New Internationalist

Darfur: sick of promises

June 2007

The UN calls it ‘the world’s worst humanitarian crisis’. But what is causing the violence in Darfur, and why hasn’t the world acted to stop it? Jess Worth goes in search of answers.

Sven Torfinn / Panos Pictures
Shattered lives: a young boy, in what’s left of his home, after Janjaweed militias attacked. Sven Torfinn / Panos Pictures

‘We are innocent, but so many of us have been killed.’ Marian Hassan Adam seems bewildered. We are sitting in a tiny, bare mud hut in Kakuma, a refugee camp in northern Kenya. I have come to spend time with the thousand-strong Darfurian community, to find out what has happened to them and why. But they themselves are still struggling to make sense of it.

As I’m served a cup of scalding hot, strong, sweet, deliciously spicy coffee, Marian tells me her harrowing story. ‘We knew lots of Arabs, and we thought we were the same: one people. Then suddenly they started killing us. They came into our village and attacked us. I was hit during the Government bombing raid. I still have shrapnel embedded in my head.

‘Then men on horseback came in and stabbed those who were still alive. They took the men and killed them. My husband disappeared – I don’t know what happened to him. They took all the boys from their parents and murdered them. My baby boy was thrown on the fire in front of me. My daughter was older. They thought she was a boy so they slaughtered her too – they snapped her neck like a chicken. Some of the children they threw down a well.’

The other women in the hut nod solemnly, rocking and fanning their babies as clouds of intense spice, burning in my honour, fill the cramped space. ‘We have with us some young girls who were raped in front of us,’ Marian continues. ‘After they raped the women they cut off their breasts to make them suffer. They used those of us who were left as donkeys. They made us carry things – even the men themselves – on our backs. I have so many marks where they beat me.’

Marian escaped and hid in the bush for three months, surviving on leaves. She couldn’t get to any of the camps for displaced people: the militia chased them away so they couldn’t report what had happened. ‘I saved two orphans. I hid them in my clothes – I still have them with me today.’ She gestures at the child wriggling in her lap, a brief smile flickering across her face.

Then she looks at me with deadly seriousness. ‘We want the international community to solve our problems. End the suffering in Darfur.’ It is a demand I hear again and again.

State-sponsored ethnic cleansing

The conflict in this western region of Sudan is explained away by the Sudanese Government as a spot of local bother: ancient rivalries and competition for resources, exacerbated by drought and famine, have led nomadic Arab herders to start driving black African farmers off their land.

In reality, Darfur is no local ethnic conflagration – though underlying tensions, historically dealt with at community level and sharpened by climate change, have certainly been inflamed and exaggerated.

‘My baby boy was thrown on the fire in front of me. My daughter was older. They thought she was a boy so they slaughtered her too’

The bloodshed began in 2003 when Darfurian rebel groups took up arms against the Government. They wanted a better deal: genuine political representation, investment in their impoverished region, a share of potential oil revenue. The Government responded with a brutal divide-and-rule strategy, already tried and tested in the South. It trained, armed and unleashed the Janjaweed on Darfur’s civilian population. A proxy army on horseback, mainly recruited from local Arab nomadic tribes, they have rampaged through the region – with Government military support – killing, raping, burning villages and displacing people.

The Government’s aim is to ensure regional instability, so marginalized populations can’t get organized enough to threaten their authority. Since Sudan gained independence in 1956, war within this racially diverse country has been almost constant, peace fragile at best. The northern Arab élite, in government since 1989, is ruthless, clever and determined to hold on to power, even if it means orchestrating an ‘ethnic cleansing’ campaign against its own people. There is a debate to be had as to whether the regime’s actions in Darfur technically qualify as ‘genocide’,1 but this seems an unnecessary diversion, given the undeniable carnage.

An estimated 400,000 Darfurians have been killed. Three million – half the population – have been displaced. Humanitarian agencies have limited access and are barely able to operate, the region is so dangerous. Now the conflict is escalating, spilling over into Chad and Central African Republic, displacing tens of thousands more and threatening to destabilize the entire region. The rest of the world has largely stood aside and watched.

Put on the spot

So I shouldn’t be surprised when, on visiting the Darfurian community in Kakuma, I find myself put on the spot.

I’ve been invited by Abdalla Merghani, community chair, to come and see Darfurian dancing and meet some of their newborn babies. We’re sitting waiting under a newly constructed wooden frame which, he tells me, they hope to turn into a school. Then I become aware that some 60 Darfurian men have quietly gathered around me, some on the floor, others crowding round the shelter. All are watching me silently. Expectantly. It seems they want to talk.

Jess Worth
‘I become aware that 60 Darfurian men have gathered. It seems they want answers.’ Jess Worth

Okay, I think. I’d better start by introducing myself and why I’m here, and see what happens. Through an interpreter I tell them that people around the world are horrified, and putting pressure on their governments to act. There have been protests in many countries. Darfur is rising up the political and media agenda. They stare at me for a while. Then they start asking questions.

‘I heard they are finally going to send UN peacekeeping forces in,’ begins one young man. I notice that most of them are young – I guess the old didn’t make it this far. ‘Is it true?’

‘Well, not really,’ I falter. ‘They couldn’t get the Government to agree to a UN-led force, so they’re organizing what they’re calling a “hybrid” force. It will still be the African Union (AU) soldiers that are already in Darfur, but with additional UN support.’

‘What kind of support?’

‘Um… Logistics. Help with co-ordination, that type of thing.’ It sounds so inadequate, considering what these men have been through. ‘Although,’ I have to add, ‘now the Government seems to be backtracking even on that…’

‘But we’ve had the AU peacekeeping force for three years!’ comes the exasperated reply. ‘They haven’t kept the peace. Terrible things have been happening – like rapes – in front of their eyes, and they haven’t done anything to stop them. It feels like they are collaborating with the Sudanese Government. The AU is no good. This new force is still the AU.’

Several men shake their heads wearily. What should have been blindingly obvious from the start belatedly dawns on me. They see me as a representative of the West. They are, unsurprisingly, pissed off. In the politest possible way, they want answers.

Someone else addresses me. ‘There have been lots of UN resolutions passed about Darfur, but no action. Why?’

Feeling rather out of my depth, I try to pass on what I know about the UN Security Council’s less-than-glowing record on Darfur. Its permanent members – US, Britain, France, Russia and China – prefer to be in agreement in order to act. So while the US and Britain have pushed through a series of increasingly strong resolutions, China (backed by Russia) has abstained on every one, preventing collective action. Though, I add, I’m sure the UN could have done more for Darfur if it had really wanted to.

China is blocking, I continue, because it gets 10 per cent of its oil from Sudan, and is shielding Khartoum in return.

My audience is incredulous. ‘But surely it’s in China’s interests for us to have peace, so that they can exploit our oil?’

Apparently not. Maybe the Chinese are satisfied with their abundant oil concessions in the South, and don’t care much about Darfur’s potential oil reserves, I speculate. Or perhaps oil is easier to extract during a conflict, when you’ve got an army to help you.

Blaming the ‘international community’

The next question is a direct challenge to me: ‘If there have been so many protests, why has nothing improved?’

Hang on a minute. I realize I’m probably coming across as some kind of apologist for UN toothlessness and Bush and Blair’s empty posturing! So I try to tell it like I see it: ‘Look, the US and Britain are hypocrites. They said “never again” after Rwanda. They say they’ve been doing everything they can to help Darfur. But that’s not true.’

Behind the scenes the US priority has been to maintain a good relationship with Khartoum, believing them to have useful information about terrorists operating in the region. So in 2005, a year after Bush had publicly accused the Sudanese Government of genocide, the US flew Salah Abdallah Gosh – Sudan’s Head of Security and architect of said genocide – to Washington in a luxurious private jet. He had a friendly chat with the CIA about his former associate, Bin Laden. Then they flew him home.2

Despite the rhetoric, the US hasn’t wanted to rock the boat too much in Sudan. They invested a lot in brokering the peace agreement in the South after 21 years of war. They want that peace to hold: partly, I suspect, so they can finally get their hands on Sudan’s oil.

‘And Britain,’ I continue, ‘is no better.’ Blair’s Government happily granted Gosh a visa just last year, to visit Britain for a spot of ‘private hospital treatment’ and, it transpired, meetings with Government officials.3 ‘The British are so embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan, they don’t want to get involved in another potentially messy military situation. You only have to compare their justification for the invasion of Iraq with their neglect of Darfur to see the double standards being applied.’

Which brings me back to the protests. There’s really no such thing as a cohesive ‘international community’ in this context. Governments act on foreign crises only if it is in their national interests – and Darfur isn’t. So citizens all over the world need to keep pushing Darfur up the political agenda. Civil society campaigning, I suggest, has probably forced what little progress there has been, and may be the only thing that will shift the current impasse.

‘The criminals in Darfur – will they be taken to the International Criminal Court and tried?’ I’m asked. ‘I hope so, ultimately…’ I wish I could be more reassuring. ‘It probably won’t happen soon. One reason the Government is blocking the deployment of UN peacekeepers is that losing control of the region could mean many of them facing trial for what they have done.’

‘This regime is too deformed and corrupt to be improved – and because of Darfur, the whole world now knows it’

Throughout the crisis the regime has very effectively used endless bureaucracy to obstruct the UN, journalists and humanitarian agencies attempting to operate in Darfur, whilst rarely actually saying ‘no’. Khartoum’s strategy is to deny everything publicly, making it impossible even to engage in dialogue.

I ask the Darfurians what they want. Independence from Sudan? ‘First we want peace. Then a referendum for independence, like the South will have in 2011.’

But, so far, attempts at peace-building have not just failed (both negotiated ceasefires were broken almost immediately), they’ve made things significantly worse. Only one of the rebel factions signed the Darfur Peace Agreement in May 2006, exacerbating in-fighting.

‘If all the rebel groups are included in a peace agreement, will that help?’ I ask.

A ripple of dissatisfaction spreads through the crowd, followed by a firm collective ‘No!’

Abdalla explains: ‘The rebel groups don’t represent us. The Government is pressurizing the rebels to sign. But they are not fighting the rebels, they are fighting us: civilians. Yet there were no civilian representatives at the negotiations. The men that signed do not represent the people of Darfur. And anyway, while the peace agreement was being signed, people were being killed. After it was signed, people were still being killed. It is no good.’

Then a young man stands up. ‘Why have we become refugees? Because, in the face of genocide, the international community has just watched. It should be there to protect innocent people. Imagine being a person from Darfur: you have no rights; no-one helps you; you’re not treated as a human being. Yet all your problems can be solved by the international community putting real pressure on the Government of Sudan. So the fact that our people are still being killed, 200 every day, is the international community’s fault. We just want peace in our region.’

‘Yes!’ adds someone else, amidst murmurs of approval. ‘Please pass this message on. We want to see a change in the next few months. We are sick of promises.’

Saving Darfur

So I’ve been given my instructions, in no uncertain terms. Not an easy mission though. What can someone like me do to help the people of Darfur?

For some, the answer is comfortingly simple. In the US the ‘Save Darfur’ campaign is huge, mobilizing thousands on the streets and unleashing Hollywood’s finest to bend the most influential of diplomatic ears. Placards have even been appearing saying: ‘Out of Iraq, into Darfur.’

But for the US, the West, even the UN to go storming in, all guns blazing, to ‘save’ these people would be counter-productive. The jargon is ‘non-consensual cross-border deployment’, but we’re essentially talking about an invasion of Sudan. However well-intentioned, this could only inflame an already more-than-smouldering situation, putting civilians and humanitarian workers at even greater risk. And as with so many ‘interventions’ before, it could mire the whole region in conflict for years to come.

That the US and Britain have led the charge on Darfur within the UN – at the same time as their last big idea, Iraq, goes into meltdown – has actively put other countries off the idea of intervening, diplomatically or militarily, or of assuming a leadership role. In that sense, the people of Darfur have unwittingly become more ‘collateral damage’ from the Iraq misadventure.

If governments had acted decisively through the UN when the conflict began, international diplomacy might well have prevailed and perhaps the crisis would never have escalated. But that was then. Four years of empty threats have allowed Khartoum to get away with murder. Now, just as world opinion is ordering its leaders to ‘Save Darfur’, the situation has become intractable and all players’ reputations are tarnished.

Jess Worth
‘Suddenly they started killing us’: Marian Hassan Adam survived but her husband and children did not. Jess Worth

But this doesn’t mean we should resign ourselves to Darfur remaining a gruesome spectator sport.

Governments need to start using all the diplomatic tools at their disposal. This means actually implementing the measures the UN has so far only hollowly threatened. Asset freezes and travel bans on key players in the Sudanese Government are long overdue. The AU needs more financial and political support to get the ‘hybrid’ peacekeeping force into Darfur, while the push for a more robust UN presence in the region continues.

African governments must come down much harder on Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and restore the AU ‘s shattered reputation. Governments that are shielding Khartoum politically – such as China, Russia and many Arab states – need to start putting human rights first. The threat of an international boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympics seems to be finally forcing China to soften its position. In April, Beijing was rattled enough to tell Khartoum to allow 3,000 UN peacekeepers in. This could yet prove instrumental.

The Darfur peace process must be resurrected and transformed, so that the people round the table are genuine representatives of Darfurian communities, not simply the men toting the biggest guns.

Their days are numbered

But the most important thing those of us shocked by the misery on our TV screens can do is provide solidarity and support to the Sudanese people who are working to bring about political change. Put bluntly, lasting peace will never be achieved if the government in question requires war in order to survive. The long-suffering citizens of Sudan need a new government. But not via the ‘regime change’ route of Western interventionism. There are elections coming up in 2009, hard-won through the Southern Sudan Peace Agreement. Despite the best efforts of Khartoum to repress any opposition, Sudanese civil society is getting organized.

I ask Hashim Ahmed, director of the Sudanese Organization Against Torture, about his country’s undeniably precarious prospects. He tells me, with a twinkle in his eye: ‘I am optimistic. I spent three-and-a-half years of my life detained by the Government of Sudan. For 15 months they tortured me – I was blindfolded, beaten almost to death for being a trade union activist.

‘But now there is a peaceful movement of trade unions and civil society coming together to mobilize, in spite of difficult conditions. My belief is that this regime is too deformed and corrupt to even be improved – and because of Darfur, the whole world now knows it. I think their days are numbered. Under the National Democratic Alliance umbrella many Sudanese are uniting to remove them, peacefully, through democratic elections.’

The regime, of course, will do everything it can to stay in power. But maybe, if the world stops turning its back on Darfur’s people, and instead uses the tools of international humanitarian law to expose and isolate the Sudanese regime for the war criminals they are, it will help secure some much-needed political space for the peaceful movements in Sudan finally to flourish.

  1. Gerard Prunier, Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide, Cornell University Press, 2007.
  2. John Prendergast, ‘So How Come We Haven’t Stopped It?’, The Washington Post, 19 November 2006.
  3. Peter Beaumont, ‘Darfur terror chief slips into Britain’, The Observer, 12 March 2006.

This special report appeared in the darfur issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.

Comments on Darfur: sick of promises

Leave your comment