FeaturesWhen Antonovs fly over: history repeats istelf

When Antonovs fly over: history repeats istelf

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An old postcard from Antonov

The story was published  12 years ago. Many Sudanese today would not notice a difference.

He arrived at a quarter to nine in the morning, and immediately became the most feared man in our little town. “De huwo!” (“it is him”) people shouted, and everybody started to run for cover.

He kept at a safe altitude of 20,000 ft, started to make a lazy circle around the town, and then made as if to disappear. But after a few minutes the noise of his engines increased again. The town had become eerily silent: the dogs had stopped barking; even the birds had stopped singing.

It was clear that the pilot was aiming to come straight over this time. He began the only difficult manoeuvre of his flight. He had to get his Antonov exactly straight over the town, which is about a square kilometre, and then he had to judge the right moment to drop his bombs. Fortunately enough, he had followed a special course in Russia. And a respected western European airline too had probably contributed to his flying skills when it worked closely with Sudan Airways a few years ago.

This time the training efforts by Khartoum’s friends paid off: the line of bombs fell right through the middle of the town. When the ten or so explosions had finished – a matter of a few seconds – and the noisy Antonov had slowly disappeared, I crept nervously out of my shelter. A few hundred metres away I saw black smoke dissipating into the air. Half-expecting the plane to come back to have another go at us, I climbed into my car and went to see whether there were any victims.

The line of bomb craters started at the clinic. The veranda had been blown away and the walls were riddled with shrapnel, but no one appeared to have been injured. The soil where the bomb fell had been pulverised into black dust that had settled on everything. About 100 m further on a few grass huts were burning; the compound was a heap of ash and collapsed fences.

As we stood there dejectedly, a woman came running towards us. She held a two-year old on her arm and pulled along another girl of about three. Both children were wearing dresses of the greenish-grey colour that comes from too many washings with cheap soap. But now they were mostly red with blood. The mother pulled a cloth from the younger girl’s head, and I saw that the child had tiny pieces of glittering metal in her forehead. She cried. It took me a while to realise that the elder daughter had only a stump in stead of a left arm. Somebody had already tied a cloth around it. She was standing there quietly, her one remaining hand holding her mother’s hand. Later that day the child with the head injuries died.

We do not know what the pilots of the Antonovs think about their work. Perhaps they do not think much at all. But the attitude of their boss, Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, is better known. He presides over a bankrupt economy, and so is sometimes forced to meet foreign emissaries whom he would rather avoid. They may bring up aspects of the treatment he gives his subjects. That is how we know that, when it concerns the bombings, Omar usually puts himself into a state of denial.

He has been bombing people in the rebel areas in southern Sudan since he seized power in 1989. It took him a while to find the most efficient method. For a time MiGs were used. But they proved expensive, complicated and accident-prone. And what was worse, to have a decent chance of hitting a town the pilots had to come in low, which they found too risky. In the end an ordinary transport plane proved best: the bombs – contraptions filled with explosives and pieces of scrap metal – could simply be kicked out of the tail gate.

When Omar was interviewed on CNN he said his air force bombed only places from which his army was attacked.  Our little town has no military significance whatsoever. But in a way it is true that it holds a threat for Omar. If it ever comes to a war crimes tribunal for him, our town can provide a few witnesses for the prosecution.

The bombing happened in 2000 in a little town called Narus, just 45 km from the Kenyan border in South Sudan. Narus is now a peaceful village, where the bombings are remembered as senseless and futile. But Omar al-Bashir is still at it, nowadays in the isolated areas of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile – two areas to (North) Sudan.

The author prefers to remain anonymous. The author has lived in South Sudan since 1984


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