May 10, 2008
Attack on Khartoum
About half an hour ago we could still hear the dull thudding of aerial bombardments coming in over the Nile from behind our house.
The Darfur rebel group the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) launched their attack on Omdurman, a city a few miles north of Khartoum, this afternoon. Their aim was clear. "We are now trying to control Khartoum. God willing we will take power, it's just a matter of time," senior JEM commander Abdel Aziz el-Nur Ashr told Reuters by telephone.
I was flying back from Juba, capital of southern Sudan, when it started, and only found out what was going on when I turned on my mobile phone as I got off the plane at Khartoum's domestic terminal at around 5pm.
The airport itself seemed calm. But outside, the main Africa Road dual carriageway was packed with soldiers and traffic police. The lanes heading into the city centre, towards the fighting, were empty. The lanes heading south away from the fighting were bumper to bumper with cars. There was no panic. But people were clearly keen to clear the area.
The government had just declared a 5pm-6am curfew so the only thing to do was to head home before they shut down the streets. When I arrived at the gate, our Sudanese neighbours came out to welcome me back with an Alhamdulillah and offered to take us in if there was any trouble.
Being close to the action doesn't always give you a particularly clear picture of what is going on. The country's main mobile network was not working – either overloaded or shut down. Our internet connection was still up but the people I really needed to contact were offline. The only thing to do was watch the helicopters circling ahead and listen to the bombardments that seemed to drift closer and further away, depending on the wind.
After a while we got the Thuraya satellite phone up and running and got through to the government and some of the rebels. Here is the Reuters report that I contributed to. State TV started showing pictures of dead bodies and blood on the streets of Omdurman. The sun set and the bombing stopped.
Just a few random thoughts:
- Khartoum has always managed to stay insulated from most of the really horrific stuff going on in the country, particularly in Darfur. When we first arrived, I lost count of the number of people who assured us that is was “the safest city in Africa”. That reputation has taken a hit in recent months with the worries about an upsurge in terrorist activity. After today, that reputation is dead and buried. For the first time, Darfur has come to Khartoum.
- It is scary how quickly this happened. Look at any map and you'll see that the Chadian border is a long way away from Khartoum. Two days ago, the Sudanese army put out a statement saying that a body of rebels was heading towards North Kordofan – a vast open region in between Darfur and Khartoum. Most people scoffed at the announcement saying it was a clear propaganda ploy to distract attention from the recent bombing of a Darfur school. But two days later, the guns were blazing in our back yard. The Khartoum government is now saying that they had the rebels under surveillance all the time and were totally prepared. But I can't believe anyone thought JEM would get here in the first place, never mind this fast.
- JEM have warned in the past that they want to take the conflict beyond Darfur's borders to Kordofan and then further to every area in Sudan that they say the government has neglected. Is that now what we are facing? No longer a 'Darfur' conflict – instead something much more national and, with Chad's increasing involvement, international?
Posted by aheavens at May 10, 2008 8:11 PM