After a decade of Darfur it’s time to stop appeasing Sudan’s criminal cabal

The number of victims continues to rise.

The UK has appeased some extremely dubious leaders of oppressive regimes over the years. Today, as we mark the tenth anniversary of the start of systematic ethnic cleansing, killing, rape and torture of Darfur’s population, it’s fair to say we have the measure of President Bashir. After all, he remains the only sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide. This is a man – and a criminal regime – we should not do business with.

Yet Her Majesty’s Government continues to do so – from providing taxpayers money to train Sudanese military, police and security personnel to hosting trade delegations to boost UK economic links with the country. Just this month the UK participated in the Doha aid conference which aims to reconstruct war-torn Darfur – committing to continue the £25m the UK has provided yearly. Few would deny that Darfuri’s urgently need reconstruction funds and aid. But the Doha process works directly with the Khartoum regime – the same criminal cabal which continues to bomb Darfuri villages, ethnically cleanse civilians with the wrong religion and skin colour, and deny access to international humanitarian agencies.

This is not only an absurd waste of taxpayers’ money – it’s also insulting and totally disrespectful to Bashir’s victims. No one knows the true figure – the UN stopped counting in 2008 – but estimates suggest at least 200,000 people have so far been killed, with more than 2 million displaced. Just this week, renewed government air strikes and fighting between rebel forces and killed dozens and displaced many more. Working with the regime, on reconstruction, business, or human rights, gives it the international legitimacy it desperately craves, re-focusing attention away from the very reason why Darfur – and the rest of the country – needs our help. Bashir and his cronies have systematically destroyed the potential of an entire nation. Under his iron rule, Sudan has become a ruthless police state, extreme Sharia law is violently imposed, and the ruling party has worked consistently towards a unified pure Arab Islamist state. Millions of citizens have been killed, thousands are still in refugee camps across Sudan’s border with its neighbours, and the stability of the entire region continues to be shaken by his warmongering.

In 2006 William Hague, now Foreign Secretary, lamented that: ‘International attempts to stop the government in Khartoum from killing its own people have been thwarted by other countries more interested in pursuing their economic or political advantage than in promoting human rights.’ We aren’t the worst offender – but the UK insists on continuing to engage with the regime despite the fact they have not kept their word on any of the numerous – worthless – peace agreements they have signed.

The Darfur10 campaign – led by charities and NGO’s like Waging Peace – is a stark reminder to the UK and international community, that the conflict is far from over. Until we see real progress towards peace the UK must take a much more robust stance. This means pressuring the UN to finally implement its many resolutions – starting with freezing the finances of those who orchestrated – and profited – from the genocide and imposing travel bans for high-ranking officials. More importantly, no-fly zones would finally put a stop to government's gunships which continue to bomb Darfuri citizens, and an increased, more active peacekeeping force in the region could start to offer civilians protection from government sponsored violence.

Today should be an opportunity to remember the thousands of Darfuri civilians who have suffered because of this conflict. Yet the fact that the number of victims continues to rise ten years after it began is a sad indictment of the entire international community’s continuing appeasement of this abhorrent regime.

 

Two girls in Darfur, who lost their homes to the conflict. Photograph: Getty Images
Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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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.