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Darfur, the genocide America forgot

Understanding the janjaweed militias’ intent to destroy is key to international action on Sudan

April 18, 2014 5:45AM ET

Earlier this month, Sudan’s paramilitary janjaweed forces razed 127 empty villages in Darfur. According to reports in local media, this was their second rampage over the same territory in as many months. However, the Khartoum-backed Arab militiamen were not there to kill this time. All the people in the affected villages were long gone. The latest incursion offers evidence of a much more chilling intent to destroy those who once lived there.

Coming to terms with this intent — the crux of determining what is or isn’t genocide under the United Nations Genocide Convention — requires understanding the motivation to extinguish sources of survival, even after targeted communities have fled. It demands considering why perpetrators would go back to irreparably damage wells, reservoirs of lifesaving water in an arid landscape. It asks us to imagine what it means for a genocide to continue, not for 100 days as in Rwanda, but for 10 years.

As in Rwanda, where survivors are commemorating the 20th anniversary of that country’s genocide, Darfur conjures images of unspeakable evil. However, almost a decade after the U.S. government labeled events in Darfur genocide, a divisive debate around the use of the term continues to undermine efforts to resolve the crisis.

A ferocious debate

In July 2004, the U.S. Congress unanimously passed a resolution designating the situation in Darfur as genocide, calling on the White House to “seriously consider multilateral or even unilateral intervention to stop genocide in Darfur.” Shortly thereafter, the politics around the use of the word “genocide” became a far greater preoccupation than the crisis itself. The Sudanese government insists the violence in Darfur is driven by spontaneous intertribal skirmishes in a lawless area where the state has been forced to wage a counterinsurgency campaign.

Activists continued to characterize the conflict in Darfur as genocide, pointing to the systematic nature of the attacks on the Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit communities while Arab villages were left intact. In his book “Saviors and Survivors,” Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani stridently indicted the activists for applying moral certainty about the word “genocide” without real knowledge of the historical and political context of the conflict. The backlash against the use of the word in Darfur left many confused as to what was really happening. The ferocity of the debate distracted from the gravity of the atrocities. Ultimately, this paralyzed policymakers and international action under the responsibility-to-protect framework — a human rights norm mandating that states and the international community protect populations and prevent mass atrocities.

A decade later, even after dozens of U.N. Security Council resolutions and the deployment of two peacekeeping missions, genocide is still occurring in Darfur. Millions continue to live in makeshift camps for the internally displaced, and hundreds of thousands are in Chad, where the government is seeking to strip them of their Sudanese identity by relabeling them as Chadian citizens. In doing so, Chadian authorities are effectively preventing them from going back home.

The janjaweed militias that led the 2004 genocide are now back in full force. Sudan has even given these troops identification cards with a new title, Rapid Support Forces. But the name change should not distract from its track record of atrocious crimes, both at the height of the violence in 2004 and today. Khartoum’s restrictions on independent media make it impossible to account for all of the Rapid Support Forces’ actions, but countless citizen journalists have reported that the group has been killing and raping civilians across Darfur. The Satellite Sentinel Project, which uses advanced satellite imagery to document human rights violations in Sudan, has independently corroborated these accounts by confirming massive new destruction and scorched earth. According to the U.N., at least a quarter-million Darfuris were pushed from their homes by renewed violence in the first three months of this year.

Healing Sudan’s fractured social relations will require transformational political reform and accountability for the atrocities committed by janjaweed militias.

It is impossible to make sense of the janjaweed’s recent actions without situating the fighting in the multidimensional context of Darfur’s history and Sudanese politics. Some of the fighting is local, focused on land rights, as rival ethnic groups battle over control of resource-rich areas. But, given the government’s sponsorship of favored groups against others, the fundamental tension is between the central government and its long-marginalized periphery. The wars raging in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, the country’s southernmost states, are predicated on the same sense of marginalization we see in Darfur. Similarly, the Beja community in oil-rich eastern Sudan remains at an uneasy peace with the government as it waits for the implementation of a 2006 peace agreement that was signed after years of fighting to end systemic marginalization.

The most insidious aspect of these conflicts remains President Omar al-Bashir’s bid to retain power at all costs. In office since 1989, Bashir continues to promise reform but deliver little. Although elections are held every five years almost ritually, a growing majority of Sudanese feel deeply disenfranchised. Unrest is growing even in the center of the country.

It goes without saying that most Sudanese don’t carry an intent to destroy Darfur’s marginalized communities. They reject their government’s genocidal campaign. In 2012, a youth movement known as Sudan Change Now launched an eloquent Not in Our Name campaign to amplify the “voices of Sudanese (from all regions) resisting the current regime.”

Still, healing Sudan’s fractured social relations will require transformational political reform and accountability for the atrocities committed by janjaweed militias in Darfur and elsewhere.  Until the people of Darfur and other marginalized communities are brought to the table for comprehensive negotiations toward lasting peace, violence will persist. Until that change comes, Darfur’s genocide will continue — even if its onetime urgency is no longer part of the American vernacular. 

Akshaya Kumar is a policy analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Enough Project where she coordinates the Satellite Sentinel program.  

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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Africa, Sudan
Omar al-Bashir

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