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: Getty
Show Hide image

In the chaos of the Middle East, the world must stand behind the Kurds

The Kurdish people have shown themselves to be a small beacon of light in a sea of darkness.

It is one year since the lifting of the Siege of Kobanî. Many of us can recall harrowing images of the black flags of Isis flying threateningly from the surrounding hills, of car bombs being driven into the city’s defences, and of heroic citizens defending their houses and families from the despotic invaders intent on killing them. The Siege of Kobanî was the Stalingrad of the Syrian civil war – a true turning point in the battle against Isis.

Since then, we have seen a significant escalation in the involvement of the international community in Syria and Iraq. But to what end? Syria remains divided between various competing forces; Iraq is a half-governed country with declining influence over its populace. Foreign governments play power games across international boundaries which have long-since ceased to be relevant, least of all to those wishing to establish an Islamist caliphate.

Beheadings, suicide bombings, barrel bombs, religious extremism, violent intolerance, mass movements of people – these are just a few terms most associated with the Middle East today. To say the region is complex is an understatement bordering on ignorance.

In a recent PBS documentary, Inside Assad’s Syria, a television crew was sent to Damascus to cover its sectarian, religious and ideological divides. It showed us two halves to the city: one which lives in liberty and security; and another which resides in barrel-bombed apartment blocks and streets overrun with groups opposed to Bashar al-Assad.

In the southwest of Syria, pro-democratic force control pockets of land and fight Assad’s forces. In the northwest, Hezbollah works with Assad’s army to fight Islamist groups. Further north are areas ruled by groups with affiliations to Al Qaeda, such as the powerful al-Nusra Front. In the east, highways and cities have fallen to the apocalyptic regime of Isis, which stretches far across the old border into Iraq. What future does the Middle East have with such contrasting ideological and religious divides? It is near-impossible to offer a positive view for the future.

Resolving these issues will only be achieved in the long term and through a combination of local agreements (and perhaps the portioning of areas) of international oversight. In the short term, what can we do as citizens of a country with vested interests but limited power?

One of the problems of Western coverage and commentary is that we rarely view the Middle East in any way except through the prism of war. Debate is focused narrowly on the issues of intervention, extremism and migration. People are commonly talked about in derogatory terms with most mistakenly referred to as migrants, when many are fleeing from death and destruction.

These are people who, like us, desire to live in peace and security. They want to raise families and contribute to their communities. Although there are theological differences between Shias, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians, Jews and various minorities, for centuries these groups have lived alongside each other with general tolerance and respect. Churches have existed in the same cities as mosques. Yet the internecine conflicts have ruined the multiculturalism balances in Syria and Iraq. Communities have been divided against each other, sometimes on pain of death. The region is overrun with regressive forces.

Here in the UK, our view of foreign policy is shaped by the forming of alliances with progressive forces – that is those countries, governments and parties committed to values similar to our own. With the conflicts in Syria and Iraq as they are, dominated by regressive forces, our foreign policy is in disrepute. Who should we support in Syria? How can we continue to support Iraq’s army if it is being led on the ground by Iranian generals?

There is one force within the region that is progressive. They share our commitment to democracy, the rule of law and liberty. They have cohesive, well-led armed forces which not only protect their peoples, but also others in fear of persecution. Their women fight alongside their men, often in leadership positions. They have been the bulwark against Isis advances in both Iraq and Syria. They liberated Kobanî from oppression in tandem with US forces.

The Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria and the Peshmerga in Iraq have proved their strength and longevity in the face of enormous challenges. Lacking the weaponry appropriated by Isis, they have fought bravely and slowly liberated areas from tyranny. In doing so, they have treated non-Kurdish citizens well and protected them as they would wish to be protected by others. They have put their lives on the line for the common good, such as the taking of towns and cities outside of Kurdish areas. In doing so, they have refrained from declaring an expansion of Kurdish territory, instead stating that such lands will be handed over to local progressive groups when it is ready to do so.

Perversely, Western governments depend on Peshmerga and YPG forces to fight without adequately arming them. In Turkey, the same Kurdish citizens who would fight for the YPG against Isis are prosecuted and sometimes killed during clashes for protesting in favour of devolution. Turkey’s Kurdish populations in towns like Sur, Cizre, Nusaybin and many others are living under curfew. Yet we do nothing to raise this an issue.

Yet is it the Kurdish people that will be the first army to defeat the ideology of Isis. And because of this they are the biggest target. Their men and women are free. They live in lands governed by democracy, social justice and equality. They hold values in direct opposition to Isis but living in cities just miles apart. The Kurds are the only progressive force in the region which shares our values, has a commitment to democracy and has armies strong enough to protect its peoples.

If we believe in supporting those who share our values, we must show them our solidarity. Our support must go to Kurds as a whole not just those who fight for our interests, because the challenges Kurds face go beyond the borders set by the UK and France in 1920. These borders have been disregarded not only by Isis and al-Qaeda but also by Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have each ignored international boundaries in pursuit of their interests.

It is fair to say that this simple notion of solidarity leads us to certain complications. Kurdistan is an ancient region divided up by imperial powers between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. How do we support the Kurds without alienating our allies in Ankara and Baghdad?

During the 1991 Gulf War, the US, UK and France established a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan to protect Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s air force. A year later, the first free and fair elections were held in Kurdistan. It was also the first such election in the whole of Iraq. A decade on, whatever the merits of the conflict, the Peshmerga were allies of the Coalition during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Since then, Kurdistan has remained steadfast in its commitment to a democratic future.

In Iraq, there is already a functioning Kurdish state in all but name. It is a pioneering force for democracy in the Middle East. In Iraqi Kurdistan there is a core set of values based on tolerance, respect and freedom of expression. Inclusiveness is enshrined in law. Women are recognised as equal citizens, with a law requiring that a minimum of 30 per cent of National Assembly seats must be taken by women. Furthermore, seats are also reserved for minority communities, with the Christian and Turkmen communities guaranteed at least five seats each. These values mirror our values.

We should adequately arm the Kurdish forces of the YPG and Peshmerga to adequately protect their lands. We must do whatever it takes to ensure Isis is restricted from further post-liberation resurgences, as was seen in the Kobanî region following the redeployment of Kurdish forces to Iraq. Over 350 were killed or injured in that resurgence, simply because YPG and Peshmerga forces are overstretched.

We should also seriously consider supporting Iraqi Kurdistan in its long-term ambition to be an independent state – when the time is right. No other people deserves it as do the Kurds. It is the largest homogenous nation on earth not represented by a unified state. They have a right to determine their own future. True, there are major issues to contend with – most notably corruption, political infighting and the continued presidency of Masoud Barzani beyond his legal mandate – however these issues can be overcome with the close help and guidance of the international community.

Outside of Kurdish controlled-areas lie lands ridden with conflict. We have seen our fellow citizens, friends and trading partners have their lives ruined by the twisted and hate-filled soldiers of Isis. In Syria, close to Kurdish cities, pro-democratic forces have been wiped out by Isis or other Islamist groups linked to Al-Qaeda. The rest of Syria is pock-marked with the barrel bombs dropped by Assad’s forces. Even within Kurdish-controlled areas, bombs have been dropped from Turkish planes on Kurdish YPG soldiers fighting for values which we would call our own. The region is highly complex and constantly changing.

Turkey is therefore a key player. Yet in recent years President Erdogan’s administration has escalated the conflict with the Kurdish citizens it represents. Peace talks between Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and the Turkish government ended unsuccessfully in 2015. Erdogan appears determined to militarily crush the PKK before any negotiations around a lasting peace can recommence.

Turkey has refused to recognise either the YPG or the PYD – the main political party of Kurds in Syria – as a legitimate force on the ground, due to its concerns that any Kurdish autonomy in Syria may motivate Kurds in Turkey to demand similar rights. Before the Syrian civil war there were thought to be between 16-20 million Kurds resident in Turkey, in contrast to just two million in Syria.

For Erdogan, this issue is of greater importance than what is occurring in Syria and Iraq. During the Siege of Kobanî, Ankara refused Kurdish YPG fighters the right to travel across the border into Kobanî to fight Isis forces. Rather than allow them to protect their families and friends, Turkey sprayed them with tear gas and removed their weapons. Significant international pressure belatedly led to Ankara allowing Peshmerga Forces to travel from Iraqi Kurdistan and enter Kobanî through Turkey – and just in time to save the city from Isis. In the interim period, Isis recruits routinely crossed over the border with ease.

The Erdogan administration’s conflict with its own Kurdish citizens is undoubtedly complex. Many Kurds in Turkey want some level of recognition and autonomy but it is not known how many desire outright independence. A free and fair poll has never been carried out and would not be tolerated by Ankara. President Erdogan prefers to suppress opinion rather than encourage it. Where is our solidarity for people demanding human rights?

While Turkey’s air forces have been bombing the Kurdish-controlled Kandil mountainous areas in Iraq, often missing Kurdish forces, Ankara has remained a strong ally of the government in Iraqi Kurdistan, which it sees as a correcting force against the regional influences of Riyadh and Tehran. However, Ankara fears an independent Kurdistan and the effects this may have on the Kurdish populations of Turkey and Syria. Ankara fears the establishment of a Greater Kurdistan, an option which is not on the table and most Kurds do not think is achievable.

Each of these issues is interconnected. Though Kurds in Iraq may carry different passports to those in Syria and Turkey, they similarly identify as Kurdish peoples. They share a culture, a religion and a language. The challenges faced by Kurds in Syria are of utmost concern to Kurds in neighbouring countries. There is a fraternity that must not be dismissed.

The Kurdish question in Turkey is obviously complicated. Turkey remains a critical member for the NATO alliance with its landing strips used to carry out bombing raids on Isis. Therefore, keeping Ankara on side is important to Washington. This is why we in the West have been relatively silent on the Kurdish issue. Meanwhile, the international and national boundaries of Iraq and Syria are now so distorted to be almost beyond repair. Kurds control areas beyond that of Kurdistan, with no other force strong enough to protect people in those areas. In our determination not to ‘put boots on the ground’, we ask Peshmerga and YPG forces to do the heavy lifting and endure the casualties of a conflict we in part caused. This is unfair to the Kurdish people.

We must encourage Turkey to end the Kurdish conflict within its borders. Ankara must resume peace talks with Abdullah Ocalan and the HDP – now the third biggest group in the grand assembly of Turkey. Ankara should accept that the Kurdish question cannot be resolved by militarily means. The overarching issues of inequality, equal citizenship and minority rights are beyond the control of even the strongest of strongmen.

The UK can help resolve the Kurdish question. We have long been a supporter of Turkey’s aspiration to become an EU member. We should agree to accelerate that process in return for allowing the EU to broker a peace. We have a duty to the citizens of any state which harbours ambition to join us. We have a duty to protect people’s human rights.

At the same time, we should support the Peshmerga and YPG as they fight a common foe. Defeating Isis forces in Iraq and Syria would reduce the Islamists’ ability to train home-grown jihadists and send them back to European cities. We should support them with weapons and finances in return for guarantees over human rights and post-conflict governance of the areas they retake from Isis.

The Kurdish people have shown themselves to be a small beacon of light in a sea of darkness. If we believe in the values of democracy, tolerance and freedom of expression – we must support those peoples that practice them. There are small steps we can take to show them our solidarity. We must do what we can to support them.

Ibrahim Dogus is the Director of the Centre for Turkey Studies (www.ceftus.org) and the Director of the Centre for Kurdish Progress (www.kurdishprogress.org).