'Aid agencies in Sudan are helping to complete ethnic cleansing'
"The one-sided humanitarian approach of the international community is inadvertently and tragically helping Bashir to complete his ethnic cleansing”, this says the former UN Chief in Sudan, Mukesh Kapila in an interview with Radio Tamazuj.
After a trip to the most affected areas in Sudan he concludes: ‘Because these humanitarian actors are unable to speak up, or because they’re bringing aid only to selected areas, the failure to provide basic goods to the regions that most need them means that the populations are forced to leave, they become refugees or are displaced somewhere. This, of course, facilitates ethnic cleansing’.
Mukesh Kapila, who is currently heading the British NGO Aegis, says that four million people are affected across the whole borderland of Sudan, ranging from Darfur through Abyei to Nuba and Blue Nile.
He is surprised about the international community. “The international community hasn’t even started doing all it could do. For example, Sudan could be diplomatically isolated. And yet the world behaves, the EU behaves, my own country the United Kingdom behaves as if Sudan is a normal country with which you can have normal diplomatic relations. And that means shaking hands with an indicted mass murderer”.
Kapila has several suggestions for intervention: “Nonetheless, normal business is being conducted. Somebody is buying Sudanese oil - when it flows that is - and somebody is selling Khartoum weapons. Why not increase the regime’s diplomatic isolation, further economic sanctions and push-up other measures if what we really want is for Khartoum not to have the means to wage war against its own population? We need to start acting in a serious, meaningful fashion. If the Antonovs terrorize the population and the ethnic cleansing continues, why not put a no-fly zone in place? Unfortunately, I think that the international community’s policies of neglect and one-sided approaches are now actually helping Bashir to complete his big project of ethnic cleansing”.
Transcript interview of Mukesh Kapila for Radio Tamazuj, January 18, 2012
Host Radio Tamazuj: The special representative for the AEGIS trust and a former UN resident and humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, Doctor Mukesh Kapila is just returning from a 1000 km long trip across the Nuba mountains, Blue Nile and Abyei regions. Radio Tamazuj interviewed him over the phone from Nairobi.
Q: Doctor, could you please explain us what it is that you have witnessed during the course of your field visits?
A: We traveled extensively along Sudan’s border regions, going from the Nuba mountains to the Blue Nile State, right up to the border with Darfur, close to Abyei. In the course of our travels, we witnessed the continuation of the crimes against humanity that president Bashir unleashed in Darfur ten years ago. Crimes that I witnessed as the UN chief, then. And I saw exactly the same tactics being used in the Nuba and the Blue Nile now, where the local residents get bombed by Antonov warplanes everyday. Warplanes that we saw for ourselves in the past few days. There clearly is a scorched-earth policy in effect, which one can witness through the burnt-out villages and the many blackened fields one encounters while traveling through these regions. And we saw a doubling of the malnutrition rate compared to the same period last year, when I last visited the region.
Q: And how are people currently feeding their families? Because I understand that the food security is quite an issue over there right now.
A: Yes. I’m actually also a public health doctor by training and according to the rough assessment I conducted, roughly every child I saw in the Blue Nile and Nuba is now malnourished. It is only a question of whether they are moderately malnourished or severely malnourished. So malnourishment is now universal. They feed themselves by eating the few livestock that are still left or by looking for wild fruits, roots and such. While last year most people could enjoy at least one meal a day, this year, most of them are only having a meal every three days. This pushes a lot of people to try and come out of the mountains as IDPs or refugees, but we saw many mothers and children just sitting by the side of the road, too exhausted to go any further.
Q: And how would you qualify the humanitarian support provided to these three areas you visited? Is there any humanitarian presence at all, right now?
A: Well, there’s very little humanitarian help going in. As you know, one year ago we were promised a so-called tripartite agreement that the African Union, the Arab League and the UN helped broker. The agreement was supposed to open access to the Nuba mountains. Unfortunately, that was a false promise. Not a single grain of cereal has moved into the region as a consequence. Not a single tablet of medicine has actually reached anyone. So that humanitarian access agreement, which brought hope to a lot of people, quite cruelly deceived many. As the agreement provided some sort of alibi to Khartoum, the violence and the crimes against humanity simply continued unaltered and unmonitored. So the only way that aid is going in right now is through neighboring countries. For instance, we saw refugees going into South Sudan to get some food assistance, after which they walked back to their homes in the Nuba mountains in order to share the aid with those they had left behind.
Q: So if I understand well, Khartoum currently doesn’t allow any humanitarian or food aid to reach the affected areas. Who do you think is responsible for that decision. Who do you think is behind that?
A: The government in Khartoum has reneged on the tripartite agreement by putting impossible conditions on the delivery of food aid to the people who needed it the most. The government in Khartoum wants its own proxy security agencies to act in place of the humanitarian organizations and deliver the food themselves. So it’s not surprising that most people in these affected areas do not want to accept such help. What we need right now is much more cross-border assistance to be provided. I think that we are currently facing such a dire humanitarian situation on the ground that all means should be considered in order to help the millions of people affected in the Blue Nile and Nuba mountains to meet their most vital necessities.
Q: And so, with famine, bombings and the destroying of villages, how exactly would you qualify the current clashes? Are these counter-insurgency measures, is this a civil war, a cross border conflict, an international conflict, an ethnic cleansing, a genocide, perhaps? What’s your opinion?
A: What is going on now in the areas that I visited certainly constitute crimes against humanity. We have enough evidence to say that civilians are deliberately targeted, and that this is a crime against humanity. We also know that war crimes have been committed, considering the ways that the weaponry has been used in order to terrorize civilians. The use of the Antonovs to bomb villages and civilian population also falls under that category. Furthermore, we have been very much interested in the hate language that accompanies the attacks. For example, we were informed that the people of the Blue Nile are being called “black plastic bags” and that the people of the Nuba are being nicknamed “cockroaches”. The leadership of Bashir has often been saying that it would clean the Blue Nile state from all the “black plastic bags”, making sure not to leave any “black plastic bags” lie around, and that all the “cockroaches” would need be taken out of the mountains. The hate language that accompanies most of the attacks is amongst the prime evidences of an ethnically-generated ideology. An ethnic ideology. And therefore, there is ethnic cleansing going on. We saw countless fields burnt, villages destroyed and completely depopulated areas from which people have fled from fear being caught in the fighting or dying. People have been living in caves rather than in their own homes. In other words, they have been cleansed off their lands and terrorized off their homeland and their fields. They have also been starved because they’re not able to cultivate. And this has been going on for three ongoing seasons, hence their cropping capacity drastically diminishing. So with bombs off the sky, continuing burning of their fields, this can hardly be anything else but ethnic cleansing. More or less the same as genocide. But in order to decide on this, we are asking that the international community, particularly the African Union and the UN, creates a formal investigation. One similar to that which took place in Darfur after I spoke up and which eventually determined that what happened in Darfur ten years ago was of a genocidal nature, hence enabling the indictments by the ICC. An investigation thus needs to take place in the Nuba mountains and the Blue Nile in order to determine whether the nature of the violence that has been going on for two years now should be considered as crimes against humanity or worse. And if it is not, that is fine. But the only way to determine what exactly is going on would be to set up an independent investigation made up of a duly constituted body acting under UN and African Union instances. And if Khartoum has no worries about what it is doing, then it should not obstruct the conduct of such an enquiry.
Q. One thing that we know for sure is that the governor of South Kordofan, Ahmed Harun, is the same person who directed the crimes against humanity in Darfur in the 2000s. Isn’t that a clear enough indication that perhaps what is happening in Southern Kordofan and perhaps as well in the Blue Nile is quite similar in nature and means to what was taking place in Darfur ten years ago?
A. Absolutely, it’s very clear. The individuals that spread violence in the Blue Nile are the same as those that we saw ten years ago in Darfur. The tactics that are employed are also similar. If anything, they are worse. So at first sight, there is plenty of evidence. However, the Nuba mountains are a quite different a crime scene from the one we found in Darfur back in the days. And as with any other murder scene, each murder scene needs to be investigated in its own right. This is why the enquiry that took place in the context of the Darfur genocide was limited to Darfur and why the mandate of the ICC was limited to the action that took place there. For the moment however, there is no mandate to investigate what is going on in the Nuba mountains. That mandate needs to be given and a separate enquiry needs to be conducted even if we know that the people that are committing these terrible acts are the same that were indicted a couple of years ago.
Q. The comparison with a murder scene doesn’t quite stand however. People keep on dying right now in the Nuba mountains. So do you think that the international community currently meets its obligations and moral duties with regard to the populations that are currently being bombed and abused by the various forces out there. Do you think it’s doing enough?
A. No, I think that the international community is doing nothing. When they manage to have Bashir and others sign a paper agreement, they simply walk away and expect it to be implemented without any independent monitoring verification or even any serious follow-up. Each of such flawed agreements simply provide Khartoum with additional alibis for the continuation of the crimes against humanity that their forces commit. The international community hasn’t even started doing all it could do. For example, Sudan could be diplomatically isolated. And yet the world behaves, the EU behaves, my own country the United Kingdom behaves as if Sudan is a normal country with which you can have normal diplomatic relations. And that means shaking hands with an indicted mass murderer. Nonetheless, normal business is being conducted. Somebody is buying Sudanese oil - when it flows that is - and somebody is selling Khartoum weapons. Why not increase the regime’s diplomatic isolation, further economic sanctions and push-up other measures if what we really want is for Khartoum not to have the means to wage war against its own population? We need to start acting in a serious, meaningful fashion. If the Antonovs terrorize the population and the ethnic cleansing continues, why not put a no-fly zone in place? Unfortunately, I think that the international community’s policies of neglect and one-sided approaches are now actually helping Bashir to complete his big project of ethnic cleansing. So it’s not simply a question of the international community not doing enough. It is possible that what the international community is doing is playing to Bashir’s hand. We now have four million people affected across the whole borderland of Sudan, ranging from Darfur through Abyei to Nuba and Blue Nile. But by taking a piecemeal approach, sector by sector, by sector by sector, making small agreements, which are of course never honored at all, attention is distracted from the fundamental causes of the conflict and the mass murderers in Khartoum get away scot free while the international community remains divided in processes and ambitions between the African Union, the Arab League, the UN and others. It’s not all to say that the international community is not doing efforts; a hell of a lot of work has been going into negotiation and political processes and the AU and the UN should be praised for that, but I think they’re not taking the smartest approach possible. If another agreement is made in Addis next week, I hope it will be a very different one and I hope that there will be independent means of verification on the ground. Meanwhile, it’s important to remember that political processes take time, and that it may be some months or years before a political settlement. Meanwhile, people are dying in big numbers and when a political solution is found, one does wonder whether there will be anyone left on the ground to actually enjoy it, whether or not these borderlands of Sudan will continue to be the multiethnic communities that they were for centuries past, or whether any political agreement will simply result in the completion of Bashir’s grand ethnic cleansing.
Q: Do you think that these aid agencies that are currently working in government controlled areas may perhaps indirectly facilitate ethnic cleansing, meaning that starving people will leave their regions and homelands to obtain food, and that this might facilitate the ethnic cleansing ambitions of the government? Do you think that could be the case?
A: I think that the few international humanitarian organizations that are working in Khartoum-controlled areas are afraid of speaking up in favor of the people in other areas, in case they would suffer from any Khartoum retaliations. I can vouch for that because most of my life as the UN chief in Khartoum a few years ago was spent negotiating on behalf of humanitarian actors. Everyday we had to battle with the Khartoum so-called humanitarian aid ministry whose job was not to facilitate humanitarian work but to obstruct it, which is why its head was indicted by the ICC as well. And I’m sure the same thing is going on as of now in Khartoum-controlled areas because the government is afraid to see independent humanitarian aid taking place. And because these humanitarian actors are unable to speak up, or because they’re bringing aid only to selected areas, the failure to provide basic goods to the regions that most need them means that the populations are forced to leave, become refugees or displaced somewhere. This, of course, facilitates ethnic cleansing. So yes, I think that the one-sided humanitarian approach of the international community is inadvertently and tragically helping Bashir to complete his ethnic cleansing.
Q: So what solutions can one envision to these ongoing conflicts. Do you see any end in sight?
A: I think that one must continue the political process and in the end there can only be a political settlement, even if people keep fighting for a long time. In the end they will have to talk, and one just hopes that they will talk properly and seriously and be held accountable for their agreements before many years have gone by. But meanwhile, even in the most optimistic scenario, the stand-off and the conflict is not going to end in a matter of weeks or months or even perhaps a year or two. And it is during that period that the suffering civilians and population who are being bombed and harassed and starved off their lands will reach the end of their coping capabilities. So even if and when a political settlement is achieved, there will not be many people left to enjoy it. And so I think that while the political process led by the AU should be encouraged and should continue, we should not let it distract us from the more urgent and immediate task of keeping people alive in the border areas such as the Blue Nile and the Nuba mountains.
Q: Is there any message that you would like to convey to the people that are listening to us in these affected areas that you visited.
A: Firstly, I want to salute their courage. What has struck me this time more than during my visit to Nuba last year is how, despite the humanitarian conditions being worse this year than the previous one, the spirit of the people remains high. And this spirit, I have encountered in the mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers and all those that we have met who have always kept emphasizing how fed up they were from running and fleeing. They are chased from one place to another by the fighting and the Antonovs, and they have had enough. And they are going to stay and live or die on their own land. And that courage is something that is both encouraging and remarkable, and these people deserve support. We are talking about ordinary people here - mothers, children, grandmothers - living in caves in the low mountains, or in the bush and scrubs of the Blue Nile. These are the one who are actually ensuring that Bashir’s ethnic cleansing project is currently not completed according to Khartoum’s desire. So my message to them is that I am sorry if the international community is not doing enough. That I’m sorry if we have failed you year after year after year. That I’m sorry that, as the head of the UN ten years ago, I have been representing a world failure that did little to try stopping what happened in Darfur. And that I am sorry if it is happening again now. But there are people around the world who care for you and who will get your message out. You should continue your resistance, and one day the international community will come and support you. But in the end, the responsibility of finding an answer to the many problems that plague Sudan remains in your hands.
Photo: Mukesh Kapila (mukeshkapila.org)