Who is arming Sudan?

Jérôme Tubiana

The corridors of the Mother of Mercy Hospital in Gidel, one of the very few health facilities in the rebel area of the Nuba Mountains in Sudan, are cluttered with beds. Half the patients here have been wounded in the civil war that broke out in June 2011. The first war in the Nuba Mountains, between Khartoum’s government and the Nuba rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, started in 1985. When a ceasefire was signed under international pressure in 2002, the Nuba, rebels and civilians alike, were on their knees. Gidel Hospital, built soon afterwards, was made to resist a bomb blast. And with good reason.

Sources close to the SPLA estimate that more than 900 bombs were dropped on the Nuba Mountains between June 2011 and January 2012, killing 86 civilians and injuring 170. More than 400,000 civilians have been displaced. Possibly hundreds of thousands of Nuba now rely on wild plants to survive. Khartoum’s tactics ten years on haven’t changed much since the first war: aerial bombing and ground shelling, attacks by the army and proxy militias, without much attempt to distinguish between military and civilian targets. But new arms have appeared as well.

When I met them in the hospital in May, Kalo Idris, a 10-year-old boy, and, Malata, his 23-year-old cousin, had been severely burned. On 28 April their village had been bombed. When they saw the plane coming, they jumped into a foxhole along with Malata’s two children and Kalo’s mother. ‘The Antonov dropped the bomb, and I saw it falling straight on us,’ Malata said. ‘It fell less than a metre from our foxhole. Nothing touched us, but then fire and heat came to us. The air was burning.’ Malata’s children and Kalo’s mother were killed. ‘It looks like they were victims of an incendiary bomb,’ Claudio Gramizzi said. He’s an arms expert, and my friend and colleague.

For more than a year, we have been travelling together in the two Sudans. We have spent a lot of time, on both sides of the border, looking at shrapnel from bombs dropped by government planes and at arms held by the rebels, many captured from the Sudanese army. Tracing their origin might make it easier to put pressure on the states and companies delivering arms to the warring parties, often in violation of (theoretically) tough international laws: in 2005, the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo and a sanctions regime (both of which have been constantly violated) ‘in relation to actors operating in Darfur’, while the European Union and the United States have implemented a broader embargo on the whole of Sudan.

Since South Sudan’s independence in July 2011, relations between Khartoum and the new state have been increasingly tense, with the North regularly bombing the South. On 12 February, two days after the two countries signed a non-aggression agreement in Ethiopia, we travelled to Jaw, one of the main disputed points on the long and blurry border. The grass and trees were on fire: a few hours before, Northern planes had fired more than 20 rockets. ‘Those are S8 rockets,’ Claudio said, ‘and they were most probably fired by Sukhoi SU-25 ground-attack fighters... Belarus has sold 15 of those attack jets to Khartoum between 2008 and 2010, and in 2011, they delivered a new lot of 3998 rockets. Those have been extensively fired in Darfur, in spite of the United Nations sanctions.’

The Yida refugee camp, not far from Jaw, harbours tens of thousands of refugees from the Nuba Mountains. Last time we stayed there, in May, we saw an unexploded bomb that had been dropped on the camp in November. Khartoum uses old Soviet Antonov cargo planes as improvised bombers, dropping the explosives from the rear ramp. They’re generally old drums stuffed with scraps of metal. This time, though, the unexploded bomb was professionally made – Claudio thought it could be a Chinese copy of a Soviet model.

Hisein Kombola, the camp’s chief, told us that in the Nuba Mountains he had been under fire from what he thought were Iranian Shahab rockets, shot from government positions tens of kilometres away. In different places we were shown remnants of the attacks: Claudio said the two-metre-long warhead fragments weren’t from Shahabs, but Chinese Weishi WS-1 rockets. We later found the catalogue of a company promoting them at an African arms fair. At more than four metres long and with a diameter of 302 mm, they are the largest artillery weapons ever used in Sudan, and according to the catalogue can reach targets up to 45 km away – from the government areas of South Kordofan deep into Nuba rebel areas and South Sudanese territory.

In Troji, a Sudanese garrison taken by the rebels in February and a strategic location on the road between the South and the Nuba Mountains, a child brought us a small bomb, holding it in one hand. It was part of a cluster bomb, possibly of Russian origin. ‘Be careful!’ Claudio said. ‘Moving them is very dangerous.’ Nuba children have been killed playing with them. Sudan has not yet signed the convention banning their use – or the one prohibiting the use of incendiary bombs.

North of Troji, the rebels drove us to what they called the ‘frontline’: some of their last outposts a few kilometres away from the government-controlled regional capital, Kadugli. The fighters were playing cards and drinking tea. They showed us a cache of arms captured from government troops. There were boxes of Iranian anti-personnel landmines, and anti-tank mines that probably came from China. Both were plastic: ‘Very nasty, as they can’t be found with metal detectors,’ Claudio said. Sudan has signed the Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel mines. There were also many cases of Kalashnikov ammunition. Claudio examined the bullets: they carried the codes of Chinese companies and pretty recent manufacturing dates (2009 and 2010). It seems that China is continuing to fuel the conflict, even though it is directly affecting Beijing’s oil imports from both Sudan and South Sudan.

The rebels, as is customary with armed groups, insisted that their only arms had been seized from the regular army. The more we looked at the captured arms, the more it seemed they didn’t need much else. The quantities of munitions were enormous. ‘Our commanders count how many vehicles and guns they seize and compete with each other,’ a Nuba leader told us. ‘One would go to war just because he learned another had beaten his record in captured cars.’

Before the independence of South Sudan, the Nuba soldiers of the SPLA-North were just one division of the SPLA, most of which is now the South Sudanese Army. They were left with their arsenal until, in June 2011, Khartoum ordered them to disarm, which was a major trigger of the new war. ‘This war is much easier for us than the first war,’ the SPLA-North’s chief of staff, Abdelaziz al-Hilu, told us. ‘This time, we were prepared, we were armed, and we had the guns at hand.’

Khartoum has repeatedly accused the South Sudanese of providing support to their former comrades in the Nuba Mountains, to justify attacks across the border. It is impossible to deny that the SPLA-North find safe haven and medical help in the South. The Southern army and the Northern rebels have also fought together on occasion, defeating the Sudanese army earlier this year in the disputed areas of Jaw and Hejlij. Except for a few cars with South Sudanese plates, however, we could not find much evidence of material support from the South to the Northern rebels. ‘We don’t need it now, and the Southerners don’t have the arms we would need,’ a Nuba leader told us. We asked what those would be. ‘Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, those used in Afghanistan. That’s the only thing we’re missing. The planes are really a big problem for us.’ He wondered aloud whether, since Sudan was on bad terms with the Syrian regime, Damascus might not agree to give them some Stingers.

That seems unlikely, but there’s no doubting the threat posed by the planes. In March, on the border in Jaw, Northern rebels shot down an aircraft, a drone that was probably being used to spot future targets. Data observed on the drone suggest it was assembled in Iran, including components from the European Union – in spite of embargos on both Sudan and Iran. We managed to see some of the videos shot by its camera: according to a military aviation researcher who joined us for some of our trips, the metadata are identical to those of samples from video recorders made by a known British company.

As well as death and destruction, the planes spread fear, driving thousands of civilians to take shelter in caves. ‘We can’t farm because we’re afraid of the planes,’ a man called Musa told us. He’s been living in a cave with his two wives and nine children since October 2011. ‘Look at me – I got thin from thinking too much about rockets. Our children wake up in the middle of the night crying because of nightmares, saying Antonovs are overhead.’

On 27 September, in Ethiopia, the governments of Sudan and South Sudan signed a new agreement of co-operation. It includes a demilitarised zone along their 2000 km border. The most contested issue in the talks was a 22 km stretch between South Sudan and the Sudanese states of East Darfur and South Kordofan. ‘Rebels are roaming around freely across this area, with the support of South Sudan,’ a general from Khartoum told me. According to AFP, ‘the buffer zone would potentially cut support for rebel forces.’ But even Sudanese officials involved in the talks did not seem to believe this. As for the rebels of the SPLA-North, some of their leaders were in Addis Ababa, but were kept out of the talks. International observers described them as potential spoilers, ‘the elephant in the room’. The SPLA-North insisted that humanitarian aid be allowed to reach civilians, and said the government had agreed to this in a memorandum signed in early August; Khartoum described humanitarian workers as a threat. ‘When we authorised Western NGOs, they brought arms to the rebels,’ a minister from South Kordofan told me. I asked if he had any evidence. ‘We know,’ he said.