Darfur: 10 years later, it's still bleeding

Published: Friday, May 3 2013 10:40 p.m. MDT

A displaced Sudanese girl carries a child at the Abu Shouk refugee camp outside the Darfur town of al-Fasher, Sudan, in 2009. (Nasser Nasser, AP) A displaced Sudanese girl carries a child at the Abu Shouk refugee camp outside the Darfur town of al-Fasher, Sudan, in 2009. (Nasser Nasser, AP)

"Dear friends," the post begins. "We have a proverb that says, 'If I am near you, don’t look at the sky.' That means, when I (come) to you with a problem, don’t be silent from me."

The post is from Tarbosh, a Darfuri refugee and schoolteacher in eastern Chad and one of more than 4 million displaced by the decade-long conflict in Darfur, Sudan. As part of the Darfur Dream Team program started by NBA player Tracy McGrady in 2007, Tarbosh and his students, as well as schools from 11 other refugee camps in eastern Chad, post in a closed forum and communicate with more than 300 "sister schools" in the U.S.

"They're feeling that they're being forgotten, that their stories are not being told anymore," said Olabukunola Williams, program manager in Washington, D.C. "It's more important now than ever to talk about what's going on and why."

Yet the conversation about Darfur is happening less and less. This spring marks the tenth anniversary since the Darfur genocide first received international attention. But despite international outcry and a massive awareness campaign, the region is still threatened and its people remain scattered. As violence continues, lessons learned, if there are any, are unclear and a way forward remains murky — and with so much else requiring attention, international will remains small.

A history of violence

Naedi Ahmadi left her native Darfur almost 10 years ago, after the Sudanese military cracked down on two rebel groups in the region by unleashing Arab militias called the Janjaweed on the sedentary, largely African civilians in the area. An activist and volunteer who was working to bring attention to what she refers to as "indiscriminate violence," Ahmadi had to escape Sudan after two attempts on her life.

She is one of many. With upwards of 300,000 deaths in Darfur, millions of Darfuris have fled the region, many landing in refugee camps in Chad and Ethiopia, others going from place to place within Sudan searching for safety from what the United Nations Human Rights Council calls "a campaign of mass killing, rape, and pillage."

Today, things are largely the same as when Ahmadi left, if not worse. She is now a director of global partnerships for United to End Genocide, and despite her efforts and the attempts of many others, Janjaweed attacks on civilians continue to burn villages and homes and to displace and kill the non-Arab Sudanese in Darfur.

"In the last two years, Darfur has witnessed more violence than any time recently," Ahmadi said. "Last month 50,000 (more) refugees fled to Chad — this hasn't happened since 2006. Over 100,000 were displaced within Darfur in the first quarter of 2013."

What is different from a decade ago is a lack of attention and information. In 2009, Sudan President Omar al-Bashir kicked international and humanitarian organizations out of the region, making it difficult not only to provide aid, but to obtain accurate information of current conditions in Darfur.

When asked to name organizations that still have a presence in the region, Ahmadi struggles — not because of a lack of knowledge, but because the presence is so limited. Even Oxfam and CARE, known for assisting even in the most dangerous locales, are operating in a severely limited capacity in Darfur. And with less information comes less attention.

"Since the expulsion in 2009, there is a constant problem of lack of access," Ahmadi said. "The ones expulsed are the more effective ones. … The government of Sudan has been successful in terms of isolating Darfur, blocking media, blocking information access, so they can get away with murder."

Lessons not learned

How could this be? From 2003, it seemed Darfur was on everyone's lips. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called it "genocide" early on, rare in international conflicts. Celebrities such as George Clooney frequently spoke out against the genocide. Efforts such as "Save Darfur" were tremendously successful at raising awareness. And yet the region is still in danger.

"This is perhaps the first time the world recognized genocide occurring and simply got tired of it," said Eric Reeves, professor at Smith College.

Reeves has spent the past 14 years studying Sudan, testifying in Congress and lecturing on the subject and authoring numerous articles and a book about Darfur.

He said there was a lack of political will, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, to put money where the collective mouth was.

"The pressure on the Khartoum regime is just not significant," said Reeves. "Nobody was willing. … Instead, we've ended up with this hopelessly incompetent U.N.-African force."

Despite the "responsibility to protect," a 2005 U.N. measure that establishes that the protection of civilians could trump national sovereignty, and longstanding rules against civilian targets — both of which "Darfur could not have been more specifically apace" for, according to Reeves — the African Union/U.N. Hybrid operation (UN-AMID) is currently the only force in the region working toward amelioration, and a 2010 ceasefire agreement has not proven to be such.

Other international issues — including two wars, an international financial downturn, natural disasters and civil war in Syria — have turned political, media and nonprofit focus elsewhere. And after the southern part of the country seceded in 2011 amidst much conflict, the Darfur region, still part of Sudan proper, has faded from the headlines even as attacks continue.

"We don't know because we don't have humanitarian access, but given the level of distress by those refugees who do get out, we know over a million people are in very serious danger," said Reeves.

Reeves said the Darfur genocide is comparable in terms of fatalities to Rwanda in April of 1994, although deaths in Darfur have unfolded over a longer period of time. "My estimate is half a million people have died, and still the dying continues.

"This will neither end soon nor will we be able to forget it for decades."

"Of course I have hope."

Though the violence continues, there are still actions that organizations, nations and even individuals could take to lend some relief.

Reeves sees economic sanctions as being practical and potentially effective in securing a response from the Sudanese government. German companies do business with Sudan, and Sudan relies on pumps from Scotland-based company Weir for its oil pipelines — an important source of revenue.

"Putting a serious economic squeeze on the regime could produce a much more practical result," said Reeves.

As for military tactics, taking out Sudan's main air base could also reduce aerial bombardment of civilians, which is considerable. However, further diplomatic or military action from the U.S. seems unlikely — the U.S. currently has no special envoy to Darfur, indicating a lack of political will to engage in or with the area and take action.

According to Ahmadi, getting humanitarian aid to the region is the priority — with or without "permission from the government that is killing its own people."

"We are in a very dangerous world where people allow genocide to continue for ten years," Ahmadi said. "The world's leaders said 'never again (to genocide).' … The world should not promote immunity for genocide or crimes against humanity. … No one is above the law."

Although al-Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, he remains at the head of the nation and has traveled without fear of repercussions as no country is willing to act on the ICC's warrant for his arrest and detain him.

Despite bleak circumstances, Ahmadi plans on returning to Darfur. "Of course I have hope. I have never lost the hope," she says. "I want to pay back my community. … I hope that one day there will be peace and I can go back."

Like Ahmadi, Darfuri refugees in eastern Chad also hope to return and rebuild their lives — thus education efforts in refugee camps, like the ones supported by the Darfur Dream Team, are crucial.

"It makes it less likely for them to be recruited into rebel groups or child marriage and then it also gives kids a safe space to be in a refugee camp," Williams said. "When they do come home or get resettled, it gives them some skills to start their life."

Darfur Dream Team works with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to provide funding and resources for the refugee camp schools. And by building personal relationships between refugees in Chad and students in the U.S. with the sister schools program, Williams hopes to create a way for those in other nations to stay near Darfuris and not "look at the sky," as the proverb says.

"At the end of the day, (peace) can only happen if the international community does not forget Darfur," she said.

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