“Just stop the planes.” That was the plea made by the feisty, determined Khadija when I interviewed her in front of the remains of her home in a small village in Sudan’s Southern Kordofan state last week.
If only it could be that simple. It certainly ought to be.
A month earlier a lumbering Sudanese Antonov aircraft had passed overhead and unleashed a deadly cargo of five bombs in rapid succession.
Khadija was at the nearby market at the time and therefore escaped injury. But when she hurried back to her home, pure horror awaited her. One elderly woman, unable to run, had been literally blown apart and Khadija later undertook the grim task of collecting her neighbour’s body parts.
A woman in her twenties, mother to five children and pregnant with her sixth, was cut in half by the vicious and totally unpredictable shrapnel that is the greatest peril of these cruel Antonov bombs.
Khadija also found that her tukul had been burned by the bomb and that all of her clothing and worldly possessions had been destroyed. Another woman, just passing by at the time, lay with a shrapnel injury in her foot.
Khadija’s story is one among very many that I heard. This campaign of death, fear and destruction against the civilian population of Southern Kordofan has been ongoing for close to 20 months now.
Indiscriminate bombs are wantonly rolled out of the back of the Antonovs, flying high above, with no ability to guide them to proper military targets. And, inevitably, many of the bombs fall where civilians live, sleep, grow food, go to market, fetch water, pray or attend school.
I travelled through numerous villages in the parts of Southern Kordofan now under the control of the armed opposition, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – North (SPLA-N) and everywhere the accounts and visible evidence of the aerial bombardments were the same.
Sometimes, fortunately, no one had been hurt. Other times nearly entire families had been killed. There was no community I visited that has been spared. And in none of the sites I inspected was there indication of a valid military target anywhere remotely close by.
A father told me of his 10 and 5-year- old sons who ran to hide under the branches of a fruit tree when they heard the unmistakeable drone of an approaching Antonov in mid-November. This time the bomb fell almost directly beside the tree, killing them both. I saw the damage done, massive branches sheared off the tree and the bomb crater only 2 or 3 metres away.
Another man took me to his home at the top of a hill. On 26 December 2012 he was a short distance away from his own house visiting his brother when the Antonov arrived. His home was in sight, but he could not reach it in time. On its first fly-pass the plane dropped three bombs and then returned to drop another three. The first of that second batch of bombs fell in his compound as he watched helplessly from an adjoining hill top. When the plane had left and he was able to rush to his home he found his mother, wife and 5-month-old daughter all dead.
They had made it to the hoped-for safety of their foxhole, but the bomb itself landed less than a metre from where they were hiding. They did not stand a chance.
Neither did the five people – a woman, her daughter, two nieces and a neighbouring boy – who hoped that a foxhole would keep them safe when an Antonov dropped two bombs on 18 December. It was chilling to stand where they would have been hiding and see how close the bomb had fallen: only four or five paces away.
This relentless campaign of death raining down from the skies has killed or injured untold numbers of people over the past 20 months.
Its impact, however, is more insidious than the harrowing toll of deaths and injuries alone. Because by now the mere mention of an Antonov, let alone the sound of its approach, is a source of panic and terror.
People run for the nearest foxhole (nearly everyone has dug one in their compound) or they run for the safety of rocks and caves in the region’s Nuba Mountains. And they hide and they wait.
And everything about their lives is turned upside down. While fleeing and hiding they cannot tend crops. They cannot look out for livestock. And day by day, therefore, food supplies have dwindled to nothing.
Add to that the Sudanese government’s cruel refusal to allow independent humanitarian access to this area so that food and other relief can be distributed and the gravity of this crisis has become beyond measure.
There is absolutely no doubt that this indefensible bombing campaign violates international humanitarian law – the repeated indiscriminate air attacks, as well as possibly direct attacks on civilians, by the Sudanese armed forces, constitute war crimes. So why does it attract so little international attention? Security Council resolutions urge and encourage but do not condemn and deplore what is happening. The Sudanese government plays games with UN, African Union and other officials, promising that aid access will open up, but consistently failing to follow through.
I was asked “why” at every turn. “Why don’t we matter? Why doesn’t anyone care about us?”
Or, as Khadija put it, why doesn’t someone just stop the planes. That is precisely what has to happen.