Country profile: Sudan


A wrestling competition in the north of Khartoum organized by the city’s Nuba community. © Sven Torfinn/Panos Pictures

The first genocide this century is raging in the Western Darfur region of Sudan and, despite having been acknowledged for a decade, it continues unabated. Never before has a genocide been identified as such while in progress, then left to take its brutal course.

In 2003, the Arab-Muslim government of Sudan launched a counter-insurgency offensive against two rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, which were fighting for social and economic equality. Darfur’s black-African Fur and Zaghawa tribes, suspected of being rebel sympathizers, were targeted by the government-sponsored Janjaweed militia, which went on the rampage, burning homes and slaughtering civilians.

There was an opportunity to stop the carnage in 2005, by making the cessation of violence in Darfur a condition of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ostensibly brought 20 years of war between the North and South of Sudan to an end.

The cost of so-called peace in the South though, was silence on the oil-rich region of Darfur. The CPA had other inherent flaws, such as failing to resolve the status of the Abyei region as well as of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, leaving those civilians exposed and vulnerable when the South seceded in 2011. Neglecting to deal with disputed oil-rich border regions allowed Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir to exploit border uncertainty, which he continues to do today.

Also in 2005, the international community unanimously signed the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ mandate. This requires them to intervene, by any means necessary, to protect civilians being persecuted by their sovereign state. It has never been implemented in Darfur. In total 16 UN resolutions have been passed in Darfur, all of which have been ignored.

People and buses in the capital, Khartoum, in front of a high-rise building unfinished for lack of funds.

Sven Torfinn/Panos Pictures

The signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement in 2006 resulted in an acceleration of violence. The agreement excluded all but one rebel group and collapsed before the ink was dry. Khartoum retaliated with gusto.

Black African villages were razed to the ground, boy children were tossed on bonfires, men were butchered, while girls and women were serially raped. Livestock was taken and crops were destroyed. Any survivors were destined for life in camps for internally displaced people, indefinitely dependent on aid for sustenance and shelter.

President al-Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide in 2009. Within days, he expelled 16 aid agencies from Darfur.

Over the past 12 years, an estimated 500,000 people have been slaughtered and some four million displaced; all of whom are now dependent on aid, without which they face imminent death by starvation and disease. Six years after his indictment, al-Bashir has evaded arrest despite travelling to countries within the ICC’s jurisdiction.

South Sudan became independent in 2011 following a self-determination referendum. In 2012, Sudan and South Sudan signed an agreement that meant oil supplies from the latter could resume their passage through pipes in the former but, like the CPA before it, the deal failed to resolve the status of Abyei, the disputed state that abuts the North-South border.

As a result, hundreds of thousands more people have become refugees dependent on aid. Civilians in South Kordofan and Blue Nile are under constant bombardment from the capital Khartoum. The unresolved issues threaten to destabilize the already fragile fledgling state of South Sudan.

In 2013, a public uprising against Khartoum’s lifting of fuel subsidies resulted in 200 demonstrators being shot dead by the militia. The government’s exorbitant military spending is crippling the imploding economy. But it’s the army, and international indifference, that enables the regime to keep its tenuous grip on power and its fugitives out of the ICC’s dock.

The Abubakir family – Abdallah, Asha, Mustapha and Salima – were among those returning to their home in Darfur after fleeing to Chad in 2003.

Sven Torfinn/Panos Pictures