The Arab militia who raid and plunder Sudan’s Darfur villages are often aided by government air forces, so they took no notice when then-USAID administrator Roger Winter gave State Department officials a bird’s-eye view of the atrocities perpetrated on the people of western Sudan in February 2004. Yet despite Winter’s and other humanitarian organizations’ efforts to educate officials, fighting in the region may again be on the upswing as the parade of state officials over the summer has died down and the resulting international pressure has cooled.
“The only solution to stop what’s going on in Darfur is international intervention,” said Mohamed Yahya, chairman of the Charlottesville-based Damanga Coalition for Freedom and Democracy (formerly the Massaleit Community in Exile) and a native of Western Darfur. Yahya joined Winter and Human Rights Watch counsel Jemera Rone in criticizing the international community for moving too slowly in Darfur and for sending the wrong message to the government there, at a Feb. 7 panel sponsored by the Human Rights Program and the J.B. Moore Society of International Law.
While wars in Sudan have been ongoing for decades, the government has undertaken a campaign to wipe out civilians of the Darfur region, hiring Arab militia, called Janjaweed—slang for outcasts or highway robbers—to help clear out villages there. An estimated 30,000 people have been killed by Sudanese and Janjaweed forces, and 1.8 million have been displaced, including 200,000 who fled west into Chad. The humanitarian crisis threatens even more lives because the Janjaweed have destroyed livestock and farms.
The Sudanese government believes the villages are the rebel base for recent insurgencies, said Rone, counsel for Human Rights Watch’s Africa division. The government recruited men who had a bone to pick with the rebels’ ethnic group, who are generally African farmers, she said. There had previously been sporadic outbursts of violence, due in part to a growing population and the desertification of the land, but also because farmers had expanded into herders’ migratory routes. When herders’ animals trampled the crops, tempers would flare. The government would periodically reconcile the conflict by paying the disadvantaged tribes, but “government solutions weren’t working and they knew this perfectly well.” The government stopped paying those groups and instead armed the ethnic Arab herders after rebels attacked a Sudanese military base. They targeted civilians because they assumed they were supporting or friendly to the rebels.
“The Sudan government was surprised because the international community had started to make a lot of noise about it,” Rone said. A war in southern Sudan between the Arab government in the north and the mostly black, Christian southerners had gained international attention as well. When a peace agreement was signed in January, no one pressed to include a statement condemning government actions in Darfur.
“Unfortunately the international community and especially the U.N. failed to act seriously to stop what is going on in Darfur,” said Yahya, a member of the Massaleit tribe, one of the groups the Sudanese government targets. Yahya had been studying at al-Azhar University in Cairo when he learned his village had been attacked and many of his relatives killed. He found asylum in the United States in 2002 and moved to Charlottesville. “I feel so sad when the law which is made to protect the people all over the world fails to protect my people in Darfur.”
Yahya explained that at one point he considered going to Sudan to fight to protect his people but “sometimes what you can do by the pen is more effective than what you can do by weapons.”
More than 100 people are killed every day in Darfur, he said, most of them women and children. Women are raped when they go outside to get water or sticks. While many residents sought refuge in Chad, others are surviving in the bush and living off wild fruits. While one or two thousand African Union troops have been dispatched to the area, they need more like 40,000, Yahya said.
He complained that the Chinese and Russians—who have oil interests in Sudan—are blocking U.N. Security Council sanctions.
“We need people to help us….because we don’t have any people to help us,” he said.
Winter explained that Sudan, the largest country in Africa and the home to the Sahara and the Nile, has “tectonic plates of culture, rubbing against each other.” The current Sudanese administration came to power in 1989 as a radical government that did not want peace between the north and south. Without an agreement until 2005, 1.5 million died and 4 million Sudanese were internally displaced.
Winter said the government identifies certain populations as “not my people.” They eliminated many southerners simply by stopping foreign aid, keeping humanitarian aid workers and organizations like Human Rights Watch out by shutting down air service over the country, requiring permits to enter, and threatening that medical personnel will have to undergo physical exams to enter. These patterns continued when war broke out in Darfur.
When Secretary of State Colin Powell used the term “genocide” to describe Darfur’s problems in 2004, there had been no consensus to use that label within the administration, said Winter, the former Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance at USAID. The State Department traditionally has been oriented toward working with governments and normalizing relationships—they are not proficient at dealing with rebels, he said. The dialogue between the State Department and the Darfur rebels “was very thin” and still is. Groups like USAID are more oriented toward working in the field. “We were of the view that what was going on in Darfur was certainly ethnic cleansing,” he said.
The day before Powell was scheduled to testify before Congress about Sudan, Winter said Powell asked for reports from aid and human rights organizations. “It was him considering what he read in terms of the human rights reporting that really caused him to go in, and in the hearing to use the word ‘genocide,’” Winter said. “It was the man himself saying this was the right thing to do.”
Winter said many think the State Department has moved slowly on Darfur because it first wanted a peace agreement in the south.
Rone said the way things stand now, it looks like the United Nations bailed out and left their work to the African Union, which isn’t equipped to handle the growing crisis. The African Union troops are more flexible than U.N. peacekeepers and may be more willing to take risks, but “the whole thing is coming apart around them.” Foreign visits caused a dip in violence over the summer, but “now they’ve seen that the Security Council will threaten and not do anything.”
During the summer and fall of 2004 the Council twice passed resolutions demanding that the Sudanese government disband the Janjaweed, and threatened oil sanctions. Because the Council didn’t follow up with action, and the southern agreement went forward without language on Darfur, the government thinks it only has to play by the rules in the south.
Rone said China and Russia were not the only problem, and instead charged that the key to peace is to end impunity by prosecuting those responsible in the Sudanese government. Following the determination of genocide by the United States, the U.N. Security Council’s commission of inquiry found massive abuses in Sudan. Now the United States and others are squabbling over the manner of prosecution—the United States wants an ad hoc tribunal like that of Rwanda, while the European Union is behind the International Criminal Court. The United States doesn’t want to vote against the ICC—and thus against trying human rights violators—and instead wants the vote for the tribunal to come up first.
Yahya stressed that the Sudanese government doesn’t want peace, and only relented over the summer because of international pressure. The Arab government is targeting black Sudanese, whether they are Muslim or Christian, he emphasized, and “most of the Arab governments support the government of Sudan.”
Winter said both the White House and Congress would likely support a stronger approach to Khartoum (Sudan’s capital). The United States has done the yeoman’s work of making an international issue of Darfur, he said, but the problem lies within the U.S. diplomatic establishment, which is “looking at a slow track” to resolve problems in Sudan. Diplomats have sent the wrong message to Khartoum by signaling that the United States wants to “normalize” relations, he said.
Yahya saw some hope in the appointment of southern rebel leader John
Garang as Sudan’s first vice president, a term negotiated through
the peace agreement. “We really believe that it might be changing
in the future,” Yahya said, praising Garang for his even-handed
treatment of Muslims and Arabs. But “the people of Darfur can’t
wait for even one month more.”