Posted on behalf of Julie Flint.
At 2 pm on Sunday 4 May, a single Antonov bomber targeted the village of Shegeg Karo in North Darfur, destroying the market and hitting the village school during classes. At least 11 people were killed outright, six of them children between the ages of five and eleven. More than 30 were injured, half a dozen seriously. Forty-eight hours later, villagers began driving the most badly injured””including an eight-year-old girl believed to have a broken back””in search of treatment.
It was the bloodiest Antonov attack in Sudan in years””possibly the most lethal since 14 children and a teacher were killed in Kauda, in the Nuba Mountains, on 8 February 2000. Darfur is the focus of the world’s largest peacekeeping operation, UNAMID, and largest and most vocal activist movement. Yet for a full 48 hours no-one got to Shegeg Karo to get the wounded out and medical aid in””not UNAMID and not the ICRC, both of whom have aircraft””and the only voices reporting the atrocity were Reuters and the BBC’s Network Africa.
When the “slaughter” we are told never ceases in Darfur actually happened, with children at the heart of it, the reaction was miserable. It is difficult to know which is more shocking: the attack itself””or the manifest failure, at all levels, of the international community to respond to it.
Not the failure to respond adequately. The failure to respond in any way at all.
There is much we don’t know yet, and much that isn’t clear. Why, for example, did the ICRC not move? Did the government block them, as it has so often in the past? How was it that UNAMID flew to the wrong village“”Ein Bessar””on Monday, despite having had details of the attack on Shegeg Karo since Sunday? (Ein Bessar is in the east of North Darfur, north of Mellit; Shegeg Karo is in the west, between Furawiya and Muzbat.) Once UNAMID officials realized that their initial coordinates””for Ein Bessar””were the wrong coordinates, they requested government permission to fly to Shegeg Karo. By their own admission, they received this permission “on the morning of 6 May”. Why, then, did they not go to Shegeg Karo in the course of the day? Why did villagers have to load up the injured children in the afternoon and drive them across the desert””to meet the ICRC in Bir Maza, a village many hours away?
Contrast this incompetence with the round-the-clock efforts of a handful of individuals””including Jen Marlowe and her Sudanese colleagues in Darfur Diaries, the American NGO that funds the Shegeg Karo school””to gather precise information and get it out. They informed the UN””the Department of Safety and Security””two hours after the attack took place and UNICEF soon after that. UNICEF contacted the ICRC. Reuters contacted UNAMID before its story went out on Sunday. By Monday, everyone who mattered knew everything they needed to know, including the ages of the children and the extent of their injuries. (One of our main concerns was to spare survivors the added agony of a long and bumpy car journey across the desert.) Mia Farrow, who helped raise the funds for the school, e-mailed the US special envoy, Richard Williamson, who raised the matter at a meeting of donors and the Sudan government in Oslo on Monday morning. Others contacted governments, medical NGOs, activists.
Nothing happened. There seemed to be no plan even. First we heard that UNAMID was going to drive from Um Berro to Shegeg Karo to pick the wounded up. Then that it was going to fly. Then that it wasn’t: the ICRC was. Then that the ICRC wasn’t either. And so the eight-year-old with a broken back lapsed into unconsciousness. The boy with the broken limbs and heavy blood loss lost more blood, but somehow stayed conscious.
Apart from the continuing impunity of the Sudan government and the stunning incompetence of the aid response, the tragedy of Shegeg Karo highlights the lamentable lack of an international presence in North Darfur in general. Much of the area had been peaceful until very recently. Shegeg Karo itself has been untouched since the firestorm years of 2003-4. Had there been a greater international presence on the ground, it would have been easier to respond to the attack. It might even have prevented it happening.
Today Shegeg Karo has needs beyond its immediate medical needs. Until Sunday, the village had two hand pumps. The Antonov bombardment damaged one, and villagers have been queuing all night to fill jerry cans from the last remaining pump. They are asking for spare parts for the damaged pump. We are asking why help was not forthcoming for 48 hours, and what is being done to ensure that this never happens again.