Published September 2001





President George W. Bush's 20 September 2001 address to Congress and the American People, responding to the horrific atrocities of 11 September, declared a war on terrorism. The point was also made that it was not just terrorism associated with Islamic fundamentalism that was to be targeted, but all forms of terrorism. One can only but hope that President Bush's declaration, the result of an unprecedented tragedy, may also result in a solution to one of the world's longest-running civil wars, the conflict in Sudan.

The United States must be encouraged as part of its international campaign against terrorism to end the terrorism central to the Sudanese conflict. It is now also clear that Sudan has sought to cooperate in the fight against terrorism for several years. Washington is uniquely placed to do so given its previously close relationship with the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), a group intimately associated with terrorism within Sudan. The American government definitions of terrorism and international terrorism are clear. The relevant definitions come from Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f (d):

  • The term terrorism means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.
  • The term international terrorism means terrorism involving citizens of the territory of more than one country.
Civil war has raged off and on in Sudan since 1955 and has been fought between various Sudanese governments and rebels in southern Sudan. Since 1983 the principal rebel protagonist has been the SPLA led by John Garang. It is clear that the SPLA has been guilty of widescale terrorism. The list of "noncombatant targets" that have been murderously attacked is all too long. These attacks have included the widespread murder of Sudanese men, women and children, the murder of international relief workers, the shooting down of civilian airliners, indiscriminate mortaring and rocketing of urban areas in southern Sudan, resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths, attacks on food relief barges and fishing boats on the Nile, the torture and execution of southern political opponents, and the laying of landmines. In 2001, the SPLA escalated its campaign and attacked civilian oil targets, claiming to have inflicted "heavy casualties". Africa Watch also reported that the SPLA has also been involved in terrorism in Ethiopia. In one instance, the SPLA murdered over 500 Ethiopian civilians in the lower Omo valley of south-west Ethiopia.

The Murder of Civilians

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Sudan has provided graphic evidence of the SPLA's premeditated use of terrorism against civilians. He documented an incident in which John Garang's SPLA forces attacked two villages in Ganyiel region in southern Sudan. The SPLA murdered 210 villagers, of whom 30 were men, 53 were women and 127 were children. The Special Rapporteur stated that:

"Eyewitnesses reported that some of the victims, mostly women, children and the elderly, were caught while trying to escape and killed with spears and pangas. M.N., a member of the World Food Programme relief committee at Panyajor, lost four of her five children (aged 8-15 years). The youngest child was thrown into the fire after being shot. D.K. witnessed three women with their babies being caught. Two of the women were shot and one was killed with a panga. Their babies were all killed with pangas. A total of 1, 987 households were reported destroyed."

The United States government is clearly aware of this particular incident, having mentioned the massacre, and the SPLA's refusal to account for the incident, in its own Country Reports on Human Rights Practices The Ganyiel incident is sadly only one of many similar instances of SPLA terrorism. Amnesty International, for example, recorded another incident in which SPLA forces lined up 32 women from the village of Pagau, 12 kilometres from Ayod in southern Sudan, and then shot each once in the head. Eighteen children were reported to have been locked in a hut which was then set on fire. Three children who attempted to escape were then shot. The rest burnt to death. In Paiyoi, an area north-east of Ayod, Amnesty International reported that 36 women were burnt to death in a cattle byre. Nine others were clubbed to death by the SPLA. While the methods of killing them may be different there is no difference between the terrorism inherent in the Ganyiel massacres and the American tragedies.

Shooting down of civilian airliners

The SPLA has also admitted the shooting down of civilian airliners within Sudan, incidents involving considerable loss of civilian life. In one instance the SPLA shot down a civilian airliner taking off from Malakal in southern Sudan, killing sixty people. Two days later the SPLA announced it would continue to shoot down civilian aircraft. A further civilian aircraft was shot down with the deaths of thirteen passengers and crew.

The shelling and rocketing of civilians

The American government's own Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, have documented examples of SPLA terrorism, including that the SPLA "conducted indiscriminate mortar and rocket attacks on the southern city of Juba, killing more than 40 civilians and wounding many others. These attacks...seemed intended to terrorize the inhabitants". In another instance, the American government stated that the SPLA had continued the random shelling of Juba, killing over 200 southern civilians. SPLA shelling of civilians has been a feature of the past decade. Similar shelling was reported as recently as 2000. In February 2000, for example, Reuters correspondent Rosalind personally witnessed: "a pillar of smoke rising from the besieged town of Mayom, subject to daily bombardments by rebels as the try to advance eastwards to the oil development."

The murder of aid workers

The SPLA has also murdered dozens of humanitarian aid workers from the mid-1980s onwards. In one attack alone, for example, SPLA gunmen killed 23 relief workers, drivers and assistants. In 1998, the SPLA murdered relief workers in the Nuba mountains, and in 1999 the SPLA murdered four aid workers assisting with a Red Cross project in southern Sudan. Senior American officials have confirmed that: "The SPLA-Mainstream has engaged in.torturing or killing relief personnel". In May 2001, SPLA gunmen shot at an International Committee of the Red Cross airplane, killing one of the pilots.

The use of landmines

The SPLA has also callously and indiscriminately used landmines within civilian areas. Washington's Sudan Country Report on Human Rights Practices, for example, documented that the SPLA "indiscriminately laid land mines on roads and paths, which killed and maimed.civilians." An Africa Watch report stated that SPLA "land mines are planted at well-heads, on roads, near marketplaces, and close to injured people, so that would-be rescuers are blown up."

The New York Times has describing the SPLA as "brutal and predatory", stating that they "have behaved like an occupying army, killing, raping and pillaging" in southern Sudan, and calling SPLA leader John Garang one of Sudan's "pre-eminent war criminals". Eight US-based humanitarian organisations working in Sudan, including CARE, World Vision, Church World Service, Save the Children and the American Refugee Committee also publicly went on record to state that the SPLA has: "engaged for years in the most serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, beatings, arbitrary detention, slavery, etc." Human Rights Watch has additionally commented: "The SPLA has a history of gross abuses of human rights and has not made any effort to establish accountability. Its abuses today remain serious."

Amnesty International has also documented that the SPLA is ruthless in preventing civilians from leaving its areas for refuge in government-controlled areas. In the Nuba mountains, for example, the SPLA imposed a "civilian exclusion zone" around areas it dominated in order to deter civilians leaving. Those leaving were murdered by the SPLA. African Rights has spoken of: "a nihilistic attitude towards civilians and existing social structures."

An even more chilling account, which directly echoes that of African Rights, is provided by Dr Peter Nyaba, a member of the SPLA National Executive Committee. As a former SPLA military officer, Nyaba is in a unique position to describe the behaviour of the SPLA within those areas of Sudan in which it controlled or operated within: "Once they were deployed at the war front, their first victims became civilians, whom they.terrorised, brutalised, raped, murdered and dehumanised."

Turning American military support for the SPLA into pressure for peace

The United States government is in a particularly strong position to dramatically address SPLA terrorism in Sudan. `The Clinton Administration's military, diplomatic and political support for the SPLA has long been an open secret. In its programme of supporting the SPLA, tens of millions of dollars worth of covert American military assistance has been supplied to the rebels. This has included weapons, landmines, logistical assistance, and military training. The British newsletter Africa Confidential has previously confirmed that the SPLA "has already received US help via Uganda" and that United States special forces are on "open-ended deployment" with the rebels. It is clear that according to the United States government definition of terrorism and international terrorism, that the SPLA is a group guilty of both terrorism and international terrorism. The Bush Administration's stated desire to see the end of the funding of terrorist acts must also address the fact that the United States Congress this year voted millions of dollars in assistance to the SPLA.

Rather than supporting violence the American government could be a crucial peace-maker within Sudan. Reversing previous encouragement of the SPLA to continue its violence, Washington could assist in bringing all sides to the conflict towards a negotiated settlement of the conflict, based on the offers of an internationally-monitored referendum on the status of southern Sudan and all-party roundtable constitutional talks that are already on the table. There is no excuse for continuing the war. The Khartoum authorities have repeatedly called on the rebels to accept a ceasefire and enter into peace talks. Khartoum has also repeatedly called upon the international community to urge the rebels to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict. It is a matter of record that it is SPLA rebels who continue to prolong the Sudanese civil war despite considerable international pressure on them to accept a ceasefire and enter into peaceful negotiations. While acknowledging the referendum offer, the SPLA has been reluctant to act upon it.

In keeping with its declared war on terrorism, it would be comparatively easy for the Bush Administration to dramatically de-escalate the awful conflict in Sudan. Washington could go further than just ending any financial and military assistance and actively discourage the use of terrorism by the SPLA. It can also play a central part in pressurising the SPLA into taking the Sudanese peace process seriously. This is an opportunity the United States cannot afford to miss.

Espac Published by The European - Sudanese Public Affairs Council Copyright © David Hoile 2005
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