An Amnesty International investigation has gathered horrific evidence of the repeated use of what are believed to be chemical weapons against civilians, including very young children, by Sudanese government forces in one of the most remote regions of Darfur over the past eight months.
Using satellite imagery, more than 200 in-depth interviews with survivors and expert analysis of dozens of appalling images showing babies and young children with terrible injuries, the investigation indicates that at least 30 likely chemical attacks have taken place in the Jebel Marra area of Darfur since January 2016. The most recent was on September 9.
“The scale and brutality of these attacks is hard to put into words. The images and videos we have seen in the course of our research are truly shocking; in one a young child is screaming with pain before dying; many photos show young children covered in lesions and blisters. Some were unable to breathe and vomiting blood,” said Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s Director of Crisis Research.
“It is hard to exaggerate just how cruel the effects of these chemicals are when they come into contact with the human body. Chemical weapons have been banned for decades in recognition of the fact that the level of suffering they cause can never be justified. The fact that Sudan’s government is now repeatedly using them against their own people simply cannot be ignored and demands action.”
Based on testimony from caregivers and survivors, Amnesty International estimates that between 200 and 250 people may have died as a result of exposure to the chemical weapons agents, with many – or most – being children.
Hundreds more survived attacks but in the hours and days after exposure to the chemicals developed symptoms including severe gastrointestinal conditions involving bloody vomiting and diarrhea; blistering and rashes on skin which reportedly hardened, changed color and fell off; eye problems including complete loss of vision; and respiratory problems which were reported to be the most common cause of death.
One woman in her twenties was injured by shrapnel when a bomb which omitted a toxic cloud of smoke fell inside her village. She and her baby became sick and six months later they are still suffering from the effects.
“When [the bomb] landed there was some flames and then dark smoke…Immediately it caused vomiting and dizzying…My skin is not normal. I still have headaches, even after I took the medicine…The baby is not recovering…he is swollen…he has blisters and wounds…they said he would get better…but it is not working.”
Another woman in her thirties was at home with her children in the village of Burro when it was attacked. She told Amnesty International that she saw several bombs discharge black smoke which then turned blue.
“Several bombs fell around the village and in the hills…Most of my kids are sick from the smoke of the bombardment…They got sick on the day of the attack…They vomited and they had diarrhea…They were coughing a lot…Their skin turned dark like it was burned.”
Many of the victims told Amnesty International that they had no access to medicine and were being treated using a combination of salt, limes and local herbs.
One man helped to care for many people in his village and neighboring villages who he believed had been exposed to chemicals. He told Amnesty International that he had been helping to care for victims of the conflict in Jebel Marra since it began in 2003 and had never seen anything like these ailments before.
Nineteen of those who he cared for died, including children, within a month of exposure. He said that all those who died experienced major changes to the skin. About half had wounds that turned green and the other half had skin fall off and weeping blisters appear.
The chemical weapons agents were reportedly delivered by bombs dropped from planes and rockets. The vast majority of survivors reported that the smoke released when the bomb or rocket exploded changed color between five and 20 minutes after release. Most witnesses said it started very dark and then became lighter. Every survivor said that the smoke smelled noxious.
Amnesty International presented its findings to two independent chemical weapons experts. Both concluded that the evidence strongly suggested exposure to vesicants, or blister agents, such as the chemical warfare agents sulfur mustard, lewisite or nitrogen mustard.
“This suspected use of chemical weapons represents not only a new low in the catalogue of crimes under international law by the Sudanese military against civilians in Darfur, but also a new level of hubris by the government towards the international community,” said Tirana Hassan.
“The use of chemical weapons is a war crime. The evidence we have gathered is credible and portrays a regime that is intent on directing attacks against the civilian population in Darfur without any fear of international retribution.”
The suspected chemical attacks come amid a large-scale military offensive launched in January 2016 by Sudanese forces in Jebel Marra against the Sudan Liberation Army/Abdul Wahid (SLA/AW) who they accuse of ambushing military convoys and attacking civilians.
In the eight months since the offensive was launched, Amnesty International has documented scores of instances where government forces deliberately targeted civilians and civilian property.
Survivors and local human rights monitors provided the names of 367 civilians, including 95 children who were killed in Jebel Marra by government forces in the first six months of this year. Many people, including children, also died as a result of starvation, dehydration or a lack of medical care in the aftermath of attacks.
Using satellite imagery, Amnesty International can confirm that 171 villages have been destroyed or damaged in the last eight months of the military campaign. The overwhelming majority of these had no formal armed opposition presence at the time they were attacked.
The attacks were also characterized by gross human rights violations including the systematic bombing of civilians, killings of men, women and children, the abduction and rape of women, forced displacement of civilians and looting.
The evidence documenting all these attacks has been organized and presented via an interactive digital platform designed by SITU Research in collaboration with Amnesty International.
“Scorched earth, mass rapes, killings and bombs – these are the same war crimes being committed in Darfur as in 2004 when the world first woke up to what was happening. This region has been stuck in a catastrophic cycle of violence for more than 13 years, nothing has changed except that the world has stopped watching,” said Tirana Hassan.
“Absolutely no effective measures have ever been put in place to protect civilians despite being under the watch of a joint AU and UN peacekeeping mission. Peace talks and agreements have brought no security or respite for the Darfuri people. So far, the international community’s response has been deplorable. It cannot continue to avert its eyes in the face of such horrific and endless abuses.”
Amnesty International is calling on the UN Security Council to:
- Apply sufficient political pressure on the government of Sudan to ensure that peacekeepers and humanitarian agencies are allowed to access remote populations like that in Jebel Marra;
- Ensure the current arms embargo is strictly implemented and extended to cover the whole country.
- Urgently investigate the use of chemical weapons and, if there is sufficient admissible evidence, prosecute all those suspected of responsibility.
- Credible information about the impact of the violence on the civilian population inside Jebel Marra is extremely difficult to find. Restrictions on access imposed by the government means no journalist, human rights investigator or humanitarian actor has been permitted to conduct any assessment of the area in 2016.
- Amnesty International conducted research for this report remotely, interviewing 235 people by phone. Local intermediaries helped identify and contact survivors. Interviews were in depth and lasted between 30-120 minutes. Many individuals were interviewed on multiple occasions.
- At the end of July 2016, the UN estimated that a quarter of a million people may have been displaced by violence in Jebel Marra. Many fled to the nearest UN/AU peacekeeping base in Sortini on the northern edge of Jebel Marra.
- The interactive digital platform designed by SITU Research allows geo-spatial information, satellite imagery, witness testimony and photographs to be viewed in a single interface. This tool is intended to provide a spatial and temporal account of previously undocumented violations by synthesizing disparate assets into a single digital interface. The goal of this collaboration and the platform itself is to render visible the developments and scale of ongoing human rights violations in a remote and inaccessible part of Sudan.
- The latest Amnesty Decoders project, launching next week, will call on digital volunteers to help analyze satellite imagery from Darfur and identify whether villages appear to have been attacked, damaged, or destroyed.