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
Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
Show Hide image

Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.