Darfur nine years on: murder in a media vacuum

For every Libya there are 10 Darfurs.

 

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.
Two girls in the Abushouk Internally Displaced Person's Camp near Darfur, which is home to 55,000 people. Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Pablo via Creative Commons
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Is Lithuania still homophobic? My girlfriend and I held hands to find out

The Lonely Planet guide warned that for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

It’s midnight somewhere on the greyish outskirts of Vilnius, and my girlfriend has just burst out laughing. Our Uber driver starts laughing too. Nonplussed, I scan the oppressively functional Soviet-era architecture we’re driving past for literally anything funny.

Then I see them. A series of panels above the stairway to a basement bar; photos of topless blonde men with glistening six packs. This is – as is usually the case – either a tribute to the most homoerotic scenes in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, or something deliberately gay. And 99 out of 100 it’s the latter, this being no exception.

Soho Club is the most out-of-context gay venue I’ve ever seen. It sits on a poorly lit street on the edge of Lithuania’s capital, almost as if it’s been plucked out of the city centre and dumped there.

Given the staunchly Catholic and formerly communist Baltic state’s uneasy relationship with its LGBTQ community, this wouldn’t be particularly surprising.

According to the Lonely Planet guide to the Baltic States for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

Homosexuality was only decriminalised here in 1993. And, any legislative victories aside, a 2009 poll found that attitudes amongst the population were much the same as the pre-1993 days. Eight in ten respondents considered homosexuality to be anywhere between a perversion and a disease. 

Such a gay-hostile place probably seems like an odd choice for a romantic getaway with my girlfriend, on my birthday weekend. Then again an itinerary like ours, which includes a visit to the both the Museum of the Victims of Genocide, and the Holocaust exhibition at the Jewish museum, is hardly "gondola ride in Venice" or "Eiffel Tower at sunset". This is a stark, ex-Soviet, mostly-raining introduction to being gay outside of the liberal London bubble. Which is to say: dreamy.

Having said that, Vilnius’s cobbled old town is beautiful and, compared to other more mainstream Eastern European capitals, decidedly less stag night-y. Same-sex couples, it turns out, can be drawn to a city for features other than its queer nightlife. 

On the short walk from Vilnius’s central train station to our Airbnb, we passed a mural of Donald Trump smoking a spliff and giving Vladimir Putin blowback. A definite tribute to the gay kiss between the USSR's Brezhnev and East Germany's Honecker depicted on the Berlin Wall.

It was hard to tell what this said about the area’s attitude towards queers, but it was on the side of a bar that’s blasting out Black Lips and full of Lithuanian hipsters in their twenties. Say what you like about hipsters, they are not known for gay-hate. It was difficult to imagine anyone in there giving much of a shit about our sexuality.

At the Airbnb, we were greeted by one such Lithuanian hipster. She was about 20 and seemed a little nervous speaking to us, even though her English was near fluent.

The flat – an immaculate new build – was decked out in Ikea classics. Like the bar with the homoerotic Trump/Putin mural, anywhere with a Malm just seems to radiate gay-friendliness. It’s both sterile and PC. Like the Lib Dems, or a free sachet of lube.

Our host gave us a brief lesson in how to work the flat, before saying a polite goodbye. We’d just started unpacking when there was a knock on the door. It turned out the host had done a 180.

"One last thing," she said, "Do you need an extra duvet, or are you… sharing the bed?"

OH GOD, I thought. This is it. This is the kind of shit you read about. You never do read about anything good.

"Yeah, we’re sharing," I said, feeling both – I hate to say – embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship, and embarrassed about being embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship.

"OK, cool. No questions!" said the host, before disappearing into the afternoon at the speed of sound.

"No questions," I repeated, "Hmm."

Just to be clear, no, this wasn’t exactly a hate crime. I’m also reluctant to judge a 20-year-old from a very religious country for – well – judging us. And anyway, maybe "no questions" meant "no judgment". Who am I to… judge?

We’d been in Lithuania for about an hour before my girlfriend and I decided to really test the water and hold hands in the street. Mostly, we were starting to wonder if we were being xenophobic by assuming Lithuanians were probably homophobic.

This, I suppose, is the point at which bigotry really starts to eat itself. Unfortunately though, almost the moment we held hands, a group of...shaven headed individuals, who wouldn’t look out of place in a modern day pogrom, walked past, staring us down as if we’d stopped there for a spot of mid-street fisting.

I made brief eye contact with one of them as I let go of my girlfriend’s hand as fast as a bottle of water at airport security.

"Oh," I said to her, when – as far as we knew – Vilnius’s only out homophobes were at a safe distance. "Yeah…" she said.

There are parts of the world – Uganda, Russia and, most recently, Chechnya –  where both socially and legislatively speaking, things are actually getting worse for queer people. But, the overarching narrative is "it gets better". Visiting anywhere with less good attitudes towards The Gays than I’m used to feels like a step back in time.

I wonder, in terms of acceptance of, say, two women holding hands, which decade in London is reflected in 2017 Vilnius. The 80s? The 70s? I’ve only been gay in London since 1989. And back then – as far as I know – I wasn’t a particularly dykey baby. 

So began a weekend-long game of political PDA. We walked through the cobbled streets of the old town, admiring baroque churches and wondering if we were allowed to be a couple near them.

Without a strict set of rules, every stranger’s glance is open to interpretation. My interpretation being, "Let’s just not make a scene, OK?", my girlfriend’s interpretation being, "Stop being paranoid and xenophobic. No one cares."

In the evening, as we sat in a busy restaurant eating zeppelins (remarkably dense Lithuanian potato dumplings, not airships) we spotted – lo and behold – what we (homophobically?) thought might be another gay couple.

Two men in their twenties stood waiting for a table. They had professionally shaped eyebrows. One of them had earrings. In Nineties terms, they were gay as fuck. At a dumpling joint in Vilnius, at ten at night, who the hell knows? And, more to the point, why the hell should they care? Well, when your relationship has been reduced – via queer invisibility – to a handholding battle, you’re kind of desperate to find another same-sex couple.

"Are they…" I said.

"They must be," she said.

"Should we…?"

"NO."

I’m not even too sure what I was asking we "should" do (speak to them? Buy them drinks? Demand a gay tour of Vilnius?), or why I was shut down without finishing my sentence. Whatever we should or shouldn’t have done, we didn’t.

But back to Soho Club. The car stops and we leave behind our bewildered and slightly too amused Uber driver. Tentatively, as if approaching an ancient Egyptian tomb by lamplight, we walk down the stairs past the muscle man panels.

The complete silence – not even interrupted by passing traffic – doesn’t exactly say "buzzing" or… "Soho". Inevitably, almost, the bar is closed. In fact, it’s arguably the most closed bar I’ve ever seen. We’ve turned up, ready to party with Lithuania’s finest gays, at a giant lead box. What’s more, we look around us and realise we’ve strayed into Murder Town.

On our way to the nearest bus stop, we pass a life-size fiberglass cow devoid of any explanation, and a lit-up poster that looks startlingly like an ad for dead babies. The streets get wider and desolate-er until we’re at a petrol station, holding hands out of pure fear. On my part at least. If this is Vilnius’s gay scene, I’d like to give it some kudos at least for quite strongly resembling a David Lynch film.

Having somehow not been sawn into pieces and turned into outsider art, we find ourselves back at Vilnius airport the next day. While idly internetting on her phone, my girlfriend notices our Airbnb host has reviewed us as guests.

"Leonore and her friend are very friendly people!" she wrote.

In all fairness, I have shared beds in Airbnbs with friends. And whether or not someone is tiptoeing around my sexuality like a puddle of something that may or may not be wee, it’s always nice to be considered friendly. And to have "friends".

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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