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
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"The land of Gandhi can never be racist": is India in denial about its attitude to skin colour?

“If we were indeed racist, why would we live with the South Indians?" was how one politician addressed the debate. 

When we were kids, my younger brother and I would spend much of our time thinking up new and innovative ways to get under each other’s skin, as siblings often do. One of the most reliable weapons in my brother’s arsenal was a taunt about skin colour - he was quite fair even by Punjabi standards, a fact that he was inordinately proud of. I on the other hand, had a permanent tan. This is now politely referred to as a "dusky" complexion, but back then was just "kaala" (black).

Being older, I generally had the upper hand in this cold war of insults and condescension, but my brother employed this particular tactic to great success for a couple of years. Because it rankled, it really did. No amount of explanation about melanin and sun exposure, or the fact that we were both "brown" in the eyes of the world made a difference. He was fair, I was not, and that was that. We didn’t have the context or the vocabulary to articulate why that minor difference in skin tone was important, but we knew instinctively that it was. It took us years to realise how problematic these little exchanges were. By then, we had  recognised how racism and prejudice about skin colour had wormed its way into our psyches at a young age, even growing up in a fairly liberal household. We laugh about it now, and my brother is more than a little embarrassed about that short phase during his pre-adolescent years. But as recent events have reminded us, for many people in India, racism and colourism is no laughing matter.

Two weeks ago, a video posted on Facebook by the African Students Association of India (AASI) went viral. It showed a mob of 40-odd Indians armed with snooker cues, dustbins and chairs brutally assaulting two Nigerian students inside a mall in Greater Noida, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, just 40km from the national capital, and home to hundreds of students from Africa who study in the city’s many private colleges and universities. This was part of a wave of violence unleashed by residents of the city that saw at least four Nigerian students admitted to the hospital with serious injuries, and countless others being treated for minor injuries. The details of what transpired over that week are as familiar as they are sordid - a missing Indian student, who was later found, and died in the hospital of a suspected drug overdose. Rumours of Africans being "cannibals", a new addition to the long, long list of racist stereotypes about black Africans that are bandied about to justify such violence. Demands that all African residents of the area be kicked out. And eventually, inevitably, mob violence.

The response by the government and the police followed the general SOP for when such attacks happen - and they do, with alarming frequency. There were promises of swift action (which rarely materialises), brazen denials that the violence was motivated by racism or xenophobia (“Criminal not racial” is how External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj described one attack in 2016) and victim-blaming (“Africans are involved in drug-dealing, Africans don’t assimilate”).

Then there is the Gandhi factor. “India is the land of Gandhi and Buddha…we can never have a racist mindset,” declared a pompous Swaraj, conveniently ignoring the fact that Gandhi himself was a proponent of anti-blackness in his early years, separating the South African Indian community’s struggle for freedom from that of the Zulus and writing that “about the mixing of the Kaffirs (blacks) with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly.” The truth is that, despite three centuries of experiencing racial discrimination at the hands of British colonisers, India’s unrequited love affair with whiteness has remained undimmed. We - specifically the North Indians who dominate so much of our national political and cultural discourse - take pride in our "Aryan" heritage, thereby aligning ourselves with global white hegemony. We have internalised the pseudo-scientific European racial theories that were in vogue in the 19th and early 20th century, but have lingered on in our school textbooks long after they were debunked. Indeed, when black Africans in India talk about being treated like a caged animal in a zoo, it’s hard not to make connections with 19th century Europe’s infamous "human zoos".

But while much of India's anti-blackness can be traced back to a colonial hangover, it is also fuelled by our own indigenous strain of "colourism", one that predates European theories of racial superiority. Last week, former Bharatiya Janata Party MP Tarun Vijay went on an Al Jazeera programme to talk about the recent spate of attacks. “If we were indeed racist, why would all the entire south – you know Kerala, Tamil, Andhra, Karnataka – why do we live with them?,” he said. “We have blacks…black people around us.” In his attempt to defend India from charges of anti-blackness, Vijay inadvertently laid bare the full extent of India’s problem with skin colour-based bigotry - our othering of not just black Africans but also of the darker-skinned citizens from our own country. It’s not hard to guess who the "we" in that statement is - the fairer, upper caste North Indian Hindus that form the BJP’s core constituency, and who have for ages thought of themselves as the template for the "true Indian". Everyone else, whether it’s Dalits and lower caste citizens from across the country, or the Dravidian residents of the southern parts of the country (both associated, though not entirely accurately, with darker skin colour), are merely tolerated. These two strains of bigotry - race and caste - combine to create a society where darkness is, at best, treated as a personal failing, something that you must strive to overcome. At its worst, it leads to dehumanisation and, eventually, violence.

Much of the blame for the persistence of such toxic attitudes towards skin colour rest with India’s pop culture and mass media industries. Bollywood, as always, has been a pioneer. For decades, people of darker skin colour have been pushed to the margins, relegated to the role of caricature or villain. Take for example the still iconic song from the 1965 film Gumnaam, in which comedian Mehmood tries to win the attention of Anglo-Indian actress Helen. “Hum kaale hue to kya hua dilwale hain (so what if I’m black, I still love you),” he sings, reinforcing the improbability of a beautiful (read fair-skinned) woman like Helen falling in love with a dark-skinned man. More recently, there was the 2008 film Fashion, in which Priyanka Chopra plays a model whose descent into drugs and depravity finally hits rock bottom when she wakes up one morning next to a black man. There’s also a long history of Indian films featuring "blackface" and racist stereotypes of black Africans, best exemplified by a horrifying scene from 2000 film Hadh Kar Di Aapne, in which… actually, just watch it yourself because I can’t figure out a way to put it into words without throwing my laptop out the window.

Indian television is no different, with dark-skinned actors - especially women - so rarely seen on programmes or advertising, that any advertisement that dares to break the norm is celebrated as groundbreakingly progressive. And then there’s the fairness cream industry, endorsed by a host of top film and television celebrities, with advertisements that inextricably link fairness not just to beauty but also to employability, self-confidence and suitability for marriage. Just take a look at this epic five part tele-commercial by Ponds, appropriately titled White Beauty. The focus on whiteness is relentless, and this colourism runs rampant even as Indian movies and television borrow and steal from black culture at will, even bringing in rap artists like Snoop Dogg and T-Pain to perform on Bollywood songs. It’s another thing that Snoop Dogg - or anyone with the same skin colour - has as much chance of playing the lead in Bollywood as I have of becoming Potus.

In recent years, as Indians outrage about racist attacks against non-resident Indians (NRIs) in the US and Europe and get involved in global conversations about racism and cultural appropriation, many of us have also started turning a spotlight on racism back home. The fairness cream industry is facing increasing criticism, even from high profile actors like Abhay Deol who would otherwise earn big money by appearing in their ads. Explicit racism in film and in advertising no longer goes unchallenged. When former Miss World and current Bollywood royalty Aishwarya Rai appeared in a print ad for a jewellery brand that alluded to 17th century European paintings of noblewomen, complete with emaciated black child servant holding up a red parasol, she was met with a barrage of criticism and outrage that forced the company to withdraw the ad. But as last month’s attacks make clear, this is not nearly enough.

First, the Indian government and our political class needs to acknowledge that racism and anti-blackness are a real problem, instead of trying to brush it under the carpet. Step one would be to bring in a long overdue law against racial discrimination. But as the persistence of caste despite the legal abolition of caste distinctions 70 year ago shows, having laws on the books is not enough. We need massive programmes to sensitise police, bureaucrats and the public at large about the toxic effects of racism and how to counter it. Racist stereotypes in media and public discourse should be shut down, not tolerated or even reproduced by political leaders as they are now. Anti-racist and anti-caste discourse should be an integral part of the school curriculum. Celebrities, activists and civil society needs to be much more vocal in their critique of racist and colourist speech and actions. There are more than enough policy prescriptions out there, if we can find the political will to put them into action. And we must find it soon. Or our kids will continue to grow up with the notion that social worth is tied to where you are on the Fitzpatrick scale, they will continue to weaponise skin colour in schools and in playgrounds. And for those of us with darker skin, whether black Africans or "black" Indians, the possibility of sudden, explosive violence will always lurk around the corner.

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. 

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