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Darfur nine years on: murder in a media vacuum

For every Libya there are 10 Darfurs.

New Statesman
Two girls in the Abushouk Internally Displaced Person's Camp near Darfur, which is home to 55,000 people. Photo: Getty Images

 

Earlier this month the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, condemned Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s “long list of broken promises”. 
 
“The world must judge Assad by what he does, not by what he says,” she added. “And we cannot sit back and wait any longer.”
 
The same should apply to President Omer al Bashir of Sudan who has been killing, ethnically cleansing, raping, torturing and terrorizing the people of Darfur for nine years. Like Assad, Sudan’s Bashir targets his own unarmed civilians systematically and with impunity. As Darfuris mark the anniversary of the start of their rebellion on 25 April, many ask why a lesser standard applies to Bashir, the only sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court. 
 
The UN estimates that over 300,000 Darfuris have died, and Human Rights Watch believes 90% of villages inhabited by non-Arabic speakers have been destroyed. Military attacks continue to this day, with several deadly aerial bombardments this month alone. However, since these human rights violations occur in a media vacuum, the world assumes “Darfur is over.” 
 
As Waging Peace’s research shows, Bashir has repeatedly broken promises made to the international community in the past nine years. He continues to do so secure in the knowledge he will face no consequences. His regime is emboldened by the silence that greets each new atrocity: UN and humanitarian agencies too intimidated by Sudanese security services to speak out, journalists banned, 1000 bombs dropped on the people of the Nuba Mountains in the past nine months, and a nascent Arab Spring in Khartoum crushed without hesitation.
 
Why doesn’t Sudan merit our outrage? Worthy UN resolutions remain unenforced, while the African Union/UN monitoring mission is under-resourced and lacks the international political backing to hold the Khartoum regime to account. Sudan-watchers suggest the world has averted its eyes from Darfur, hoping Bashir would allow South Sudan to secede. Yet, after less than a year, our appeasement has predictably been rewarded by Khartoum’s belligerence: the new neighbours are on the verge of war after months of provocative border attacks by the North.
 
The Darfur rebellion began nine years ago in response to decades of marginalisation by Khartoum. In common with the inhabitants of other Sudanese regions, the people of Darfur objected to the concentration of power and wealth in the nation’s capital. 
 
Khartoum responded by stirring up anti-African prejudice among the poor local Arabic-speaking nomads, the Janjaweed. By arming and paying the Janjaweed to kill and ethnically cleanse their fellow Muslims in Darfur, Khartoum achieved genocide on the cheap. For decades the regime had used the same strategy against the Nuba population (also black African, as opposed to Arabic-speaking) and other southern groups considered ethnically inferior. An estimated two million died as a consequence.
 
Using local proxies allows Khartoum, like Macavity the Mystery Cat, to claim it is nowhere near the scene of the crime. It helps that no reporters or human rights groups are allowed into Darfur, and the aid groups present are threatened with expulsion if they reveal what they see on a daily basis.
However, Waging Peace – a charity which campaigns against genocide and systematic human rights violations - collected hundreds of drawings of the attacks by Darfuri children in refugee camps in neighbouring Chad. The drawings show both the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Janjaweed working in concert, and in a systematic fashion, to destroy villages where non-Arabic tribes lived. The drawings validate the testimony of survivors given to other human rights groups and UN agencies.
 
The pictures show civilians being killed, men being beheaded; children thrown onto fires; villages bombed by Sudanese helicopters and Antonov planes, and tanks flying the Sudanese flag. Some children draw their attackers with paler (Arabic) skin, while those being attacked (the Darfuris, who self-identify as African) are darker. Some drawings show girls being led off in chains by Sudanese soldiers to become slaves or ‘wives.’ Khartoum dismissed the pictures as the work of Zionist agents, but the International Criminal Court accepted them as evidence of the context of war crimes in Darfur.
 
The children’s pictures record the “widespread, systematic and coordinated attacks” described in a new report from Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). According to research by PHR, 99% of the attacks in Darfur take place in the absence of active armed conflict with rebels. In other words, the Sudanese armed forces and their Janjaweed proxies are killing and torturing civilians, not engaging the rebels. PHR also found that among the thousands of women and girls raped, half of them are attacked close to the camps where they have sought shelter. All of these gross human rights violations continue to this day. Waging Peace’s record of atrocities in Darfur in 2011 alone runs to more than 100 pages.
 
What can be done? It would help if existing UN resolutions on Sudan, passed as long ago as 2004, were finally implemented. Targeted smart sanctions against the personal finances of the architects of Darfur’s genocide might give Khartoum pause for thought. And travel bans would stop their shopping trips to Paris. 
 
Given the international community’s reluctance to make good its word on Darfur, it is hardly surprising that the Khartoum regime is currently bombing civilians along the contested border with South Sudan. Since last June there have been 1,000 confirmed aerial bombings of the Nuba Mountains area alone, with mass starvation looming because farmers are unable to get to their fields, and half a million people have fled their homes. Khartoum’s tried and tested Darfur strategy is in play once more against citizens it regards as black Africans, and therefore inferior. With the exception of George Clooney’s arrest outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington, there has been little comment or condemnation, confirming Khartoum’s suspicions that it can get away with murder.
 
Nor can it have escaped Bashar Assad’s notice that the world rarely intervenes when a regime kills its own citizens en masse: for every Libya there are ten Darfurs or East Timors or Rwandas. We never seem to learn.
 
Olivia Warham is the Director of Waging Peace.