darfur is currently home to a joint African Union and United Nations peacekeeping mission.
However, these troops have suffered from inadequate manpower, and have on frequent occasions been intimidated by Khartoum and its paramilitary allies into reneging on their mandate to protect civilians.
But the most likely consequence of Sudan’s use of chemical weapons, apart from becoming yet another potential count in a hypothetical trial for war crimes against Al Bashir, is … nothing at all.
Due to a deadlock within the U.N. Security Council, where Sudan retains powerful allies, the regime is unlikely to receive more than the diplomatic equivalent of a finger wagging.