Chemical Attack in Darfur?

Washington Times
Aug 22 2004

Week in Review

By David W. Jones

Chemical attack?

There was something curiously understated about the report of an
apparent chemical attack on villagers in the Sudanese province of
Darfur, which ran on Tuesday’s front page.

For one thing, the word “chemical” was never used by any of the
villagers. They simply described in matter-of-fact terms how one day,
instead of the usual bombs, the planes dropped plastic sacks filled
with a flourlike substance that made them sick and killed their
“I came across the story just talking to the villagers in Shegek
Karo about their experiences during the bombing,” reporter Levon
Sevunts explained in a subsequent e-mail.
“They didn’t even realize what they were telling me was extremely
important. For them, it was just another of many ways the Sudanese
government had tried to kill them.”
Mr. Sevunt’s report was the first we had seen since the Darfur
story broke into the headlines this year to suggest the Sudanese were
using chemical weapons in the conflict.
That made it a big story, but also one on which we wanted to be
very careful of our facts – especially because Mr. Sevunts, a
freelance correspondent in the region for the Toronto Star, had filed
to us only a couple of times before.
But the innocent quality of the villagers’ stories gave the story
the ring of truth, and we were impressed by the fact that Mr. Sevunts
had carefully avoided making any unsubstantiated charges. He simply
recounted the stories the villagers had told him.
We had staff reporter David R. Sands in Washington make some
additional phone calls.
He learned that the British Broadcasting Corp. had reported the
use of chemical weapons in southern Darfur in 1999, and was told by a
specialist at the International Crisis Group (ICG) that there had
been unconfirmed reports of chemical-weapon use in Sudan for a
The ICG specialist, John Prendergast, also called for an
international investigation of all such charges. At that point, we
felt we had not only solid grounds for the story, but perhaps even an
obligation to run it.

Security concerns
One thing that troubled us: Mr. Sevunts, in his original story,
said representatives of Human Rights Watch had been to the village
and taken a sample of the powder to be analyzed. But when we called
Human Rights Watch from Washington, their spokesman was not aware of
the incident.
This might just be a case of poor communications between
headquarters and the field, common enough in situations like this.
When we queried Mr. Sevunts, he provided the name of the person who
took the sample and suggested another explanation.
“I think the HRW are denying it for the same reasons I had to
hold it for several days – security,” he wrote.
“But I couldn’t hold the story any more,” he said. On his way
back, he had run into reporters from competing organizations
traveling to the same village “and I wasn’t sure whether they got the
story, too.”
“So I filed at the first opportunity I got to recharge batteries
on my laptop and close enough to the Chadian border that I knew I
could make a run for it if the Sudanese came after us.”
We also did a bit of research on Mr. Sevunts – an easy enough
matter, thanks to Google. We knew he had worked several years for the
well-regarded Montreal Gazette, but not much more.
The Google search showed that he was Russian-born, that he had
lived in Armenia for a while, and that he had some remarkable
adventures during the fighting in Afghanistan at the end of 2001.
Mr. Sevunts “was once a soldier in the former Soviet Union,” says
a “blog” from that period by Kevin Sites, a freelance television
reporter for NBC and CNN. “That is probably why he is alive today. He
knows about war. Has been shot at before.”
That sounds like just the kind of guy we like to have reporting
from a conflict zone.

-David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times.
His e-mail address is [email protected].

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress