War crimes condemned as study uncovers horrifying evidence of chemical attacks by government forces on civilians, including babies and young children
Sudanese government forces have used chemical weapons repeatedly against civilians, including babies and young children, in one of the most remote regions of Darfur over the past eight months, according to allegations documented by Amnesty International.
The alleged chemical attacks, believed to have killed up to 250 people, mostly children, represent a new low in the catalogue of serious abuses perpetrated by government forces in the region, said the human rights group.
The most recent of the alleged offensives recorded by the investigation occurred on 9 September. The attacks are ongoing, said Amnesty.
Using satellite images, more than 200 in-depth interviews by phone or internet, and expert analysis of dozens of distressing images showing babies and children with flayed and bloody skin, the investigation claims that at least 30 chemical attacks have taken place in the Jebel Marra area of Darfur since January 2016.
Amnesty denounced what it called indiscriminate attacks on civilians by government troops as a war crime.
A spokesman for the Sudanese government denied any chemical weapon attacks had taken place. Dr Khalid al-Mubarak, the media attache at the Sudan embassy in London, said that fighting in the Jebel Marra district was the result of government troops trying to attack forces loyal to Abdul Wahid al-Nour, leader of the Sudan Liberation Movement.
There were no chemical attacks, said al-Mubarak. Jebel Marra was the only spot in which there was any trouble. Now the government has full control. There is now a civilian police station and the administration in Darfur is not returning to Jebel Marra.
Amnesty International has this information second hand. They have talked to people selectively.
Asked about allegations that up to 250 people have died as a result of the attacks, he said: Have they counted them? They have not. No chemical attacks happened.
But Tirana Hassan, Amnesty Internationals director of crisis research, said: 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 [were] vomiting blood.
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. That Sudans government is now repeatedly using them against their own people simply cannot be ignored and demands action.
The report alleged that hundreds of survivors suffered symptoms including severe gastrointestinal conditions, bloody vomiting and diarrhoea, blistering and rashes on skin that was later lost, eye problems including a complete loss of vision and respiratory problems, reportedly the most common cause of death.
A woman in her twenties, injured by shrapnel when a bomb that emitted a toxic cloud of smoke fell on her village, said she and her baby became sick and are still suffering six months later.
When [the bomb] landed there were some flames and then dark smoke, she said. 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.
One man who helped to care for people apparently affected by chemicals said 19 people he cared for, including children, died within a month of exposure. He told Amnesty he had been helping to care for victims of the conflict in Jebel Marra since it began in 2003, and had never seen such ailments before. All those who died experienced major changes to the skin, he added. About half sustained wounds that turned green; the other half were affected by skin loss and weeping blisters.
Amnesty said they were told the bombs were dropped from planes and rockets. Most of the 200 survivors they spoke to reported that the smoke from the weapons changed colour between five and 20 minutes after impact. Witnesses said it started very dark and then became lighter. Every survivor said the smoke smelled noxious. Using satellite imagery, the report concluded that up to 171 villages were destroyed or damaged as a result of the eight-month campaign.
Two chemical weapons experts independently shown photographs, videos and witness testimony found credible evidence that chemical weapons agents were used in the attacks.Both concluded the clinical signs and symptoms they had seen and heard were consistent with a class of weapon known as blister agents, or vesicants, which includes sulphur mustard, nitrogen mustard and lewisite.
In a video interview, published alongside the report, Dr Keith Ward, an independent chemical weapons expert, said: The pictures in conjunction with the eyewitness accounts, and in conjunction with a large constellation of clinical signs and symptoms of these victims, do give us enough information to make us very certain that chemicals of some sort were involved in this attack.
We are certain that the kinds of injuries that weve seen and the explanation for what people saw at the source of the attack could not be explained simply as a result of the explosive effect of conventional or incendiary munitions.
The report was a collaboration between Amnesty and Situ Research, an interdisciplinary studio that brings together geospatial information, satellite imagery, photographs and interviews.
Many victims told Amnesty they had no access to medicine and were being treated only with a combination of salt, limes and local herbs.
The use of chemical weapons is a war crime said Hassan. 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.
Amnesty International has called on the UN security council to urgently investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons, ensure the arms embargo is implemented and apply political pressure on the Sudanese government to so that peacekeepers and humanitarian groups are allowed access to remote regions like Jebel Marra.
Jebel Marra, in the centre of Darfur, is a volcanic massif with an estimated 1,500 towns, villages and hamlets. The UN Mission in Darfur, a joint UN-African Union peacekeeping force, is present in the region but is unable to provide protection to any civilians against attacks in Jebel Marra beyond its northern base in Sortoni, the report said.
The alleged attacks on villages in Jebel Marra were perpetrated by government soldiers and allied militias known as Janjaweed, according to witnesses, some of whom provided the names of officials in charge. Other government forces allegedly included the Sudanese Armed Forces and Rapid Support Forces.
Amnesty said it was forced to conduct its research remotely, due to restrictions on access by the Sudanese government. The group said no journalist, humanitarian rights investigator or other humanitarian group has gained access to areas of Jebel Marra affected by the conflict in 2016.
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 the year, the report said.
The report, which said the international communitys response to attacks on Darfur was deplorable, concluded: The government of Sudans ongoing attacks in Jebel Marra the latest in a series of military operations dating back to 2003 that have ravaged Darfurs civilian population are but the most recent illustration of a catastrophic pattern of violence.
Speaking in advance of the reports publication, a UN peacekeeping official said no reports had been received of the use of chemical weapons in Jebel Marra. Despite repeated requests to the government of Sudan, including most recently last week by the joint special representative during his visit to Zalingei in central Darfur, the UN and the mission does not have access to conflict areas in Jebel Marra, said the official.
We are aware that the Amnesty International report is scheduled to be released and we would like to study it in detail before commenting.