Evidence of Mass Graves in Sudan?

RD recently reported that Anglican Bishop Andudu Adam Elnail of Kadugli, Sudan thought that had he not been in the U.S. for medical treatment, he might now be in a mass grave back home. A dramatic new report by the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) titled: “Crime Scene: Evidence of Mass Graves in Kadugli” reveals that Andudu could not have been more chillingly correct.

Through the forensic use of satellite images combined with credible eyewitness testimony, SSP has located and documented at least three mass graves. These 26 x 5-meter trenches (and perhaps others yet to be discovered) may be the final resting places for bodies that had previously been piled in white body bags (or tarps) near the Episcopal church complex in Kadugli before being loaded onto trucks that had reportedly gone around collecting bodies from systematic killings of Nuban civilians.

White body bags were also seen at a second site containing two apparent pits, where, according to the SSP report, a witness saw men “unloading dead bodies from the trucks and depositing them in the open pits” including some that appeared to be in bags that were ‘white’ and ‘plastic’; others were in light brown bags made of a different kind of material. Some bodies were not in any type of body bag or wrapping.” No one can say with certainty who is in the body bags in the mass graves, though the timing and the circumstances may be telling.

Andudu and other Anglican Church leaders had been among the targets of house-to-house searches by armed men looking for ethnic Nubans—especially leaders. What Andudu called Khartoum’s “final solution” has been cast by others as persecution of Christians, but in fact the campaign to exterminate the Nuba has spared no one.

Reports of systematic killings of Nubans in Kadugli have been getting out to church and human rights groups and Western news media since the Sudan Armed Forces initiated attacks in South Kordofan in early June. Since then, tens of thousands have fled. According to refugee accounts that surfaced in the international media, SAF helicopter gunships have hunted them in the mountains, and bombers have unleashed terror on towns. And although news media are barred from the area, and the UN has fled, the ethnic cleansing campaign has been the subject of front page stories in the New York Times and columns by Nicholas Kristof. Bishop Andudu’s warning that “If the World Stands Idly By This Time, They Will Bring Genocide” has proved prophetic.

In response to a query from RD about the SSP report, Andudu issued a statement in which he emphasized that the victims of these atrocities are “not numbers and statistics” but “my people.”

“I ask the world,” he continued. “Open your eyes and your heart for the suffering of the people of South Kordofan, not only Christians, but my Muslim brothers and sisters who are facing the same.”

He asked that the international community act to stop the bombing by the SAF; to protect civilians and the witnesses to the crimes described in the report—as well as the crime scene itself. He asked for humanitarian aid, an effective peacekeeping force, and “serious negotiations for a lasting peace.”

Enough Project co-founder, John Prendergast, a veteran of Africa policy in the Clinton administration when the world turned a blind eye to the genocide in Rwanda, said:

With all the killing that has occurred in Darfur, Abyei and the Nuba Mountains, we surely can’t say we didn’t know this could happen. Diplomacy as usual backed by no tangible international pressures is a recipe for ongoing death and destruction. The time has arrived for the international community to create a heavy cost for the kinds of crimes depicted in this report…

What happens to the bodies of the victims of mass killings that come to our attention is not something many of us think much about. But as gruesome as it may sound, it follows that where there are mass killings, there will be mass graves. But proving their existence, let alone exactly who is in them, and who put them there, is a forensic challenge, especially to reach the standards of evidence necessary for prosecution.

That’s why the new SSP report is significant beyond its horrific content. This is the first time in history that private groups have combined world-class satellite image analysis with detailed reliable eyewitness reports to confirm the location of mass graves to present details of how the bodies came to be there. The Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) is a pioneering consortium comprising the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, the anti-genocide groups Enough and Not on Our Watch, as well as internet companies Google and Trellon, and DigitalGlobe satellite company. The brainchild of actor George Clooney and Enough co-founder John Prendergast, SSP has been making history ever since. (Clooney calls them “the anti-genocide paparazzi.”)

The actual work is far more clinical than Clooney’s nickname suggests. But it’s this ‘just the facts’ Dragnet style that’s integral to the SSP’s role as a collector of forensic evidence that can be used in a potential trial of the perpetrators at the Hague. Here are a few excerpts:

One eyewitness has claimed that GoS-aligned forces are putting dead bodies, in some cases, in what appear to be white plastic tarps or other body bags. Another eyewitness alleges that people were taken and killed by SAF troops and police officers in front of their houses near the Episcopal Church of Sudan (ECS) facilities around 6 or 7 June. On approximately 7 or 8 June, the witness saw what he called white “Mitsubishi trucks” picking up bodies south of the ECS guest house in Kadugli.

Dozens of white-colored light vehicles are seen in areas throughout Kadugli on 4 July. Heavy trucks consistent with white-colored transport trucks are visible as well. These vehicles appear consistent with SAF and GoS-aligned militia vehicles previously observed by SSP at GoS-aligned encampments and those described by multiple eyewitnesses as being present in Kadugli town.

Conclusion: The presence on 4 July of apparent SAF and GoS-aligned militia vehicles in residential areas where killing of civilians allegedly has occurred corroborates reports that SAF and GoS-aligned forces are systematically searching homes. The presence of white bundles just south of the ECS guest house is consistent with the allegations that bodies have been placed in tarps or bags of some sort near the ECS facilities, corroborating claims that SAF troops are systematically hunting and killing civilians.

In addition to the obvious atrocity of targeting civilians and entire ethnic groups for elimination, mass graves can be considered war crimes as well. The Geneva Conventions state that in war, everyone is entitled to individual burials, identified if possible, and in accordance with their particular religious tradition. Several of the Geneva Conventions also govern matter of the proper identification and burial of those killed in war, including individual burials in accordance with religious tradition of the dead if that is known.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that SSP’s eye witnesses corroborate an Associated Press account of an internal UN report that SAF intelligence officers, dressed in the aprons of the Red Crescent, ordered refugees away from the UN-protected camp where thousands were huddled. Accounts vary as to what became of them.

Impersonation of humanitarian agencies such as the Red Cross or Red Crescent can also violate the Geneva Conventions.

The discovery and documentation of mass graves in Kadugli is certain to be just the beginning of the documentation of atrocities committed during the apparent extermination campaign in South Kordofan, and the SSP is leading what may well turn out to be a landmark investigation of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.