25. November 2003

DISPLACEMENT AND DEVASTATION IN BLOCK 1, 1999

Overview

The year 1999 saw a significant escalation of conflict and displacement, as the pace of population clearance from oil areas quickened.  In mid-May 1999, the Sudanese government launched an all-out attack lasting several weeks on Ruweng (Panaru) County in the eastern part of Block 1, which had already been battered by continued displacement efforts by the government but where, nevertheless, a spread-out Dinka community of tens of thousands remained. The assault commenced with aerial bombardment followed by ground troops who looted freely and burned everything as they withdrew to the garrison town. The SPLA's small contingent put up little resistance. Tens of thousands of residents were displaced, often for the second or third time.  Although some returned, many were frightened off for good.

The displacement was not limited to Ruweng County. Many other areas were targeted, as the Talisman difference in oil development began to make itself felt. The pipeline was on schedule for use in a few months and more new wells had been located; some were already being drilled.  

Government Campaign of Forcible Displacement from Block 1, February-July 1999

In early 1999, the Sudanese army began operations to displace those civilians still remaining around Pariang, Ruweng County, a much-besieged Dinka area where the SPLA had mobile troops from time to time, moving to and from a base in Atar southwest of Malakal.  In February 1999, Maj. Gen. Paulino Matiep's government-sponsored forces began warning Dinka civilians there to move to the garrison town or to the north of Sudan, claiming they would be killed by the SPLA or the SSDF if they did not. Many fled soon thereafter. They were living only tens of kilometers away from some oilfields.[446] Some who owned cattle went to the Dinka in Twic County, Bahr El Ghazal, while many without cattle went to Liri in the Nuba Mountains, northwest of Pariang, following the road that ran north from Bentiu and on to Khartoum, according to an SSDF official.[447] 

Reflecting the military operations, during the early months of 1999 the World Food Program declared Gumriak-part of Ruweng (Panaru) County in Block 1-a "no-go" area for its operations for security reasons.[448]  As many fled from Ruweng County, other displaced persons arrived. In late April, WFP completed a distribution of food aid to 15,360 beneficiaries in Gumriak, where it found groups of Jikany and Leek Nuer arriving from the environs of Bentiu following Maj. Gen. Paulino Matiep's operations there.[449]

A small contingent of SSDF troops (Riek Machar's army) led by Cmdr. Paul Thon Roch had been conducting ambushes of government military vehicles along the Heglig-Rubkona road and Maj. Gen. Paulino Matiep's troops forced them to flee. Cmdr. Paul Thon's forces reorganized and attacked these enemy troops, but the attack failed, leaving Cmdr. Paul Thon boxed in. At this point he chose to join the SPLM/A rather than Maj. Gen. Paulino Matiep.[450]  Thus, in addition to displaced civilians, there was a small rebel military presence of Nuer SSDF (SPLA) as well as Dinka SPLA in Block 1.         

These February-April maneuvers and displacements were minor compared to what came next. Between May 9 and 23, 1999, the government army launched an offensive on Dinka villages from the Pariang garrison, moving to Tagil and then Gumriak. From there they went to Padit (Block 5A), all in Ruweng County, with the main intention of driving the villagers off their land, according to civilian survivors. The attack was an all-out effort by the Sudanese government. It first used Antonov bombers and helicopter gunships and then deployed tanks and armored personnel carriers backed by militia from garrisons at Liri in the Nuba Mountains and Pariang.[451] 

Several, including SSDF officers, regarded the government's May 1999 offensive in Ruweng County as retaliation for the SPLA's March killing of three Sudanese government employees traveling with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC);[452] others reported that the government army attacked because it had heard rumors of an impending SPLA strike on the oilfield from Ruweng County.[453] But a local SPLA commissioner of Gumriak said, "The reasons for the attack are clear: they want to exploit the oil in this area without fear of local resistance, so they are clearing the area and removing all the people."[454]

Whatever the reasons for the government military offensive, it improperly targeted and also indiscriminately hit civilians, and deliberately burned and destroyed civilian items necessary for survival: food, huts, and seeds. These are not legitimate military objectives under the rules of war.[455] The oil-clearance rationale was the most likely because of the extensive and targeted attacks on civilians and civilian objects, and later statements by government officers involved in the operations.

According to the report of the Canadian human rights delegation that visited the location a few months later, "Roads built by the oil companies enabled [ground troops] to reach their destinations more easily than before. The village of Biem 1 was destroyed, and the burning of tukls and theft of cattle ranged as far as Padit. Biem 2, which we visited, was badly damaged."[456]

The Canadian report added: "Heavy bombing occurred near the . . . river where many of the Dinka habitually reside in the dry season."[457]  It found that the report of U.N. Special Rapporteur Leonardo Franco, initially challenged by Talisman,[458] actually understated the extent of the fighting. The offensive lasted two months, not ten days as Franco estimated, and "was characterized by bombing runs and helicopter gunships flying low enough to kill people, and make the survivors afraid to cultivate."[459]

A relief worker from the health NGO Medair, who was in Gumriak when the aerial attacks began on May 9 until his evacuation on May 12, witnessed bombings and frequent runs by government helicopter gunships.[460] After flying out the Medair staff, relief agency aircraft evacuated some wounded residents, before a government helicopter gunship went in and attacked again. According to a witness, it seemed clear that the government wanted to remove all NGO presence from the area.[461]

As a result of the offensive, the government army captured Padit airstrip and Gumriak in May 1999. Apparently, the SPLA fought them off at Tagil airstrip, to the north, but either was not present or retreated from the other locations attacked.

The daily government newspaper Al-Anbaa announced in late May that the government army and militias had destroyed a number of SPLA "camps" in Unity State. Lt. Khalid Ahmed al Bashari, commander of the Pariang government military area, said government forces had destroyed all the rebel camps that threatened the oilfields in the area. According to a government soldier, they "cleaned up the area completely from the rebels and secured the oil area." [462]

The army also claimed it had freed four Sudanese and a Chinese engineerworking in the oilfields area who had been seized by the SPLA[463] This appears to be the same group referred to by a Talisman oil company official who said that five members of a seismic crew- four Sudanese and one Chinese-were abducted by the SPLA from Munga in Block 1[464] (apparently on May 12). A soldier who was seized at the same time from the same location was killed, according to a Talisman security official at Heglig.[465]  The oil workers were at liberty by 9:00 p.m. on May 17, although it was unclear whether they were released by the SPLA or "freed" by the army in the course of its operation.[466]

Another prisoner incident was alleged during this period, involving the capture of twenty-three Chinese oil workers at Bentiu on the border of Block 5A and Block 1.  The SPLM/A was the sole source of this capture story but denied any direct involvement, attributing it to "armed Sudanese."[467]  These captives may, or may not, be the same as the twenty-three Chinese workers the SSDF alleged it captured at Guk in Block 5A, when the fighting began there in early May, and released in Bentiu a few days later.[468] 

Much of the war-caused civilian population displacement in the vast inaccessible rural areas of southern Sudan has not been witnessed or seen by outsiders. The May 1999 government assault to drive civilians out of the rural Pariang area in Block 1, conducted at the beginning of the rainy season before army vehicles became useless, was an exception. In this instance, the displacement and its aftermath were witnessed by some Medair relief workers still on the ground, quoted above, followed by: (1) a visit from U.N. World Food Program food monitors[469]followed by other WFP officials;[470] (2) a Christian Solidarity Worldwide team[471] traveling by chartered plane with a British journalist in June 1999;[472] (3) another aid organization with a Canadian journalist in November 1999;[473] and (4) the Canadian government human rights delegation in December 1999. Usually, military operations forcing displacement do not receive such extensive corroboration. But perhaps because this was in Talisman's concession, it drew more attention.

One observer who visited the location shortly afterward observed that the looting and burning covered the whole area from Tagil to Gumriak to Padit. Many saw the burned tukls, food, and seeds. This was "just after a food distribution and seeds and tools distribution before the planting season, what would be the worst time to drive the people out. . . . I could not believe the devastation."[474]

The Canadian human rights delegation likewise reported that the government soldiers had burned a large number of tukls, particularly along the road linking Tagil, Gumriak, and Padit, many with food stocks and seeds inside.[475] Civilian survivors told the visitors that some 1,200 government soldiers had swept through Ruweng County, killing scores of civilians and burning more than 6,000 huts (reportedly 60 percent of the individual homes in the area, both Dinka and Nuer). The looting and burning apparently took place as the government of Sudan forces withdrew to their garrison, leaving only scorched earth behind.[476]

The government's displacement effort succeeded in scattering residents south to the Nuer areas, north to the Nuba Mountains, and to Pariang town. The displaced were mostly Ruweng (Panaru) Dinka families, but included some already displaced Nuer who had sought shelter in that Dinka area. After the government forces withdrew, some civilians and the SPLA returned to the burned areas around Gumriak, but many did not.[477] Relief workers found that many who had fled these May 1999 attacks remained too frightened to come out of the swamps in July, and by November many had left the area altogether. A WFP official who visited the area in April and in July 1999 noted that before the attack, 32,000 people had been on the food distribution list in the nearby Biem area, an SPLM/A zone. At a food drop in November 1999, less than 10,000 people were left.[478] The governor of Unity State said the attack affected and at least partially destroyed an estimated two-thirds of the villages in the Pariang area (Ruweng County).[479] From April to July 1999, the decline in population in Ruweng County-caused by government-instigated displacement-was estimated to have been in the order of 50 percent.[480]

Relief organizations postponed food delivery to Pariang town in May at Sudanese government request.[481] The OLS (Southern Sector) reported government army attacks, including burning and looting, had occurred again at Padit, Gumriak, and Tagil on June 3.[482] Although these SPLM/A areas were approved for quick food delivery interventions, this did not suffice to prevent malnutrition from growing.[483] During the week of June 16, a U.N./government of Sudan/NGO team visited government-controlled Pariang town and reported the presence of 3,379 newly arrived internally displaced persons. About fifty displaced persons a day were arriving in Pariang as a result of the fighting in the surrounding areas.[484]

The WFP-the only OLS agency allowed to operate in the area because "the security situation is still very fragile"-distributed emergency food supplies to 40,128 people in Tagil and Gumriak in the middle of June. The WFP team reported "clear visual evidence of malnutrition in both locations."[485] Meanwhile, Bentiu itself was so insecure that the WFP relocated its staff from there during the week of June 30, on the recommendation of a Khartoum-based WFP security officer.[486]

WFP received reports from the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association (SRRA), the relief wing of the SPLM/A, in late July 1999 of an estimated 42,000 persons in SPLA-controlled areas of Ruweng County who might require food and non-food relief.[487]

On July 24, 1999, the government of Sudan completely destroyed Bolyar village, north of Bentiu on a road between Pariang and Bentiu, apparently very close to Athonj and the El Toor oilfield. (Map C) Some 4,000 people fled south to Kueldit Payam (subcounty), which borders the Bahr El Ghazal (Nam) River.[488]

But even though these attacks involved the forcible uprooting of thousands, this clearance of civilians was dwarfed by the abuses simultaneously taking place in Block 5A.

[446] Over the roads GNPOC built or improved, Gumriak was perhaps fifty kilometers and Pariang twenty kilometers from El Toor oilfield. (See Map D) The Sudanese army had displaced Dinka civilians from the immediate area of El Toor in mid-1998.

[447] Thomas Duoth, interview, July 22, 1999.

[448] WFP, "Sudan Bulletin No. 76: 21-28 February 1999," Rome, March 8, 1999; WFP, "Sudan Bulletin No. 77: February 29-March 6, 1999," Rome, March 12, 1999. Gumriak remained a no-go area for the rest of the month. WFP, "Sudan Bulletin No. 78: March 7-13, 1999," Rome, March 22, 1999; WFP, "Sudan Bulletin No. 79: March 14-20, 1999," Rome, March 25, 1999; WFP, "Sudan Bulletin No. 80: 21-27 March 1999," Rome, April 7, 1999.

[449] WFP, "Sudan Bulletin No. 83: April 18-24, 1999," Rome, May 11, 1999.

[450] Thomas Duoth, interview, July 22, 1999. Cmdr. Paul Thon was a popular SSDF commander of Jikany Nuer origin. He died shortly thereafter, after being wounded in battle. Simon Kun, interview, July 23, 1999.

[451] Harker report, pp. 48-9; Damien Lewis, "Fight for Sudan's Oil Is Killing Civilians," Globe and Mail (Toronto), Gumriak, Western Upper Nile, October 5, 1999; Confidential communication to Human Rights Watch, July 1, 1999.

[452] SSDF officer, interview, August 3, 1999.  In late March 1999, four persons-three government employees, including the deputy commissioner of Pariang, and a Sudanese Red Crescent tracing officer-died in SPLA custody in Ruweng (Panaru) County. The group had fallen into SPLA hands on February 18, 1999, when they strayed into SPLA territory around the village of Kong in the Pariang area. The three government employees were accompanying a team of two Swiss nationals of the ICRC and two Sudanese Red Crescent workers carrying out a humanitarian mission. On April 2, the SPLM/A announced that the four detainees (the two foreigners had been released and one Sudanese escaped) had been killed on March 31 in crossfire during an unsuccessful rescue operation by government of Sudan forces.  The ICRC demanded "a full inquiry to shed light on the events and the full cooperation of the SPLM/A in repatriating the four bodies to allow for decent burial."  The SPLM/A refused to turn the bodies over to the government, the relatives, the ICRC, or any other entity, to permit or conduct any investigation, or to give any further explanation, leading to the inference that the four had been summarily executed.  See WFP, "Sudan Bulletin No. 78: March 7-13, 1999," Rome, March 22, 1999; "ICRC Establishes Contact with Its Workers Kidnapped in Sudan," DPA, Geneva, March 10, 1999; John Nyaga, "Sudanese Rebels Say Hostages Died in Rescue Attempt," AFP, Nairobi, April 2, 1999; ICRC press release, "ICRC Appalled by Death of Four Detained Sudanese," Geneva, April 1, 1999.

[453] See Harker report, p. 50.

[454] Damien Lewis, "Fight for Sudan's Oil Is Killing Civilians," October 5, 1999.

[455]See "The Illegality of Forced Displacement Under International Humanitarian Law," below.

[456] Harker report, p. 11. Biem was sixty-five kilometers from Pariang.

[457] Ibid., p. 48.

[458]Steven Edwards, Claudia Cattaneo, and Sheldon Alberts, "Calgary firm tied to Sudan 'atrocities'," National Post (Toronto), Khartoum and Ottawa, November 17, 1999.

[459] Harker report, p. 49.

[460] Ibid., p. 49. No rebel faction has military aviation.

[461] Field worker in southern Sudan, confidential communication to Human Rights Watch, April 30, 2000.

[462]Al-Anbaa, as quoted in "Sudan Army Destroys Southern Rebel Camps," Reuters, Khartoum, May 23, 1999.

[463] Ibid. Initially Sudanese army spokesman Gen. Mohamed Osman Yassin called the reports of capture or hostage-taking of workers, including Chinese nationals, "false" and "untrue." "Sudan's army denies reported abduction of oil workers," AFP, Khartoum, May 10, 1999. Later in the month, however, the pro-government Alwan newspaper printed an article in which the army in effect admitted the SPLA capture. "Sudan army says destroys southern rebel camps," Reuters, Khartoum, May 23, 1999.  No other information was available, as the SPLM/A did not issue any statement on the topic.

[464] On the Talisman map, Munga appears southeast of Umm Sagura.

[465] Harker report, p. 50.

[466] Ibid., "Sudan army says destroys . . .  camps," May 23, 1999.

[467] The SPLM/A claimed that "armed Sudanese" took twenty-three Chinese oil workers employed by the CNPC captive in Bentiu during nearly a week of fighting the government there. "Sudan Rebels Claim 23 CNPC Oil Workers Captured," AP, Cairo, May 8, 1999. A Chinese diplomat in Khartoum refused to answer any questions about any allegedly abducted Chinese oil workers. Ibid.; Judith Achieng, "Foreign Oil Companies ordered to Vacate Immediately," IPS, Nairobi, May 11, 1999. The Chinese embassy in Nairobi also refused to answer SPLM/A inquiries about what to do with the Chinese prisoners captured by the SPLA. SPLM official, Human Rights Watch interview, Nairobi, July 20, 1999.  President Bashir later implicated Riek Machar in this action, but Machar denied involvement, explaining that men under Tito Biel's command had gotten out of control. "The Southern Oil Mix-Up," Indian Ocean Newsletter (Paris), May 15, 1999.

[468] Simon Kun, interview, July 23, 1999. See below.

[469]According to the WFP:

The WFP Officer for Jonglei and Upper Nile visited Ruweng County in Upper Nile at the end of May. She found the villages around the airstrips of Gumriak, Padit and Tajiel [had] been looted and burnt and the population displaced. Flooding in 1998 and looting this year have seriously depleted local grain stores. Cultivation has not yet begun in the county, due to the lateness of the rains. . . . A recent nutritional survey carried out by MEDAIR in the Gumriak area in April [before the attack] found a global malnutrition rate of 20.3 % and a severe malnutrition rate of 7.1 %.

WFP, "Sudan Bulletin No. 89: 30 May-5 June 1999," Rome, June 6, 1999.

[470] "WFP conducted an emergency distribution in Tagiel and Gumriak in Upper Nile. The team was able to stay only three days in each location since they are considered high security risk areas following an attack on both locations in May 18." WFP, "Sudan Bulletin No. 91, 13-19 June 1999," Rome, June 24, 1999.

[471] Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), "Fact-finding and Aid Mission to Southern Sudan, June 16- 22," draft preliminary report, London, June 22, 1999. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a British advocacy group that arrived on the scene a few weeks after the offensive, should not be confused with Christian Solidarity International (CSI), of which it was a part until mid-1998. CSW is based in London and headed by Baroness Caroline Cox; its activities in Sudan include but were not limited to slave redemptions, as witness this visit.

[472] Damien Lewis, "Fight for Sudan's Oil is Killing Civilians," October 5, 1999.

[473] Charlie Gillis, "Meeting the Victims of Sudan's Oil Boom," National Post (Toronto), November 27, 1999.

[474] Field worker in southern Sudan, confidential communication to Human Rights Watch, April 30, 2000.

[475] Harker report, p. 49.

[476] The SRRA assessed there were 6,667 needy households in Gumriak. Benjamin Majok, Human Rights Watch interview, Lokichokkio, Kenya, August 22, 1999. Benjamin Majok, an SPLA commander and former head of the relief wing of the SPLM/A, was from Ruweng County.

[477] The SPLM/A subsequently said it reoccupied the Gumriak, Padit, and Tagil areas in early June, after the withdrawal of the government forces. An SPLA commander in the Pariang area also claimed the SPLA prevented the government troops from making forays into the countryside from the Pariang garrison three times later that year. Benjamin Majok, interview, August 22, 1999.

[478] Harker report, p. 48.

[479] Taban Deng, interview, July 26, 1999.

[480] The population of Gumriak, for instance, declined from 9,474 to 5,274. Harker report, p. 49.

[481] Government officials in late May advised the U.N. OLS  to defer delivery and distribution of food to approximately 4,000 beneficiaries in the government garrison town Pariang, due to continuous fighting. U.N. OLS (Northern Sector), "Weekly Report: May 26, 1999," Khartoum, May 26, 1999.

[482] U.N. OLS (Southern Sector), "Weekly Report: June 6, 1999," Nairobi, June 7, 1999.

[483] WFP, "Sudan Bulletin No. 89: 30 May-5 June 1999," Rome, June 6, 1999.

[484] U.N. OLS (Northern Sector), "Weekly Report: June 16, 1999," Khartoum, June 16, 1999.

[485] WFP, "Sudan Bulletin No. 91: June 13-19, 1999," Rome, June 24, 1999. Note that the 42,000 population "in need" estimate is higher than the 25,000-30,000 Ruweng countyCounty total population estimate made by an assessment team in Padit in January 1998 (above, Part I, The Arakis Period). The difference may be in part exaggeration, in part continual population movement, and in part the notorious difficulty of arriving at accurate numbers in emergency operations in southern Sudan. Displacement in and out of the area, however, had definitely stepped up between January 1998 and July 1999. A population shift of 15,000-20,000 within a year and a half due to fighting is entirely possible.

[486] U.N. OLS (Northern Sector), "Weekly Report: June 30, 1999," Khartoum, June 30, 1999.

[487] WFP, "Sudan Bulletin No. 94: July 4-10, 1999," Rome, July 26, 1999.

[488] Benjamin Majok, interview, August 22, 1999.