The Genocide in Darfur – Dr James Smith

Dr James Smith, Chief Executive of The Aegis Trust talks about the Genocide in Darfur.

The Genocide in Darfur – Dr James Smith

Dr. James Smith is co-founder and Chief Executive of the Aegis Trust, a UK based non-governmental organisation established in 2000 for the prevention of genocide. He is the co-Founder of The Holocaust Centre, where the lessons of history are applied to the prevention of genocide and is visited by over 500 students each week. Dr Smith’s focus of recent years has been the mounting genocide in Darfur in western Sudan. The Aegis Trust campaign has gathered momentum since 2004 with world leaders echoing the need for a UN peace-keeping force. In this podcast for the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, Dr Smith discusses the events in of the genocide in Darfur, which continues today.

Below is a transcript of his podcast:

‘Darfur is a region in the western part of Sudan which is the largest country in Africa and commonly people view the crisis in Darfur as having begun in 2003, when there was a small rebellion of the African tribes of Darfur against what they saw as the largely Arab or Arabised government in the capital of Sudan, Khartoum. But the story and the context goes back a lot longer than that. Across Sudan, there have been problems and conflicts for many decades. The population is divided between African groups and Arab groups. There is a small minority of Arab leaders, Arab tribes which run the Sudan. Many of the African tribes around Sudan don’t have opportunities for involvement in the economic life, the political life of Sudan and this has caused a lot of resentment as well as hardship as they have been marginalised and excluded from society. The longest running rebellion against the government was in the civil war between the north and the south [of Sudan], called the second civil war, which ran for about twenty years until 2005. Many, many people perished, 2-3 million over that time. A horrible horrible bloody civil war. The roots of it were that the southern Sudanese, who were largely a Christian or an Animist group, it wasn’t particularly a religious war, it is sometimes characterised as a Christian south rebelling against an Arab-Muslim north but it was really about the Black population of the south wanting to have an equal involvement in running the country, an equal share of the resources.

They did sign a peace deal in 2005, which is a very shaky peace deal and I will talk a little bit more about that in just a few minutes, but that was part of the context of the situation in Darfur in the west of the country.

Just as the long civil war in the south was coming to an end, two years before the end, the African tribes who weren’t Christian, they were more, in fact entirely Muslim, rose up against the Government, the regime in Khartoum. So it certainly wasn’t a religious war, it was more about ethnicity. The tribes which were many tribes, the three larger tribes were the Fur, the Massalit and the Zagawha tribes, there are others as well. The African tribes were rebelling against what they saw as the oppression and the unfairness of the Arab regime in Khartoum. The Khartoum Government or the Sudanese Government responded with a counter insurgency campaign in which they mobilised Arab groups which became known as the Janjaweed, Arab tribes, of the west of Sudan, of the Darfur. They supported them with arms. They organised them. They supported them with military hardware. The army of the government of Sudan, the Sudanese armed forces supported the Janjaweed militia to wage this campaign, not only against the rebels, but against the Black population of Darfur. And what ensued in 2003 was a campaign of ethnic cleansing, of genocidal massacres, frequently the campaigns were driven by racist speeches and statements. The Blacks were referred to as “slaves” and they did not see any room anymore for Black people.

They wanted to ‘Arabise’ the land and there was a pressure on the land, parts of the land were dry and arid and the nomad groups wanted to exploit that situation for more land for their grazing rights. So over the next 2 or 3 years, some quarter of a million, maybe 300,000, maybe more, Black people of Darfur were killed, perished in these campaigns. Two and a half million were driven out of their lands to displaced persons camps, into IDP camps – Internally Displaced camps – within Darfur, usually in or around the towns. Many more, perhaps a quarter of a million or more were driven across the borders into neighbouring countries of Chad and the Central African Republic. And they remain in these camps today, often in squalid conditions. They can’t return because when they do try and return they are attacked.

One of the worst features of this whole period, from 2003 up until 2009, has been the rape of women which has been widespread and apparently condoned or even encouraged by the Government and the Janjaweed leaders. It was a tool used to terrorise the women, to subjugate them, to tear communities apart because of the stigma that would happen when they were rejected by their men, and worse when the children born of rape inevitably occurred, the consequences of that within the communities and so, rape was used as a weapon of warfare, as a weapon of genocide.

The response of the international community to these vulnerable people was appallingly weak. It began within ten years after the genocide in Rwanda. It was different in many respects the genocide in Rwanda but the hallmarks were there and after all the cries of “never again”, after the Holocaust, after the genocide in Rwanda, the international community did little more than beat its breasts for a year or two and that was the important window of opportunity that existed to respond effectively and protect them. The government of Sudan saw that there wasn’t the will to protect these civilians so escalated their operations and continued their operations against them. And there had been what we call impunity against similar crimes in the Sudan during the civil war that had happened in the north and the south. There had often been many genocidal massacres where people had been targeted by the armed forces of Sudan, just wiped out and those leaders were still within the armed forces. There had never been any attempt to bring them to justice so this impunity, gave courage to the government of Sudan and to the armed forces that they would get away with murder, get away with mass murder once again. However on this occasion there was eventually an outcry around the world. Largely, not from governments sadly, but from ordinary people who went on the streets beginning in late 2004, early 2005 when stories started to emerge a lot more. Most important, I guess, was on the 10th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda when some UN people, most notably the Head of the UN in Sudan, Mukesh Kapila, went onto the BBC and described this as heading towards the biggest humanitarian disaster in the world, it has parallels with the genocide in Rwanda. He was doing it independently, it wasn’t the UN system, it wasn’t the governments doing this, and he was frustrated that there hadn’t been a response.

Campaigns, including ones that the Aegis Trust was involved in with other organisations in London, tried to raise awareness with campaigns in the street, writing to MPs, talking on the media and joining up with other grass roots organisations around the world, especially in the United States with the Save Darfur coalition. And put a pressure on western governments to do something through their influence that they could bring to bear either direct on the government of Sudan or through the United Nations. However, it took a lot of pressure, there was a lot of inertia, governments acted very, very slowly, partly because they wanted to work diplomatically with the government of Sudan. They were still concerned about the negotiations between the north and the south and that fragile peace agreement. Understandably, they were rightly concerned that the civil war was also brought to an end. But there were also other interests that governments had in the west, to work with against the war on terror, gather intelligence from the government of Sudan and so that the people of Darfur were somewhat neglected and de-prioritised, which was scandalous.

Eventually, a force was sent from the African Union, which wasn’t particularly supported by the West. The West’s argument was Africans should solve their own solutions – which is right in a way, I think everyone would support that there should be local solutions to these regional problems, but the African Union didn’t have the capacity to manage that scale of insecurity. They couldn’t protect women from being raped even when they were in the camps. They had to go out of the camps to get firewood when they went out and why did the women go out and not the men? Because the men would get killed so the women thought it was better that they go out because they ‘only’ get raped and the African Union couldn’t even find the means to support these women. Why couldn’t they? Because the rich nations of the world weren’t bothered to support the African Union even.

Eventually in 2006, the United Nations after a lot of pressure really from campaigners around the world did respond to support the African troops through a United Nations mandate and there is now a UN force there, it should be 26,000 personnel strong. Three years later it has still only reached half strength. That’s half strength in terms of boots on the ground not even in terms of the ability, the communications or anything it has out there. So you compare that to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and all the rest of it which, rightly or wrongly, get a certain amount of support but when people were at risk of genocide, crimes against humanity, at being wiped out, they didn’t get that kind of support.

What was important though and again was a result of the campaigning is that the United Nations, under pressure again from campaigners around the world and governments around the world, did ask the newly founded International Criminal Court to examine the case and take up the case of these atrocities. That led eventually, three years later, earlier in 2009, to the arrest warrant being issued for the serving President of Sudan, President Omar Al–Bashir in which he was accused of orchestrating these Crimes Against Humanity. The Prosecutor wanted him to be tried for genocide as well but he would be tried for these enormous Crimes Against Humanity and of war crimes. There is no way of course in which to arrest him, he is a serving President and continues to be there but the arrest warrant is out there and it is a very important step that for the first time the International Criminal Court has done this. So, while people still suffer and languish in those camps, two and a half million people, and while there remains insecurity in Darfur, there has been a little bit of progress in terms of the International Criminal Court managing to put a stake in the ground or draw a line in the sand and say these acts of crimes against your own civilians have to stop. They have been continuing in one way or form in Sudan for 20 years or more and it’s time that people are brought to justice for this.’

The views expressed in this podcast are of the individual contributor and not necessarily those of HMDT.

Image: Um Ziefa burning village, Darfur © Brian Steidle