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18 October 2004

Why does Tony fear the G-word?

The people of Darfur have been murdered, raped, forced to leave their land and abandon their livelih

By Becky Tinsley

Tony Blair refuses to recognise that ethnic cleansing and the systematic murders of 50,000 people in the Darfur region of western Sudan is genocide. More than 1.4 million people have become refugees to escape the terror campaign of Arab Janjaweed militias, but the British government, like the United Nations special representative for Sudan, Jan Pronk, and the European Union envoy, refuses to use the G-word.

Why? What more has to happen before events in Darfur become a big enough “scar” on our collective conscience?

The Prime Minister has just visited the Janjaweed’s paymasters and quartermasters in Khartoum, but chose not to meet their victims in Darfur. Two million people have died in a separate war in southern Sudan, killed by militias financially and militarily supported by the same regime, but still our Prime Minister believes that a sufficient response is for him to “put pressure” on the Sudanese president, Omar el-Bashir.

A delegation from Jubilee Action, a British human rights group, has just returned from taking evidence in Darfur. On our trip, we also spent a week in Rwanda, gathering testimony from people still suffering and dying as a consequence of the 1994 genocide.

What happened in Rwanda ten years ago is happening now in Darfur, yet the international community refuses to apply oil sanctions against the Khartoum regime – a regime that depends on daily oil revenues of $1m to pay for the $1m it spends daily on arms.

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Apparently, nothing has been learned from Rwanda, and the British government is choosing not to get seriously diplomatically and politically involved at this point, even though it could make a difference. Instead, it will stand back and allow the murders, rapes, looting and intimidation to proceed.

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Thankfully, as happened during the war in the former Yugoslavia, the British people’s sense of right and wrong is better developed than their leaders’ desire to stop the killing. In the past three months, generous donations from the public have enabled humanitarian groups to pour in aid, “saving tens of thousands of lives”, as Dan Toole, Unicef’s worldwide director of emergency programmes, told us. “But this is primarily a protection and human rights crisis, and that requires a political solution.”

During our visit to Darfur, we met Suliman Dina, the fashir (a tribal leader just below the rank of sultan) of the eastern district of Geneina province. He told us that the well-armed Janjaweed fighters, by which he meant Arabs on horseback or camel, have been destroying his villages since 1995. And since 1997, they have been staging systematically co-ordinated attacks, supported by the Sudanese air force. It is a pattern that continues to this day, despite Khartoum’s denials.

While we were in Darfur, two villages reported the arrival of Sudanese government helicopters to restock the Janjaweed with arms. It would seem the regime continues to fund, facilitate and support the ethnic cleansing of its citizens, despite the “pressure” put on it by the British Foreign Office.

In nearby Ardamata refugee camp, 30,000 people have gathered, forced out of their villages by murderous attacks. Hawry, a 35-year-old mother-of-six, told us that in February the Janjaweed arrived on horseback, set fire to the villagers’ homes, killed all the men and boys they could find, stole all the livestock, and “harassed and beat” the women and girls. As I listened to Hawry’s female friends, it became apparent that “harassed and beaten” is a euphemism for rape. As soon as my male colleague went elsewhere in the camp, the women’s blank-faced demeanour changed.

I heard the testimony of 17 women as I sat in the shade of a tree in 45 Centigrade heat, sipping coffee. Each one of them admitted she had been raped. They included a ten-year-old girl. Hawry told me of an 80-year-old woman from their village who had not survived the ordeal of being raped by the Janjaweed. Hawry and the other women had fled. “I put one baby around my neck, and another on my back, and I ran,” she said. “We walked for eight days, hiding in deserted houses on the way. We got to the camp in the same week that 10,000 others arrived here. We found a piece of land, and built ourselves a hut using reeds and grass.

“I used to farm and keep 88 head of cattle, and have a husband and sons. Now I’ve got this hut.”

Jewa saw both her parents killed by the militia. Aged 19, she heads a household of six children, but her responsibilities are not restricted to standing in line in the blazing sun for hours on end to collect food, or taking the little ones to the clinic to have their malaria treated before it kills them. “We need firewood and fodder for the goat,” she said, “so I have to leave the camp and go into the bush. The Janjaweed are waiting for us.”

All 17 women said they had been attacked within the previous fortnight during these terrifying excursions into the bush. “If the men here leave the compound they’ll be killed by the Arabs. We go, and we get raped. That’s the choice.”

Meanwhile my colleague, Lord Alton of Liverpool, was hearing the tribal leaders’ accounts of attacks by Sudanese air force helicopter gunships and Antonov planes supporting the Janjaweed militia. “These are tough men, not given to displays of emotion and vulnerability,” Alton said afterwards. “Yet they wept as they described being tied up and forced to watch while their women were tortured and raped. They had not told their story to anyone before.”

Human Rights Watch is collecting evidence of this sort for use in future war crimes trials. But Darfur is the size of France, and there are not enough interviewers to take testimony from survivors and from those who may not survive. The people at Ardamata camp were embarrassingly grateful to us for listening to them, and to Britain for sending aid. “We want to get back to what we know, which is farming and herding animals,” the tribal leaders said. “We hate having to accept these handouts. We have always taken care of ourselves.”

Asked what they want the world to do, the men and women at the camp were of one voice. “Please send white troops here to take the weapons away from the Janjaweed. We feel safe when there are white faces around. The Janjaweed are cowards. They will run away if you send your soldiers.”

The British government denies neither the scale of the attacks nor the involvement of the Sudanese forces, yet there are no calls for a no-fly zone over Darfur, or for the Sudanese police to stop recruiting Janjaweed into the local armed force “guarding” the camps.

The Foreign Office seems more concerned to stop people using the derogatory term Janjaweed because “separating these people into Arab against black is far too simplistic”, as a senior diplomat in Khartoum told us. However, the extent of intermarriage is not the point. What matters is that the black Africans perceive themselves as black and African and as being hunted by Arabs; the Janjaweed perceive themselves as Arabs hunting “slaves”. (In everyday Sudanese Arabic, the term denoting “black person” is “slave”.)

An official at the British embassy told us he doubted the women’s claims about the continuous threat of rape, arguing that during trips he had made to the camps, the women had not come forward with such stories. It did not occur to him that, in a traditional society where rape brings humiliation on both the victim and her family, none of the women would have been likely to make her testimony to a man, particularly if there was no other woman present.

Islamic Relief, which is also working in Darfur, admits that the Muslim response has been “confused”. The Arab League sides with the Khartoum regime, whereas others are ashamed of the mosque-burning and ethnic cleansing being perpetrated by one group of Muslims on another. So feeble are international protests to Khartoum that the Sudanese government frankly admits that it has no idea what all the fuss over Darfur is about.

“Aren’t more children dying daily in Palestine?” asks a cabinet minister in Khartoum. In fact, more than 300 people a day are dying in Darfur as a result of armed attacks, hunger and disease, but the lives of these black folk are considered less important than those of “good Muslims”. Racist attitudes towards black Africans are not confined to Arabs, however. Consider the roll-call of genocide over the past decade: two million dead in southern Sudan, 850,000 in Rwanda, 3.5 million in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and now 50,000 Darfuris – with the toll still rising.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Office maintains its favoured twin-track approach of Arabism and appeasement. And although Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, has determined that genocide is happening in Darfur, Tony Blair can’t seem to get his tongue around the G-word.