Conflict & Justice

Sudan: Clooney's group makes new charges of mass graves

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Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir's government is resisting U.S. and UN aid.
Sudanese children take shelter in caves in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan province as government bombers pass overhead on July 13, 2011. Thousands of people from the Nuba region have fled to caves after repeated attacks by Sudan government forces on civilian areas.

Credit:

Trevor Snapp

BOSTON — The Sudan government killed large numbers of civilians in troubled South Kordofan state and the bodies were buried in mass graves by the Sudanese Red Crescent Society, according to the Satellite Sentinel Project.

The new charges and evidence of mass human rights atrocities committed by the Sudan government in South Kordofan province are expected to increase calls on the United Nations to take action to protect civilian lives.

“There is no doubt that multiple mass graves were dug and filled in South Kordofan,” said Nathaniel Raymond, director of operations for the Satellite Sentinel Project at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. “The only question now is what is the international community going to do about it?”

Raymond analyzed the high altitude images and said the photos corroborate eyewitness reports of mass killings and burials.

“These bodies needed disposing of because of alleged systematic mass killings by the government of Sudan,” said Raymond to GlobalPost. “The images are consistent with eyewitness reports of the deaths of many, many people … The satellite images and reports of survivors and witnesses consistently told the same story of slaughter.”

More from GlobalPost: Sudan accused of war crimes in South Kordofan

Eight mass graves have been identified in South Kordofan by the satellite project, which was set up by Hollywood actor George Clooney to monitor events in Sudan using aerial photos as well as on the ground reports. “Evidence of the Burial of Human Remains in Kadugli" is the satellite project's report issued today.

Large numbers of ethnic Nuba people in South Kordofan state were rounded up by the Sudan army and taken away in trucks, according to human rights reports. The trucks returned empty and the people have not been seen again, according to eyewitnesses who spoke to the United Nations and human rights groups.

Civilians suspected of opposing the Sudan government were rounded up from their homes in Kadugli and other towns in South Kordofan province, according to the eyewitness reports. People were also detained at roadblocks, according to the reports.

Sudan President Omar al-Bashir’s government has already been accused of carrying out mass killings in South Kordofan state in a United Nations report issued earlier this month. The U.N. report said that atrocities had been committed on both sides, but it charged the army's actions were "especially egregious" and included summary executions, aerial bombardments and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods.

South Kordofan is an oil producing province that borders the newly independent nation of South Sudan. South Kordofan's Nuba people in recent elections voted for the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement, the opposition party aligned with the government of South Sudan.

It is alleged that Bashir’s government is trying to wipe out support for that party by arresting and killing members and any Nuba people believed to be supporters. This amounts to ethnic cleansing in South Kordofan, charge human rights groups.

Bashir’s government in Khartoum denies the charges, claiming that it is merely trying to disarm anti-government rebels. There are some armed rebels in the Nuba Mountains who are fighting the Sudan Army, but the presence of eight mass graves, three of which measure some 75 by 15 feet, points to the killings of a large number of civilians rather than a small band of rebels.

The Bashir government denies the new charges of abuse and dismisses the satellite project's new photos of mass graves.

“The pictures do not show the truth,” said Rabie A. Atti, a Sudanese government spokesman, to the New York Times. “Behind them I think it is the rebels that falsify such rumors, to bring the international community to intervene in this domestic crisis.”  

Bashir's government Tuesday announced a two-week ceasefire in South Kordofan, according to Reuters. The government statement expressly forbid independent journalists and international aid organizations from operating in the area. The government said that only the Sudanese Red Crescent Society could work in the area. 

The Sudanese Red Crescent Society dug mass graves and filled them with corpses, according to the satellite project. It is within the mandate of the Red Cross or Red Crescent to bury dead bodies during a conflict, according to the Geneva Conventions. However, according to human rights advocates, the question is whether all the bodies were buried according to internationally approved procedures, which call for bodies to be identified where possible and buried individually in a respectful manner.

One eyewitness reported seeing a yellow front-end loader dump a bucketful of five or six bullet-ridden, bloody bodies into a hole while two Sudanese Red Crescent workers looked on. Other eyewitnesses reported seeing bodies doused with fuel and set ablaze. And an eyewitness reported seeing men dressed in brown prison uniforms alongside Sudanese Red Crescent workers, throwing bodies into two mass graves on June 8. The use of conscripted prison labor to bury bodies could constitute a violation of the Geneva Conventions, say human rights advocates.

The Red Crescent officials are not accused of the killings, although some Nuba witnesses charge that people posing as Red Crescent workers had been questioning and harrassing civilians. But the Red Crescent of Sudan is alleged to have disposed of the bodies improperly in mass graves.

The Red Crescent delivered at least 415 body bags and 2,000 plastic tarps in South Kordofan before the killing began on June 5, according to International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent documents. The Red Crescent has stated to Sudanese media and in its own reports that it has been involved in retrieving and disposing of bodies.

Acting on instructions from the South Kordofan state government, the Red Crescent used an excavator to dig large pits that were filled with white bags or tarps containing objects consistent with bodies and later covered by earth, the satellite project charges.

More from GlobalPost: Sudan violence amounts to war crimes, say rights groups

“The evidence against the Sudanese government continues to compound and has now become impossible to dismiss,” said John Prendergast, a director of the Satellite Sentinel Project and co-founder of the anti-genocide group, Enough Project.

“It is time for the international community to take serious action and execute its responsibility to protect innocent lives in Sudan,” said Prendergast.

An official Red Crescent photo taken on June 27 shows the executive director for the organization’s South Kordofan branch, Mireikha Aldow Mireikha, with members of the Red Crescent body disposal team, some of whom are wearing masks or gloves, according to the report. Sudanese media has quoted South Kordofan Governor Ahmed Haroun, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide in Darfur, as saying that he instructed the Red Crescent society to dispose of the bodies.

“While the U.S. and other members of the U.N. Security Council continue to debate how to respond, the debate over the existence of body bags and mass graves in and around Kadugli is now over,” said Charlie Clements, executive director of Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights.

“The Satellite Sentinel Project has irrefutably confirmed that the Sudanese Red Crescent Society has dug mass graves and filled them with large numbers of corpses in body bags or tarps, following reports of systematic mass killing by the Government of Sudan,” said Clements.

The satellite project has also confirmed with DigitalGlobe satellite imagery the United Nations reports of six Government of Sudan security checkpoints on roads in and around Kadugli.

Physicians for Human Rights has studied the recent satellite images of alleged mass graves in Sudan. The images provide credible evidence of possible mass graves and require a full and comprehensive forensic investigation, said Stefan Schmitt, director of the group's International Forensic Program.

“To help determine the nature of mass graves, we need to know if the victims were soldiers or civilians and how and why they died," said Schmitt. "Proper exhumations and examinations would give us this information. Physicians for Human Right is prepared to provide forensic experts in support of an independent investigation into mass graves in South Sudan.”  

The Satellite Sentinel Project was founded by George Clooney to combine satellite imagery analysis and field reports with Google’s Map Maker to deter the resumption of full-scale civil war between North and South Sudan. Not On Our Watch, a group of Hollywood activists including Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, provided the seed money to launch the satellite project.

The anti-genocide group, Enough Project, contributes field reports and policy analysis, and, together with Not On Our Watch and SudanNow pressures policymakers by urging the public to act. Google and Trellon collaborated to design the web platform. Harvard Humanitarian Initiative provides research and leads the collection, human rights analysis, and corroboration of on-the-ground reports that contextualizes the imagery. DigitalGlobe provides satellite imagery and additional analysis.