People in many parts of Darfur continue to be killed, raped and driven from their homes by the thousands. The number displaced has reached 2 million, while 3 million (half the total population of Darfur) are dependent on international relief for food and other basics. Many parts of Darfur are becoming too dangerous for relief workers to reach. The peace talks are far from reaching a conclusion. And fighting now threatens to spread into neighboring Chad, which has accused Sudan of arming rebels on its territory.
Despite a chronic funding crisis, A.U. [African Union] troops in Darfur are doing a valiant job. People feel safer when the troops are present. But there are too few of them -- a protection force of only 5,000, with an additional 2,000 police and military observers, to cover a territory the size of Texas. They have neither the equipment nor the broad mandate they would need to protect the people under threat or to enforce a cease-fire routinely broken by the rebels, as well as by the Janjaweed militia and Sudanese government forces.
Seven thousand lightly armed troops are now supposed to secure a virtually roadless area larger than France. Consequently, Annan is prevailing upon the Security Council to replace the AU operation with a "larger, more mobile and much better equipped" UN peacekeeping mission. "Those countries that have the required military assets must be ready to deploy them," he affirms.
Aye, there's the rub: "We, western countries, we are not ready to send troops there despite the fact that what is going on there is very serious," admits Jean-Christophe Belliard, a French diplomat and top advisor to the EU. It certainly is serious: the UN estimates the death toll at 100,000 a month if and when Darfur collapses completely. With the black rebel movements taking the fight to the enemy using increasingly heavy weapons, probably supplied by Chad, which has announced a "state of belligerence" with Sudan, that could well happen this year. Meanwhile the Janjaweed is escalating the humanitarian disaster, burning abandoned villages and driving cattle up from southern Darfur to ruin the crops.
Janjaweed commanders. Photo: Amy Costello
As for the unreadiness to send troops, it has to do with commitments in Afghanistan – and, in regard to at least two central NATO members, an exercise in futility elsewhere. Now, western forces are not ideal for this region in any case. And arguably, the 51 other members of the AU should be able to produce more troops, at least if funding can be arranged from the West. After all, military forces are the one thing that continent has in abundance. But as Annan told Le Monde during a previous genocide, they "probably need their armies to intimidate their own populations." (See, Mr. Annan, you know how to bell the cat when you want to.)
Also, "we, western countries" aren't too eager to even contribute financially. The EU has cut off support. The US was asked for $50 million to help fund the AU mission until March. These the Bush administration put into the DoD budget, whereupon the US Congress – whose both chambers have unanimously declared the situation to be "genocide" under the 1948 Convention – unceremoniously crossed them out. True, western countries have donated handsomely to humanitarian aid. But what Kristof says about the US holds in general: we have "provided abundant band-aids-so that when children were slashed with machetes, we could treat their wounds. But we did nothing about the attacks themselves."
Besides machetes, the said attacks have a number of remarkable characteristics.
The Janjaweed have abducted women for use as sex slaves, in some cases breaking their limbs to prevent them escaping, as well as carrying out rapes in their home villages, the [Amnesty International] report said.
The militiamen "are happy when they rape. They sing when they rape and they tell that we are just slaves and that they can do with us how they wish", a 37-year-old victim, identified as A, is quoted as saying in the report, which was based on more than 100 testimonies from women in the refugee camps in neighbouring Chad.
Pollyanna Truscott, Amnesty International's Darfur crisis coordinator, said the rape was part of a systematic dehumanisation of women. "It is done to inflict fear, to force them to leave their communities. It also humiliates the men in their communities."
According to the report, during one attack in June last year, Arab women allegedly stood by during rapes, joyfully singing: "The blood of the blacks runs like water, we take their goods and we chase them from our area and our cattle will be in their land. The power of [Sudanese president Omer Hassan] al-Bashir belongs to the Arabs and we will kill you until the end, you blacks, we have killed your God."
This blood-churdling chant is instructive, so let us examine its elements in turn.
The first sentence cuts to the core of the ethnic conflict: since the 1980s, desertification has pitted Arabic-speaking camel- and cattle herders against non-Arabic speaking farmers in a ferocious struggle over water. Tougher and much more mobile, the herders have the edge, and we get Genesis 4 inverted: Abel slaying Cain. This is an ancient pattern of warfare.
But as the second sentence suggests, Abel has friends in high places. The al-Bashir military regime in Khartoum has been backing the ethnic cleansing, probably to remove the demographic basis for two rebel movements which took up arms in 2003 in response to discrimination and neglect from the central government. Nicholas Kristof:
After it had decided to crush the incipient rebellion in Darfur, Sudan's government released Arab criminals from prison and turned them over to the custody of [tribal leader] Musa Hilal so that they could join the Janjaweed. The government set up training camps for the Janjaweed, gave them assault rifles, truck-mounted machine guns, and artillery. Recruits received $79 a month if they were on foot, or $117 if they had a horse or camel. They also received Sudanese army uniforms with a special badge depicting an armed horseman.
To cap it off, Khartoum has systematically deployed its air force against villages, letting Antonov supply craft drop barrel bombs filled with metal shards and using MiGs and helicopter gunships for added punch.
Drawing by Taha, a child survivor
The ending of the chant – "we have killed your God" – is puzzling: unlike the north/south civil war, all parties in this conflict are muslims. The mystery deepens when we learn of systematic burning of mosques, desecration of Korans, and targeting of imams.
The story is the same across Darfur, Sudan's westernmost region. In 25 days of research there and among refugees on the border with Chad, Human Rights Watch documented 62 attacks on mosques in Dar Masalit, the homeland of one of Darfur's three main African tribes. Several of them were accompanied by murders inside mosques, often during prayer time. Korans, prayer mats and other symbols of Islam were routinely desecrated.
The explanation can only be that the Janjaweed don't acknowledge the blacks as fellow muslims, regarding them as unworthy of Islam. But why? Presumably because they consider them racially inferior. This, again, is absurd on the face of it, the Arabs being far from pale-skinned themselves. However, in his superb article "Arab Racism against Black Africans," the Nigerian scholar Moses Ebe Ochonu offers some enlightenment:
They are a dark-skinned people, although most of them are of mixed Arab and African ancestry. But these folks, by virtue of the aggressive Arab penetration of the Sudan (from the 13th century), a politically-implicated process of strategic intermarriages, and the adoption of the Arabic language and many aspects of Arab and Bedoiun culture, no longer perceive themselves as blacks, or African in any functional way. Indeed, they have long become Arabized. So deep is this new sense of the Northern Sudanese self that the region’s meta-narrative of origin and social evolution bears the imprint of an Arab antiquity more than it does that of African origins. This is the construction of racial and social memory par excellence.
And this "construction," boosted during recent decades, has had its engineers. Writes Darfur specialist at the University of Bergen, Professor Sean O'Fahey:
The ethnicization of the conflict has grown more rapidly since the military coup in 1989 that brought to power the regime of Umar al-Bashir, which is not only Islamist but also Arab-centric. This has injected an ideological and racist dimension to the conflict, with the sides defining themselves as "Arab" or "Zurq" (black). My impression is that many of the racist attitudes traditionally directed toward slaves have been redirected to the sedentary non-Arab communities.
This last is an interesting point. Let's return to the chilling testimony of the victim quoted above: "[The Janjaweed tell us] that we are just slaves and that they can do with us how they wish." This matches many other eyewitness accounts, including ones in a 2004 BBC documentary, The New Killing Fields. Describing a typical attack on a Fur village wherein 80 children were burned alive or otherwise massacred, a rape victim reports that the aggressors "were saying: 'The blacks are slaves, the blacks are stupid, catch them alive, tie them up, take them away with you.' They would say: 'Kill them.'" And here is an eye witness of another such attack: "I heard the horsemen, they said: 'Kill them all, kill all of the slaves.'"
Arab with Sudanese slave girls, early 20th century
Though obscure and rarely discussed, there are over 1,300 years of precedence for Arabs enslaving black Africans. Starting around 650 AD and continuing even today in places like Mauritania and Sudan, this ancient tradition is estimated to have involved between 11,000,000 and 15,000,000 slaves – numbers equal to or exceeding the more short-lived Atlantic trade. (For more on this in the context of Central Africa, see this previous piece of mine.) Apparently, the racist sentiments associated with this vile tradition are alive and kicking, having lent themselves well to manipulation by the Khartoum regime.
Which brings us back to practicalities and how to deal with the latter. For while a UN peacekeeping mission will be hard to man, equip, and fund, the biggest hurdle is likely to be the Khartoum regime's allies in the Security Council. As the scholar Eric Reeves puts it in a brilliant recent article, "the real question is whether the US will use its diplomatic and political leverage within the UN Security Council to support an authorizing resolution, and to address the clear threat of a Russian or Chinese veto."
Of course, moral leadership from these is best sought at the bottom of a bottomless pit. China gobbles up nearly all of Sudan's oil and is reluctant to disturb the flow. Russia peddles weapons to Khartoum. As to the US, it is now painfully clear that the Bush administration's interest in Darfur flagged soon upon its reelection. Reeve's article devotes a whole section to its naked hypocrisy, concluding so: "Collectively, the actions by the Bush administration State Department and the CIA amount to virtually complete acquiescence before what it has described as 'genocide' in Darfur."
And so it goes. But next time, world leaders should spare us all that pious cant about "never again."