Genocide in Darfur - How the Horror
by Eric Reeves
September 3, 2005
In one of the most remote places in Africa,
an insurgency began unnoticed under the shadow of the war in Iraq
in 2003, killing 350,000 to 400,000 people in 29 months by means
of violence, malnutrition, and disease in the first genocidal
rampage of the 21st century.
The insurgeny began virtually unnoticed
in February 2003; it has, over the past two years, precipitated
the first great episode of genocidal destruction in the 21st century.
The victims are the non-Arab or African tribal groups of Darfur,
primarily the Fur, the Massaleit, and the Zaghawa, but also the
Tunjur, the Birgid, the Dajo, and others. These people have long
been politically and economically marginalized, and in recent
years the National Islamic Front regime, based in Sudan's capital
of Khartoum, has refused to control increasingly violent Arab
militia raids of African villages in Darfur. Competition between
Arab and African tribal groups over the scarce primary resources
in Darfur-arable land and water-has been exacerbated by advancing
desertification throughout the Sahel region.
But it was Khartoum's failure to respond
to the desperate economic needs of this huge region (it is the
size of France), the decayed judiciary, the lack of political
representation, and in particular the growing impunity on the
part of Arab raiders that gave rise to the full-scale armed conflict.
Not directly related to the 21-year civil
conflict that recently formally ended in southern Sudan-a historic
agreement was signed in Nairobi on January 9, 2005-Darfur's insurgency
found early success against Khartoum's regular military forces.
But this success had a terrible consequence: The regime in Khartoum
switched from a military strategy of direct confrontation to a
policy of systematically destroying the African tribal groups
perceived as the civilian base of support for the insurgents.
The primary instrument in this new policy has been the Janjaweed,
a loosely organized Arab militia force of perhaps 20,000 men,
primarily on horse and camel.
This force is dramatically different in
character, military strength, and purpose from previous militia
raiders. Khartoum ensured that the Janjaweed were extremely heavily
armed, well-supplied, and actively coordinating with the regime's
regular ground and air forces. Indeed, Human Rights Watch obtained
in July 2004 confidential Sudanese government documents that directly
implicate high-ranking government officials in a policy of support
for the Janjaweed. "It's absurd to distinguish between the
Sudanese government forces and the militias-they are one,"
says Peter Takirambudde, executive director of Human Rights Watch's
Africa Division. "These documents show that militia activity
has not just been condoned, it's been specifically supported by
Sudan government officials."
Evidence of genocide
The nature of the attacks on African villages
in Darfur-as reported by numerous human rights groups-makes clear
the Khartoum regime's genocidal intent. Janjaweed assaults, typically
conducted in concert with Khartoum's regular military forces (including
helicopter gunships and Antonov bombers), have been comprehensively
destructive of both human life and livelihood: men and boys killed
en masse, women and girls raped or abducted, and all means of
agricultural production destroyed. Thriving villages have had
buildings burned, water sources poisoned, irrigation systems torn
up, food and seed stocks destroyed, and fruit trees cut down.
Cattle have been looted on a massive scale, and most of those
not looted have died from lack of water and food, as people flee
into the inhospitable wastes of this arid region.
According to Article 2 of the 1948 UN
Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide-to which
the US and all current members of the UN Security Council are
party-genocide encompasses not only the deliberate killing of
members of a "national, ethnical, racial or religious group,
as such," but also "deliberately inflicting on the group
conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction
in whole or in part." The latter is what we have seen in
As a result, agricultural production has
largely come to a halt in Darfur, and the United Nations estimates
that in the very near future 3.5 million people will be in urgent
need of food assistance (the total population of Darfur is approximately
6.5 million). Moreover, there is no sign that the current planting
season will yield a significant fall harvest. Huge civilian populations-well
over two million people-will be dependent on food aid for the
foreseeable future. Many of these people will die in what has
become genocide by attrition.
The humanitarian crisis The current rainy
season in Darfur is already creating immense logistical problems
for humanitarian aid groups, as it did last summer. Darfur is
one of the most remote places in Africa, and quite distant from
navigable bodies of water. Both food and critical nonfood items
(medical supplies, shelter, equipment for clean water) must be
transported over land by truck or (much more expensively) flown
into the regional capitals of the three Darfur states.
Though humanitarian organizations are
performing heroically under extremely difficult conditions, it's
clear that there is a deadly mismatch between humanitarian capacity
and human need. As the rains sever various transport corridors
and insecurity closes others, many villages and communities are
becoming inaccessible. This occurs against the backdrop of a traditional
"hunger gap"-the period between spring planting and
Moreover, the overcrowded camps for displaced
persons-now the only place of refuge for more than two million
people-face serious shortages of sanitary facilities. The threat
of waterborne disease is becoming acute, as many of the camps
are little more than open sewers. Outbreaks of cholera or dysentery
could quickly claim tens of thousands of lives in addition to
those already claimed by violence, disease, and malnutrition.
Extant data suggest that between 350,000 and 400,000 have perished
during the past 29 months.
A recent UN mortality assessment indicates
that more than 6,000 continue to die every month, and Jan Egeland,
UN Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs, has warned that the
toll may climb to 100,000 per month if insecurity forces humanitarian
organizations to withdraw from Darfur. Banditry, hijacking of
humanitarian convoys, and attacks on humanitarian workers have
grown relentlessly in recent months, even as there has been a
decline in major conflict between Khartoum's regular forces and
the insurgency groups.
Peace negotiations in Abuja, Nigeria,
have done nothing to rein in the Janjaweed militia, and a small
African Union monitoring force on the ground has had only marginal
effect in addressing civilian and humanitarian security needs.
The death total in Darfur's genocide may reach that of Rwanda's
by year's end.
Racism and Islamism in Khartoum
The National Islamic Front (which has
attempted to rename itself innocuously as the "National Congress
Party") is essentially unchanged since it seized power from
a democratically elected government in a 1989 military coup, deliberately
aborting Sudan's most promising peace process since independence
in 1956. With the exception of Islamist ideologue Hassan El-Turabi-the
mastermind of the 1989 coup who split with his former allies and
is no longer part of the government-the same brutal men still
control the NIF 16 years after it seized power. Field Marshal
Omer El-Beshir retains the presidency, and Ali Osman Taha-arguably
the most powerful man in Sudan-serves as vice president and controls
the terrifyingly efficient security services. Nafie Ali Nafie,
Gutbi Al-Mahdi, and other longtime members of the NIF serve in
various advisory capacities. And Major General Saleh Abdallah
Gosh, recently flown to Washington by the CIA, retains control
of the Mukhabarat (Sudan's intelligence and security service)
even as he is among those members of the NIF indicted at the International
Criminal Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity in Darfur.
These are the men who settled on a genocidal
response to the insurgency movements that emerged in Darfur in
early 2003. But the NIF'S history of genocide goes back much further
than the current catastrophe in Darfur. Animated by a radical
Islamism and sense of Arab racial superiority, the movement engaged
in genocide almost from the time it seized power. A year ago,
seasoned Sudan watcher Alex de Waal of the British group Justice
Africa wrote for the London Review of Books what remains one of
the best overviews of the Darfur crisis. In the piece, he observed
that genocide in Darfur is not the genocidal campaign of a government
at the height of its ideological hubris, as the 1992 jihad in
the Nuba Mountains was, or coldly determined to secure natural
resources, as when it sought to clear the oilfields of southern
Sudan of their troublesome inhabitants. This is the routine cruelty
of a security cabal, its humanity withered by years in power;
it is genocide by force of habit. As part of a ghastly jihad,
the NIF conducted relentless military assaults on civilians and
enforced a humanitarian aid embargo that lasted more than a decade.
The same men ordered the scorched-earth
clearances of the oil regions in southern Sudan to provide security
for the operations of international oil companies. The actions
of oil companies from Canada, Sweden, Austria, China, Malaysia,
and India-directly supporting the NIF regime-constitute one of
the most shameful episodes in the long and terrible history of
resource extraction in Africa.
The result of these policies was that
between 1989 and 2002 many hundreds of thousands of Sudanese were
either killed or displaced. In the Nuba Mountains and the oil
regions of southern Sudan, as in Darfur, the NIF regime settled
upon a deliberate policy of human destruction, targeting ethnically
African populations that had rebelled against, or were victims
of, decades of political and economic marginalization.
The July 9 inauguration of a new Sudanese
"government of national unity" (GNU) has appropriately
received a good deal of news coverage. (The GNU represents the
culmination of an arduous peace process going back almost a decade
and the formal end to war in southern Sudan. Perhaps the most
destructive civil conflict since World War II and one of the longest
wars in Africa's history, it saw the Christian and animist South
pitted against the Muslim, Arab-speaking North. As many as 2.5
million people have died since the second phase of the civil war
began in 1983-and likely more than four million if we consider
its earlier phase (1955-72). More than five million people were
displaced by the war-Sudan has the world's largest population
of internally displaced persons-and southern Sudan was utterly
John Garang, the 60-year-old guerilla
leader of the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army,
was killed in a helicopter crash on July 30, just three weeks
after being inaugurated as "First Vice President" in
the GNU. One of the few elder southern statesman who believed
in a united Sudan, Garang was pivotal in securing the peace agreement
that ended the civil war and was a symbol of hope for many in
the south. It was assumed in many quarters that Garang-as someone
long sympathetic to the cause of Sudan's marginalized peoples-would
use his new position to help end genocide in Darfur. His death
has raised fears about the newly established peace, with some
southerners claiming the Sudanese government, dominated by their
northern opponents, might have played a role in it. A seven-member
team is investigating the crash and is scheduled to present its
findings by early September.
Who is dying
Darfur's prewar population of approximately
6.5 million was perhaps 60 to 65 percent non-Arab-some four million
"Africans." In fact, all Darfuris are African, and skin
color is a wholly inadequate measure of ethnicity. But ethnic
differences do exist-the use of Arabic as a first language, agricultural
practices, and a variety of more subtle cultural differences-and
identification by ethnicity comes easily to Darfuris, even in
matters such as gait and attire. But of this population of roughly
four million "Africans," UN figures for displacement,
or even for those defined as "conflict-affected," cannot
account for more than one million people. Some are in urban areas,
but hundreds of thousands have died (more on exactly how many
below), and hundreds of thousands more are at risk in inaccessible
rural areas of Darfur.
Sometime in summer 2004-we'll probably
never know just when-human mortality in the Darfur genocide became
more a function of malnutrition and disease than violent destruction.
What we must not lose sight of is that deaths from malnutrition
and disease are no less the product of genocidal ambitions than
violent killings: Having so comprehensively and deliberately destroyed
the villages and livelihoods of the African tribal populations
of Darfur, Khartoum and its Janjaweed allies bear full responsibility
for the ongoing deadly consequences of these assaults on civilian
The consensus among Darfuris in exile,
at least those who have access to sources on the ground in Darfur,
is that approximately 90 percent of all African villages have
now been destroyed. But as villagers have fled to camps for displaced
persons and into eastern Chad, they have created extremely vulnerable
populations in highly concentrated locations. The United Nations
reports approximately two million people in camps for displaced
persons to which it has access in Darfur and another 200,000 refugees
inside Chad along the Darfur border. Many hundreds of thousands
of people remain unaccounted for-dead, hiding, staying with host
families in other locations, or simply unregistered by the United
Those inside the camps must contend not
only with relentless insecurity but with overcrowding, inadequate
sanitary facilities, shortcomings in shelter, and severe water
shortages-in some locations people have been forced to survive
on what humanitarian groups consider less than half the daily
human requirement of water. Though the rainy season may alleviate
this problem, the torrential rains also create severe risks for
outbreaks of waterborne diseases such as cholera and dysentery.
There were no major outbreaks of either disease in summer 2004;
displaced Darfuris are very unlikely to again escape diseases
that can claim tens of thousands of lives in a matter of weeks.
Food shortages, however, remain the greatest
threat to human life in Darfur. Darfuris normally rely on foraging
in times of desperation, but the insecurity that continues to
be created by the Janjaweed makes this impossible. Many of the
hundreds of thousands in inaccessible rural areas are slowly starving.
Children, as always, are most vulnerable.
Insecurity prevented a significant planting
this spring and early summer (normally the major planting season
in the agricultural calendar), so there will be no fall harvest-this
after last fall's severely attenuated harvest. Significant domestic
food production in Darfur will not be in evidence until fall 2006-at
the earliest. People already weakened by malnutrition have become
increasingly vulnerable to disease and will only become weaker
and more vulnerable in the months ahead. Genocidal mortality will
continue for years.
Last December, Jan Egeland, the UN's Undersecretary
for Humanitarian Affairs, estimated that if insecurity forces
the withdrawal of humanitarian operations, as many as 100,000
may die every month. And as Kofi Annan recently noted in his report
to the Security Council, threats against humanitarian workers
are on the rise.
There is compelling data concerning violent
mortality. Even with significant biases toward undercounting,
the data assembled by the Coalition for International Justice
(CIJ), the organization appointed by the State Department and
the US Agency for International Development (US AID) to research
human destruction, strongly suggests that more than 200,000 people
have died violently in Darfur. Though not technically an epidemiological
study, the CIJ report cannot be ignored, since there is no alternative
source of data. The key finding was that 61 percent of those interviewed
had witnessed the killing of a family member during an assault
by Janjaweed or regular military forces.
This data, along with previous mortality
data from the World Health Organization and other humanitarian
organizations, and several key epidemiological studies, suggest
that between 350,000 and 400,000 people have died from all causes-violence,
malnutrition, and disease-in Darfur's genocide. The impending
spike upward in monthly mortality rates, and the great likelihood
that genocide by attrition will continue for months and years,
suggest, that total mortality may eventually exceed that of Rwanda
in 1994. Unfortunately, news media have almost all failed to take
account of the mortality data available, particularly data suggesting
a total for violent mortality.
The future of Darfur
There is no sign that normal agricultural
production will resume any time in the near future. There is no
sign that the insecurity confining people to camps for the displaced
or villages under siege will be alleviated, even with the currently
planned deployment of additional African Union personnel. There
is no sign that the international community intends to fund humanitarian
efforts in Darfur at an appropriate level. There is no sign that
Khartoum's National Islamic Front, and the new government it dominates,
has changed its genocidal ambitions, now best served by preserving
the deadly status quo. There is no sign that peace negotiations
in Abuja, Nigeria will yield more than the vaguely worded "declaration
of principles" signed last month. And there is no sign of
the international humanitarian intervention that might stop the
There are only signs that the dying will
The US response to Darfur must be understood
in the context of Bush-administration efforts to end Sudan's north-south
war-as well as the administration's attempt to secure intelligence
from Khartoum on international terrorism. (The National Islamic
Front hosted Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda from 1991 to 1996, and
retained strong connections even when bin Laden moved to Afghanistan.)
These have been policy priorities despite the administration's
explicit conclusion, first announced by former Secretary of State
Colin Powell last September, that genocide was taking place in
Darfur and that the Khartoum government was playing a role.
The Bush administration invested heavily
in negotiating an end to the north-south war, and the signing
earlier this year of a formal peace agreement-however limited
and flawed-must be recognized as a major foreign policy achievement.
But precisely because of the administration's investment in a
north-south agreement, including the appointment of former Senator
John Danforth as special envoy to Sudan, there was widespread
reluctance within the State Department to hold Khartoum accountable
for the genocide that was clearly unfolding in early 2004, when
north-south peace negotiations had entered their final phase.
The thinking by US officials involved
in the negotiations, and their British and Norwegian counterparts,
was that pressing the National Islamic Front regime too hard on
Darfur would undermine the chances of consummating the north-south
agreement. But this diplomatic strategy was of course transparent
to Khartoum and thus perversely provided an incentive for the
regime to extend negotiations as long as possible-always promising
a light at the end of the diplomatic tunnel.
The last issue of substance between Khartoum
and the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement was resolved
in a protocol signed by all parties in late May 2004. Two weeks
later, following months of terrifying reports from human rights
groups, the State Department announced that it would begin an
investigation to determine whether Khartoum was guilty of genocide
in Darfur. The close sequence of dates was not a coincidence
But a tremendous amount of the violent
destruction in Darfur had already been accomplished by June 2004;
indeed, this marks the approximate point in the conflict at which
deaths from malnutrition and disease began to exceed those from
violence. Moreover, Khartoum continued to use the north-south
peace agreement as a threat, declaring with brazen confidence
that if it were pushed too hard on Darfur, the negotiated agreement
might be endangered. The agreement's final signing ceremony occurred
in Nairobi on January 9, 2005; the inauguration of a new government
took place six months later, on July 9, 2005; the killing in Darfur,
of course, continues.
US belatedness in responding with appropriate
determination to genocide was mirrored in the flaccid responses
of European countries, individually and through the European Union.
Canada, Japan, the Arab League, and the African Union were no
better. America has been the most generous nation in providing
humanitarian assistance to Darfur, reflecting chiefly the determination
of officials at US AID. Meanwhile, the commitments of other countries
to relief efforts have been less than stellar. The financial responses
of Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and the oil-rich Arab countries
have been scandalously laggard.
The African Union in Darfur
The AU began to deploy a small number
of monitors to Darfur following a ceasefire signed in April 2004
in N'Djamena, Chad. A commitment in late summer 2004 to increase
the monitoring force to approximately 3,500 went unfulfilled for
over half a year, and during this time the AU was unable to secure
from Khartoum a mandate for civilian protection-only a mandate
to monitor the largely nonexistent ceasefire. Recently, the AU
has said it will increase its force to 7,700 by September, and
possibly 12,000 by spring 2006.
As many have recognized, the AU is quite
unable to deploy to this force-level with its own resources and
NATO, as a consequence, has very recently agreed to provide logistics
and transport capacity. The bigger problem, however, is that even
with NATO's help, the nascent AU Peace and Security Commission
is simply not up to this mission if the goal for Darfur is adequate
protection for civilians and humanitarian operations. The AU does
not have the troops, equipment, or essential interoperability
of forces that are necessary given the scale of the crisis. Those
paying the price for disingenuous suggestions to the contrary
are vulnerable civilian populations and humanitarian aid workers.
Recently, Foreign Minister Cheikh Tidiane
Gadio of Senegal refused to accept any longer what has become
the mantra of "African solutions for African problems."
Gadio declared, on the occasion of a visit by Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice, that his government was "totally dissatisfied"
with the hollowness of AU claims to be able to stop genocide in
Darfur. Calling the situation "totally unacceptable,"
he continued: "We don't like the fact that the African Union
has asked the international community to allow us to bring an
African solution to an African problem and unfortunately the logistics
from our own governments do not follow."
This honesty is remarkable, the more so
since Nigeria-current chair of the African Union-has declared
at various points that the situation is fully in hand and actually
improving. Comments to this effect have come from both President
Obasanjo and General Festus Okonkwo, the Nigerian commander of
AU forces in Darfur. Nigeria has strong-armed into silence many
African nations. The country, which wants to maintain good relations
with the Muslim world even as it confronts militant Islam in northern
Nigerian states, has yielded to pressure from the Arab League-especially
Libya and Egypt-to define the Darfur genocide as an African problem
rather than an international one.
Genocidal destruction in Darfur will continue
for the foreseeable future. The resources to halt massive, ethnically
targeted destruction-of lives and livelihoods-are nowhere in sight.
The consequences of this destruction, now extending over almost
two and a half years, will be evident for years-in villages that
have been burned to the ground, in poisoned water sources, in
the cruel impoverishment of people who have lost everything, in
deaths that will continue to mount relentlessly.
There is currently no evidence that the
international community is prepared to deploy adequate protection
for either Darfur's vulnerable civilian populations or endangered
humanitarian operations. August, traditionally the month of heaviest
rains, saw a further attenuation of relief efforts, as transport
of food and other critical supplies became mired in flooded riverbeds
and blocked by severed road arteries. At the same time, waterborne
diseases, along with malaria and a wide range of communicable
diseases, will take huge numbers of lives. These diseases will
be particularly potent killers because so much of the civilian
population of Darfur has been seriously weakened by malnutrition.
Famine conditions have already been identified in parts of Darfur,
and the UN's World Food Program estimates that 3.5 million people
will need food assistance in the near future.
Our moral choice
It is important that the stark moral choice
confronting the international community be absolutely clear. History
must not record this moment as one in which our decision was uninformed
by either the scale of the human catastrophe or an understanding
of what is required to stop genocidal destruction.
And so, despite the long odds against
an intervention actually taking place, it is our obligation to
say with conviction and understanding the most urgent truth: In
the absence of humanitarian intervention, Darfur's civilian population,
as well as humanitarian workers, will be consigned to pervasive,
deadly insecurity; displaced persons will remain trapped in camps
that are hotbeds of disease; agricultural production will remain
at a standstill, leaving millions of people dependent on international
food assistance for the foreseeable future; aid workers will continue
to fall prey to targeted and opportunistic violence.
In other words, the genocide in Darfur
will continue. We can stop it. We are simply choosing not to.
Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College
and an expert on Darfur. For more information see Reeves's website,
www.sudanreeves.org. Reprinted with permission of the New Republic,