An anti-genocide watchdog group says it has satellite-photo evidence of war crimes committed by the northern Sudanese army during its invasion on May 21 of the strategic, hotly contested border zone of Abyei, claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan. But despite the group's claims, it remains unclear whether the assault, while violent, actually reached the level of crimes against humanity.
"Consistent with [United Nations] reports of indiscriminate bombardment, displacing tens of thousands of civilians, followed by organized looting and burning in Abyei, these images provide supporting documentary evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Abyei," the Executive Director of the Washington-based advocacy group Enough Project, John C. Bradshaw, said in a statement.
The photos were captured by the Satellite Sentinel Project, an innovative attempt to provide real-time images of the remote and difficult-to-access Abyei region to concerned parties, be them policymakers, activists, or government officials. The project is supported by several parties, including the Enough Project, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and most famously, Hollywood star George Clooney.
Nathaniel Raymond, director of operations for the satellite project at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative at Harvard University, says that the evidence is "sufficient" to show that the northern military had violated the Geneva Conventions during their capture of Abyei town, the captial of the Abyei region.
"Abyei town itself is a crime scene, and the way we approach these images is [how] homicide detectives would approach a crime scene: to reconstruct what occurred or what is occurring," explained Mr. Raymond.
He told the Monitor in a phone interview from Cambridge, Mass. on Monday that the project is calling for the UN Security Council to review and expand its referral to the International Criminal Court on Sudan to include Abyei in addition to the western region of Darfur, where Sudanese government-sponsored killing has raged for years.
When the project was launched shortly after South Sudan's peaceful and credible independence vote in January, the Satellite Sentinel Project said it sought to keep a close eye – using satellites – on Abyei in order to deter either side from taking committing crimes out of view of the international community or even the rest of Sudan.
"We focused satellites on Abyei because everyone concerned believed that if the Sudan government would try to undermine the North-South peace, it would do so through Abyei," said Mr. Clooney in a recent statement.
When the Sudanese government did just that 10 days ago in Abyei, the satellite project moved quickly to provide images, initially of the looting and burning of homes and properties that followed the army's invasion. Several days later, the project used more images to assert that the northern government had committed war crimes in its invasion.
War crime, or simply war?
Despite the usefulness of having photos of the physical destruction of Abyei, some experts say it is not yet clear whether the Khartoum government's actions in the past week in Abyei constitute the war crimes the satellite project has alleged.
In a May 26 statement, Human Rights Watch condemned the northern military invasion, saying it "has led to serious human rights violations" in addition to violation of the 2005 NorthSouth peace deal, but it stopped short of condemning the Khartoum government for committing war crimes, such as ethnic cleansing.
A UN Security Council's Commission of Experts defined ethnic cleansing as "a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic group or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas."
Jehanne Henry, a researcher on Sudan for Human Rights Watch, warns that "it's important not to assume every act in Abyei automatically a war crime."
"Based on the facts we have confirmed, it appears that government forces may be responsible for war crimes in Abyei. The soldiers and militias deliberate looting of civilian properties could be a war crime," says Ms. Henry. "[But] taking over a town is not a war crime and causing civilians to flee is not necessarily one either. There needs to be criminal intent to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law."
A humanitarian crisis
But even if the northern army's actions didn't rise to the level of war crimes, their May 21 assault on Abyei nonetheless displaced thousands of people.
The UN peacekeeping base in the town was hit with repeated mortar rounds, forcing civilian UN staff into bunkers and peacekeepers to remain behind the barbed wire-topped high fences.
Doctors Without Borders, one of the few aid groups with a permanent presence in the volatile town, had already evacuated its staff to a town further south to serve the thousands who had already fled ahead of the attack that ended up destroying much of the town of Abyei.
And the majority of the tens of thousands of people that fled their homes as dozens of Sudanese Armed Forces tanks rolled in and Antonov planes flew overhead did not reach safety in villages in the southern state of Warrap until several days after they left their homes on foot with only what they could carry in their hands.
When they did arrive in these villages, many were traumatized, dehydrated, and exhausted, unable to give precise details and descriptions of the northern Sudanese army's aggressive taking over of their hometown.
Thus, information about the extent of the damages and abuses perpetrated by the northern Sudanese army was not readily available as Western diplomats and the UN Security Council – in Sudan on a four-day visit which kicked off on Saturday night, when the northern Sudanese army invaded the border zone – worked to coordinate messages of condemnation for Khartoum's actions and fend off journalists seeking comment on the international community's response.