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Darfur: another forgotten genocide?
Darfur has become the home of the haunted! - Hilary Andersson, BBC Africa Correspondent - Murnei, Darfur region of Sudan, 15 June 2004

22 June   |   2004   |   Subject  Dafur

A vicious and complicit war is being waged since February 2003 in the three states of Darfur in western Sudan. According to recent estimates by international aid agencies, the number of civilians killed so far range between 15,000 and 30,000. The Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), predicted last week a worst-case scenario whereby the number of deaths could reach as high as 350,000 by the end of 2004 through gunfire and disease. Moreover, well over one million have already been ethnically cleansed from their villages and farms in a seeming attempt to purge the western Sudanese countryside of black-skinned non-Arabs. Eyewitness accounts describe looting and devastation from dawn attacks, burnt villages, raped and branded women, cut-off roads, stolen herds and no-go districts for aid organisations and foreigners. Tribal conflicts that have punctuated life in Darfur for two decades have now flared into civil war.

Darfur takes its name from the Fur, an ethnic African peasant group who live in the Jebel Marra mountains in the central plains of western Sudan. They dominated a long-independent kingdom that was absorbed into Sudan in 1916. The province is now divided into North, South and West Darfur. The northern part is Saharan, home to camel-breeding nomads. In the central and southern areas, pastoral tribes live alongside peasants where they regularly clash - especially when rain is scarce. Darfur is a land of many tribes, all Muslim, although only few are native Arabic speakers. The Arab tribes there are usually nomads, breeding camels in the north and cows in the south. Some African tribes are pastoral whilst most are peasants. Khartoum views them all with contempt.

There is a history of conflict in Darfur between herdsmen, who want water and grazing, and peasants, who want to protect their fields and meagre belongings. A demographic explosion has made the struggle for water and space even more violent. Traditional conflict control, based on the nomads’ adherence to north-south routes and recurrent periods of animal migration, began to crumble in the great drought and famine of the mid-1980’s.

Ever since then, Darfur has been in crisis. Although there are politicians from the province in Khartoum, its predicament has steadily worsened. Between 1985 and 1988, the Fur tribes fought Arabs who attacked their villages on their way in and out of Chad and Darfur. They also fought against incursions by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group as well as power plays by Sadeq al-Mahdi’s Umma party, the main coalition partner in government. The fighting could just have been a peak in the violence, worsened by drought. But in fact it was an ominous sign of worse things to come.

Throughout the 1990’s, many local hostilities initiated typically by Arab tribes took place in the three states of Darfur. A terrifying new word, Janjaweed, was coined to describe their militias. It translates as the ‘devil’s cavaliers armed with Kalashnikovs’. In the 1980’s, assault rifles had replaced spears and swords. Since 2001, the number of unpunished incidents has increased, mainly in the region between Nyala and al-Junaynah, and taken a toll on the Masalit and Fur tribes. The mass attacks convinced the victims that there had been a coordinated attempt at ethnic cleansing. At the same time in North Darfur, several serious incidents rekindled tension between the Zaghawa and the Eregat and Rezegat Arabs.

The Darfur Liberation Front (DLF), led by Abdel Wahid Muhammad Nur, triggered an uprising against Arab domination in the Jebel Marra on 25 February 2003, which united nearly all the African tribes of Darfur. The DLF, founded just over a year earlier, drew on Fur self-defence militias. To signal that it had expanded to include other African tribes, notably the Massalit, Zaghawa and Berti, it changed its name to the Sudan Liberation Movement / Army (SLM/A) in March 2003.

In September 2003, a short-lived ceasefire was agreed in neighbouring Chad. Khartoum saw it as a chance to exploit the political rifts in the rebellion. A second rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), was increasing its action in North Darfur. Led by Khalil Ibrahim, JEM has a Zaghawa base. Ibrahim, who used to belong to the Islamist party of Hassan al-Turabi, is a relative of the Tine sultan and quit the Sudan regime in 1999. In 2000, Ibrahim’s group anonymously published the Black Book, denouncing the grip of three prominent tribes from northern Sudan - the Shaygia, Jaaliyin and Danagla - on the Sudanese state and its policies. Yet JEM felt little sympathy for the cause of southern Sudan and positioned itself as the advocate for the vast neglected swathe of central Sudan from the Red Sea to Darfur.

When this short ceasefire officially ended on 16 December 2003, war broke out again all over Darfur. The Khartoum government, having reinforced its army, succeeded in its offensive. The SLM/A’s military chief, Abdallah Abakkar, was killed and government forces re-conquered the Zaghawa strongholds of Kulbus and Tine, prompting tens of thousands of women and children to take refuge in Chad. The government also had successes further south in Masalit country and in the distant Saharan hills inhabited by the Meidob. But the army failed to occupy the Jebel Marra.

Until then, the Sudanese president’s sole political gesture to the Darfur insurgents had been the convening of a peace conference in Khartoum. Chaired by his appointees, the conference had looked like an invitation for surrender. In March 2004, on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, UN agencies decided to denounce the contemporary ethnic cleansing in Darfur and Secretary-General Kofi Annan raised the possibility of international armed intervention.

However, the massacres have continued despite repeated truces. In the midst of all those murders, the US is still dithering over whether the Darfur killings qualify as genocide under the UN Convention of 1948. Yet, evidence of genocide abounds on the ground! According to the New York Times editorialist Nicholas D Kristof who visited the village of Ab-Layha and reported on its victims, the Janjaweed attacks are part of a deliberate strategy to ensure that the villages would be forever uninhabitable so that the Zaghawa, Masalit and Fur tribes could never live there again. Kristof’s editorial of 16 June 2004 concluded that if the Darfurians are not victims of genocide, then the word has no meaning.

Another authority on genocide is Samantha Power, author of the Pullitzer Prize winner book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Along with John Prendergast, special advisor to the International Crisis Group (ICG), she wrote on 2 June 2004 a poignant article about Darfur. She described the hundreds of thousands of Darfurian men and women that have been penned into concentration camps patrolled by the government-supported Janjaweed militiamen who rape women nightly and murder men trying to leave to gather food for their families. She added that other displaced people roam the region in search of food and water whilst Khartoum blocked and manipulated international food aid.

But addressing solely the symptoms of this conflict is ineffectual. It is essential to improve the humanitarian emergency response whilst also tackling simultaneously its root causes. Peace can only be achieved if the UN and world governments were to work together to stave off famine, reverse the ethnic cleansing and demand accountability from a Sudanese government apparently convinced that the international community would not act against it. Half-hearted attempts, such as UN Security Council Resolution 1547 (2004) of 11 June 2004, are not self-sufficiently effective and cannot manacle this onslaught against a minority group. As Clive Baldwin, Head of International Advocacy at Minority Rights Group International, stated on 17 June 2004, Darfur is acknowledged by the UN itself to be one of the most serious situations of rights’ violations and humanitarian disaster in the world today.  In the final analysis, the Security Council will need to look hard at their actions and ask if they truly did all within their power at an early stage to save lives in Darfur.

So what can be done promptly to turn up the heat on Khartoum? On 9 June 2004, the Catholic worldwide grassroots organisation Pax Christi International issued a Declaration entitled Protect people in Darfur! It appealed to the UN and the EU to help Sudan draw back from the precipice by applying the following immediate measures:

  • A United Nations arms embargo on the Sudan
  • Expansion of the mandate of the African Union monitors’ mission with a human rights component
  • Extension of the number of observers with European and American human rights observers
  • Expedient disclosure and publication of the African Union observers’ mission
  • Sudan’s ratification of the International Criminal Court
  • A UN mission to document and report on crimes against humanity and war crimes to prepare trials

The sheer inhumanity of what is being perpetrated against Sudanese Muslim black ethnic communities in Darfur today reminds me of previous acts of genocide. It seems almost as if the Sudanese authorities are calculating that this genocide will achieve the stability of a ‘final solution’ to the conflict between Arabs and non-Arabs. In that sense, what is happening today in Darfur equally awakens in me lingering associations with what recurred during the last century.

After all, was it not during WWI in 1915 that the world community overlooked and overstepped another genocide that resulted in the slaughter of well over one million hapless Armenian victims? Was that decision not also dictated by political expediency? Did history not repeat itself again some thirty years later when six million Jewish lives were also exterminated in the most horrific holocaust? And again, ten years ago, the world witnessed victims of another genocide in Rwanda. Today, in 2004, the victims are Sudanese: a whole people are being sacrificed yet again because it does not really matter what happens in Darfur. Is it that Sudan simply cannot be Iraq, just as Armenia simply could not be Turkey?

As far back as 15 April 2004, Mark Lattimer, Director of Minority Rights Group International, addressed the growing crisis in the Darfur region when he presaged, The warning signs are there in Darfur and the humanitarian agencies have done their job well in communicating ongoing violations and the risk of worse. The international community made a pledge last week and now it must keep its word. It must not wait for Darfur to turn into genocide before it acts.

Hilary Andersson’s BBC1 report from Murnei - some 75 kilometres southeast of al-Junaynah, and a prototype of what is happening across a region the size of France - leant itself to a sobering realisation that genocide was not such a forlorn option. Perhaps it is high time for the world community to wake up, tear itself away from other geo-political and obsessive designs, and to act now before Andersson’s macabre description of Darfur as ‘the home of the haunted’ turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Or … could it be that Darfur has sadly become another forgotten genocide?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2004   |   22 June


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