Famine as a Weapon: It's Time to Stop Starvation in Sudan

  • Share
  • Read Later
Hannah McNeish / AFP / Getty Images

Women and children are among the refugees waiting for food aid to be distributed in Yida refugee camp in South Sudan, near the volatile border with Sudan, on Nov 16, 2011

"We left our homes with not even a cup like this one," recounted the woman from a Sudanese refugee camp in Ethiopia last month, gesturing toward a red plastic cup lying in the dirt next to her foot. Asma, a name we are using for her to help ensure her safety, said the Sudanese government's Antonov planes bombed her village and government soldiers, supported by ethnic militia, chased and killed civilians. They did not spare children and pregnant women, she said angrily. "It's all because we are black," Asma told our colleagues in the Satellite Sentinel Project. She said that the militias were shouting, "Grab the slaves!" Her subsequent weeklong journey with 50 other women to the refugee camp was harrowing. "Many of the women had to leave their babies in their cribs."

Incredibly, Asma and the tens of thousands of Sudanese who have run for their lives across international borders are the lucky ones. Those left behind in the war zones within Sudan — places like Blue Nile, South Kordofan, Abyei and Darfur — are subject to a regime whose war tactics break every international law on the books. But two war crimes in particular — aerial bombing against civilians and blocking humanitarian aid — are leading to the biggest killer of all: famine.

The strategy of using starvation as a weapon or means of social control is one of the oldest and most effective tactics of war. Around 400 B.C., the Spartans ended the Peloponnesian wars by starving the Greeks into submission in their siege of Athens. Two centuries later, after Rome defeated Hannibal's army, Roman troops ploughed Carthage with salt to render it infertile.

You'd think by the second decade of 21st century — with the development of international accountability and prevention mechanisms — that the use of starvation would have disappeared from the arsenal of war weapons because it bears too high a cost for the perpetrator. The people of Sudan would beg to differ.

These war tactics are a backdrop to the renewed threat of war between Sudan in the north and South Sudan, which became independent of the Khartoum regime in July after an internationally supported referendum on self-determination. If that conflict explodes, it would easily become the largest conventional war on the face of the earth. After the extraordinary success of South Sudan's peaceful birth four months ago, the Sudan that was left behind has burned as the Khartoum regime has lit every dry bush it can find to see what catches fire, an extension of the divide-and-destroy policy it has successfully pursued to maintain power since a coup in 1989. The U.S. and broader international community should use the cross-border bombing and threat of starvation as a vehicle to re-energize peace and protection efforts.




First, famine must be prevented. Counterintuitively, sending aid into Sudan by any means necessary — backed by heavy international pressure for humanitarian corridors — might be the best way to compel the regime to lift its aid embargo. That strategy worked in the late 1980s. A cross-border operation from Kenya and Uganda embarrassed a previous Sudanese government and eventually it agreed to a U.N. plan that allowed aid to flow. Doing the same today from willing bordering countries is necessary to prevent full-scale famine until Khartoum allows full humanitarian access. In the meantime, the regime cannot be allowed to block aid access to Darfur — the largest aid operation in the world — as "punishment" for aid flowing into the border areas.

Second, aerial bombing must be stopped. At the height of the Darfur killings, the U.N. Security Council imposed a ban on offensive military flights by the Sudanese government that was never enforced. Now that Khartoum has bombed a neighboring country, and a refugee camp at that, the threats to international peace and security that the U.N. was created to counter would justify expanding that ban on offensive flights to other parts of Sudan bordering South Sudan. This time, though, mechanisms must be created to enforce the ban.

Third, peace efforts must be enhanced. Two parallel high-profile diplomatic initiatives — building on existing processes — should focus on a comprehensive peace deal with all the rebelling regions inside Sudan on the one hand, and lasting political and security arrangements between Sudan and South Sudan on the other.

Without robust international action, the default option is protracted war both within Sudan and between Sudan and South Sudan. From her new home in the refugee camp, Asma embodied this reality. "The government attacked their own people. If we were not attacked, we would be at home right now. That was wrong. We have to defend ourselves and get what is ours."

The authors are co-founders of the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP), a partnership between the Enough Project, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and DigitalGlobe. The SSP has documented evidence that forces aligned with the government of Sudan razed five towns and villages and bombarded civilians in the border areas of Abyei, South Kordofan and Blue Nile state.