Features » May 6, 2004
Genocide in Sudan
The United Nations suppresses its own report on ‘the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis’
On the 10th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, another human catastrophe is rapidly accelerating despite full knowledge of the United Nations and Western dem-oc-racies. In April, a U.N. team investigating human rights abuses in the far western Darfur region of Sudan found “disturbing patterns of massive human rights violations in Darfur, many of which may constitute war crimes and/or crimes against humanity.” Based on interviews with refugees along the Chad-Sudan border, the report of this team (along with similar reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch) was available during the annual meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva that recently adjourned. But scandalously, as the commission debated what to do about Sudan and Darfur, the U.N team’s damning report was suppressed.
The circumstances of this suppression are murky. But the end result was that the commission released an innocuous and meaningless statement that failed to condemn the government of Sudan for its role in orchestrating the vast human destruction in Darfur. This continues a pattern of callous failures that have rendered the U.N. Commission on Human Rights hopelessly irrelevant in fulfilling its nominal mandate. But willful ignorance can do nothing to diminish what U.N. aid officials are now describing as “the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis.”
This crisis was precipitated by the outbreak of civil war in Darfur, hostilities entirely separate from Khartoum’s 21-year assault against the African peoples of southern Sudan. The long-marginalized and abused African peoples in Darfur rose up in a rebellion early in 2003 and militarily caught Khartoum off guard. But this only made the eventual military response more brutal and violent. The government of Sudan, dominated by the National Islamic Front, is relentlessly, deliberately destroying the African tribal peoples of the region. Indeed, all evidence suggests that what U.N. and Western diplomats are diffidently calling “ethnic cleansing” in Darfur, an area the size of France, is actually genocide.
Sudan is aided by a large militia force comprising various Arab tribal peoples called the Janjaweed (“warriors on horseback”). The predations of the Khartoum government and its militia allies defy easy description. “The scale of the violence is indescribable. In every village they’re talking about hundreds of people killed,” said Coralie Lechelle, an emergency coordinator with Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) who in April returned after four months in Darfur.
Jan Egeland, U.N. undersecretary for humanitarian affairs, has spoken of “scorched-earth tactics” in Darfur. The results are all too conspicuous, even with very limited humanitarian presence in the region, most notably that of MSF. “You can drive for 100 kilometers and see nobody, no civilian,” Mercedes Tatay, an MSF physician who recently spent a month in Darfur, told reporters. “You pass through large villages, completely burned or still burning, and you see nobody.”
Khartoum’s Janjaweed militia has become more active in the war and is now responsible for the majority of killings, village burnings, rapes, and massive destruction of foodstocks, seeds, agricultural implements, livestock, and critical wells and irrigation systems. The effect on African tribal groups—primarily the Fur, Massaleit and Zaghawa—is massive displacement. The U.N. recently increased its estimate of the number of internally displaced persons to more than 1 million, and the number of refugees in neighboring Chad, which shares a 500-mile border with Darfur, to well over 100,000. Displacement in the harsh physical environment of Darfur, without food, water, transport donkeys or other resources, often is a death sentence.
While the number of casualties can only be guessed at, research from along the Chad-Sudan border suggests the number may be 50,000 or greater—and the numbers could well be more terrifying in the future. The U.S. Agency for International Development recently projected huge increases in both “global acute malnutrition” and “crude mortality rates” (CMR) for the vulnerable population in Darfur, estimated at 1.2 million and growing. The CMR is projected to rise to 20 people per day per 10,000; MSF considers three deaths per day per 10,000 “catastrophic mortality rate.” In short, mass starvation will begin in October or November this year without urgent and large-scale humanitarian assistance, which the Khartoum regime, according to U.N. officials, is “systematically denying.”
The language of the 1948 U.N. Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide speaks of acts “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Though both U.N. and U.S. officials have explicitly made the comparison between Darfur in 2004 and Rwanda in 1994, this terrible anniversary has found few voices willing to say what the language of the Genocide Convention all too clearly specifies.
The human destruction occurring in Darfur has been deliberate. The U.N. news service reported in March:
In an attack on February 27, 2004, in the Tawilah area of northern Darfur, 30 villages were burned to the ground, over 200 people killed and over 200 girls and women raped—some by up to 14 assailants and in front of their fathers who were later killed. A further 150 women and 200 children were abducted.
With a complete ban on news reporters, and the systematic denial of humanitarian access, Khartoum largely controls the amount of information that can come out of Darfur. But refugees in Chad, frantic and dangerous telephone calls to the outside world from the larger urban areas of Darfur, and reports from sympathetic Arab Darfurians able to leave the region all suggest an invisible but vast holocaust. Concentration camps, often run by the Janjaweed, are increasingly used as a means of controlling the massive numbers of displaced people. Conditions in the camps are appalling—and deteriorating. Food and water are exceedingly scarce, and disease is rapidly taking its toll in extremely cramped quarters without sanitary facilities.
Overwhelming evidence indicates that the human destruction in Darfur is animated by racial and ethnic hatred. Refugees along the Chad-Sudan border offer the same story: “ ‘You are opponents to the regime, we must crush you,’ ” one victim told Amnesty International, quoting the words of his attacker. “ ‘As you are black, you are like slaves. Then the entire Darfur region will be in the hands of the Arabs. The government is on our side. The government plane is on our side, it gives us ammunition and food.’ ”
Though both African and Arab populations are overwhelmingly Muslim, Khartoum has for military purposes stoked the fires of racial and ethnic hatred, the consequences of which will outlive the war.
Tensions between African and Arab tribal groups are not new to Darfur, in part because of cultural differences, in part because of differences in agricultural practices. The African groups tend to be sedentary farmers; the Arab groups nomadic pastoralists. Still, centuries of cohabitation in the difficult land produced a number of relatively effective conflict-resolution and containment mechanisms. Racial and ethnic differences have been salient but never the source of mass killings.
But in the spring 2003, Khartoum’s regular military forces were regularly defeated by Darfur insurgency groups. In response the regime resorted to the classic counter-insurgency strategy of destroying the African civilian base of military resistance in the region. This has produced another casualty of the war: a total breakdown in traditional conflict-resolution measures. The trust required for such mechanisms to work again likely will not be restored.
The shift in military strategy required that Khartoum recruit the Janjaweed, which number more than 20,000, arm them, and give them free reign to take payment in the form of stolen cattle, food, agricultural land, and the use of rape as a weapon of war. The result has been what the U.N. human rights report described as a “reign of terror.”
Military cooperation between the Janjaweed and Khartoum’s regular military and intelligence forces always has been close. In April, Human Rights Watch reported that this coordination has increased, with Khartoum—possessing the only aerial military in the war—relentlessly bombing villages, wells, markets, even fleeing civilians and refugee camps. Though helicopter gunships and MiG jets have been used, the primary weapon is the Antonov bomber: retrofitted Russian cargo planes that are notoriously inaccurate and carry huge loads of shrapnel-packed barrel-bombs. Antonovs are largely useless for real military purposes but are savagely effective against civilian targets. Barrel bombs have been used for many years by Khartoum in its better-known war against the African peoples of southern Sudan.
A typical assault begins in the early morning with an Antonov attack, followed by a ground assault of Janjaweed forces on horse or camel, often accompanied by Khartoum’s regular military. People are forced to flee, though often the disabled and elderly are unable to escape and are slaughtered. Particular efforts are made to kill boys and young men. Wells are dynamited or poisoned with corpses—an extraordinarily destructive act in this arid region—foodstuffs are burned, cattle looted (thus destroying the “food insurance” of these people), and people tortured, raped and abducted.
As both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have found, another weapon in the war is mass extrajudicial executions. A lone survivor, near death from his gunshot wound, was able to provide Human Rights Watch with the following information:
In a joint operation in the Darfur region of Sudan, government troops working with Arab militias detained 136 African men whom the militias massacred hours later. The 136 men, all members of the Fur ethnic group aged between 20 and 60, were rounded up in early March in two separate sweeps in the Garsila and Mugjir areas in Wadi Saleh. They were then taken in army lorries to nearby valleys where they were made to kneel before being killed with a bullet in the back of the neck.
Amnesty International reported a similar event in which 168 men and boys were executed. And we may be sure that there are countless such mass executions far beyond possible international scrutiny or discovery.
To date the response of the international community has been schizophrenic. U.N. officials and others refer to these realities as “ethnic cleansing,” “crimes against humanity” and a “scorched-earth campaign” that has produced “the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis.” And senior U.N. officials have condemned the “systematic” denial of humanitarian access to the areas in which African tribal peoples live.
But with the U.N. Commission on Human Rights having failed to act, it is no surprise that Khartoum has twice denied a U.N. humanitarian assessment team, led by U.N. Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs Egeland, access to Darfur. The regime calculates that with an international community that is apparently unconcerned it will pay no price for their atrocities in Darfur. This belief has only been encouraged by the refusal of the U.N. Security Council to take up Darfur in a serious way. European countries seem content merely to have supported the resolution in Geneva that declared: “The [U.N.] Commission [on Human Rights] expresses its solidarity with the Sudan in overcoming the current situation.”
This is no time for inconsequential “solidarity.” The rainy season begins in May and will quickly render many roads impassable. Pre-positioned food, medicine, well-drilling equipment and shelter supplies are totally inadequate. The rains will not only make transport immensely more difficult, but water-borne diseases like cholera will spread rapidly. The U.N. already has reported an outbreak of meningitis “above the epidemic threshold” in a refugee camp in Chad; outbreaks of measles—a potentially fatal disease in weakened populations—also have been reported.
The political reality of the situation dictates that leadership must come from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. But while floating the notion of humanitarian intervention in Darfur on the anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, Annan has yet to make concrete proposals for either the resources or the mandate that would guide an intervention. The U.N.’s failure to act ensures that hundreds of thousands of Darfurians will die in the coming months, as the projected mortality rates climb beyond the “catastrophic” range in June.
Most of those killed will not die of machete wounds but from the consequences of the racial and ethnic animus that is forcibly displacing a vast African population. All signs indicate that in 10 years we will have another grim anniversary.
Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College. He has testified several times before Congress on the ongoing crisis in Sudan. His writings on the subject have appeared in The Nation, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and many international publications.