Sudan Armed Forces Implicated in Video Captured by Their Own Drone

A new British documentary film presents graphic visual evidence that the Sudanese government has committed crimes against humanity by bombarding civilians in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan, Sudan. Surprisingly, the most irrebuttable visual evidence comes from the Sudan Armed Forces, or SAF, in the form of video captured by a drone flown by SAF over apparent civilian areas in advance of bombardment. The evidence convincingly shows that the Government of Sudan is operating Iranian drones.

"Unreported World: Terror in Sudan" will premiere on the UK's Channel 4 on Friday, April 13, and will be available on YouTube the following day. The trailer has just been posted.

Reporter Aidan Hartley and Director Daniel Bogado interviewed a Nuba family sheltering in a cave and scavenging for fruit, with little else to eat but sorghum reduced in price because it is contaminated with petrol.

They witnessed school children scattering moments before a SAF Antonov circled around, then bombed, a clearing where they had been receiving lessons.

They interviewed Dr. Tom Catena, an American surgeon who has performed some 700 operations for war-related injuries (80 percent, he says, on civilians) at Mother of Mercy Hospital in the Nuba Mountains town of Gidel since the outbreak of violence last June.

And they brought back startling new images of a drone reportedly shot down by rebels.

The film reveals that the drone was equipped with a video camera to film its flight paths. As the drone flew over apparent civilian areas for a period of three weeks, several times in advance of reported Antonov attacks, it recorded video imagery of the landscape and groups of people below, along with the date, time and geo-coordinates. Video downloaded from the drone's memory card shows that on the date of its final flight, March 13, it took off from the Kadugli airport operated by SAF at 10:33 a.m. local time, and then about an hour later, recorded a black puff of smoke -- consistent with anti-aircraft fire -- near the South Kordofan border town of Jau, before it went into a steep descent and crashed into a tree.

Inside the drone, the film makers found a carburetor cap of the type commonly found in chainsaws and stamped with the name of an Irish company, Tillotson. More significant, they documented a generator made in 2006 and labeled "Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company."

Two Iranian students designed and manufactured a similar drone in 2007 for military reconnaissance, according to Iran's Fars News Agency.

The Sudan Armed Forces drone appears to be consistent with a model of Iranian "Pahpad" (Persian for "UAV", or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) which is used for surveillance, and can be used to increase the accuracy of military targeting, as shown in an Iranian news video from PressTV. On its wing is the identification number 3-2-R050. (The SAF drone shot down by rebel forces bears in the same spot on its wing the identification number 3-1-R031.) Other similarities between the Iranian drone shown on PressTV and the drone operated by SAF include: wooden propeller in back; twin boom tails; tapered wings; hatch on top of fuselage; top-mounted antenna; three covered wheels; retractable front wheel; and camera mount.

Reporter Aidan Hartley agreed to answer five questions.

Q: Your Channel 4 crew filmed Nuban school children in South Kordofan whose lessons were interrupted by the howl of an Antonov plane. What happened next?

A: Total panic. Never seen anything like it. 400 children ran for cover in the caves of a nearby mountainside. They crammed themselves into rock clefts and holes. You could see fear in their eyes. This was at morning assembly at a place called Tungule. When the all clear was shouted out, the kids re-emerged –and then another bomber circled over and they all ran back to the caves. This apparently is an almost daily occurrence. We’re told bombers looked for groups of people. Bombs had killed and injured several civilians here recently. We ourselves saw three bombers in this spot in one day. The kids take lessons under the trees in the open because their families fled homes and farms to escape Khartoum’s aerial bombardments and now a lot of displaced people live in caves. The children were bright as buttons, keen to learn – but they had nothing: No pens, no paper, no books.

Q: Did you witness ground combat while you were filming the documentary?

A: No, but we witnessed Sukhoi 25 jets firing rockets and Antonovs dropped bombs nearby – a taste of what Nuba civilians face daily. And we saw fresh debris of fighting: burned out tanks and corpses on the road into Nuba Mountains from the South Sudan frontier – the only lifeline to the outside world. Khartoum’s troops had put 6,000 men and heavy weapons in there to seize the track, but the SPLA had just retaken it. I must stress that our aim was to film the impact of war on the civilians away from the frontlines. We were concerned about the million plus non-combatants in Nuba. What we found was that Khartoum’s air raids target Nuba people who have tried to find safety far from rebel SPLA positions or frontlines. In fact, it’s impossible for civilians to escape the conflict. This is Khartoum’s tactic of total war against the Nuba. President Omar al-Bashir sees non-combatants as targets. "We’ll force them back into the mountains and starve them," he said last year. He wants to subdue them or make them flee. This is indeed ethnic cleansing.

Q: We've seen indiscriminate bombardment of civilians and the use of food as a weapon before, in Darfur. Sudan's President Bashir, along with Defense Minister Hussein and South Kordofan Governor Haroun are all wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes including genocide in Darfur, but they've never been arrested. What do the Nuba people expect the international community to do about their present situation?

A: They’re bewildered. In 2011, United Nations peacekeepers evacuated together with agencies like UNICEF and the World Food Programme soon after fighting erupted. The NGOs evacuated, too. After Rwanda’s 1994 genocide – which I witnessed -- the world said, "Never again." But it’s happening now again in the 21st Century less than a decade after Darfur. What are we doing? The Nuba don’t want free handouts. They’re tough and resourceful. But right now, they’re victims of a political famine. So like Clooney said on the steps of the US Embassy in Washington last month: first, they want the international community to stop Khartoum from its aerial bombardments and other attacks on civilians; secondly, they want relief agencies to gain access to deliver emergency aid to avert a terrible famine and allow people to get back on their feet. If Khartoum bans agencies, then ignore Khartoum. Intervene robustly to save lives. Sudan’s government – led by an alleged war criminal -- has no right of sovereignty over its territory if all it does is exterminate Sudanese civilians.

Q: You saw a Sudan Armed Forces drone that rebel forces had reportedly shot down over Jau, South Kordofan. The drone had a camera on board. You processed the data and video images from its memory card. What did you see?

A: We recovered the video files from several flights conducted by the drone. When we played it back, we found GPS co-ordinates, time and date appearing onscreen. Footage shows the drone take off from the military airfield north of Kadugli. The drone then overflies territory we know to be in rebel SPLA-N hands. It flies over some areas that are military positions – but it also flies over civilian locations far from any frontline. On March 13, 2012, the drone overflew the vicinity of two villages about 20 minutes before they were bombed by Antonovs. We know this because we were in a neighboring village when the bombs hit – and we later checked the time that happened against the on-camera video time code we recovered from the video.

Q: Did you find any evidence of who might have made the drone and who operated it, and for what apparent purpose?

A: Components inside the drone appear to have originally been manufactured in Iran and Ireland. Take a look at the photos for the brand names. Both Sudan and Iran are under weapons sanctions, so it’s illegal to supply such technology – however it’s entirely unclear when the parts were supplied, and to whom. The Irish company denies any wrongdoing. What we know is that a very similar drone was shot down over Jebel Marra in Darfur and it’s mentioned in the 2009 UN sanctions investigators’ report. That drone contained UK technology sold to an Iranian front company based in Dubai, so there’s lots of murky aspects to this. What’s important to know is that Khartoum appears to be deploying such technology to hit targets where civilians live and where there’s no military value – and that’s a war crime.