A terrible consequence of the Darfur Peace Agreement, signed in May 2006 and resulting chiefly in dividing the anti-Khartoum rebel movement, is that it has allowed too many influential people to speak euphemistically about the crisis that’s taking place in western Sudan and eastern Chad. Human destruction and displacement are no longer “genocidal,” but rather a function of rebel fractiousness, opportunistic banditry, and a generalized “insecurity.” Similarly, the role of the Khartoum regime is no longer that of orchestrating indefensible acts of violence, but of obstructing humanitarian operations and defying various international demands. All of it is terrible, of course, but not genocide.
Well, recent events in West Darfur, along the border with Chad, should compel us to start calling things by their correct names again. What we’re seeing in Darfur now is a level of ethnically targeted violence that hasn’t been approached since the terrifying days of 2004. Beginning on February 8, Janjaweed militias, coordinating with Khartoum’s regular troops and military aircraft, began to attack areas north of el-Geneina, the capital of West Darfur. They targeted the towns of Sirba, Abu Surug, and Silea—all of which had come under control of the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) this past December and January. Determined to drive the rebel group from its close proximity to el-Geneina, and bent on destroying its perceived base of civilian support, Khartoum struck quickly and savagely. (But not quickly enough to take out the rebels, who fled in advance of the attacks.) Soon, the destruction of ethnically African Masseleit and Erenga civilians and towns began in earnest. Militarily imprecise barrel bombs leveled much of these three towns, as well as surrounding villages and displaced persons camps. More than 60,000 civilians fled, perhaps 12,000 into eastern Chad, where the intensity of Khartoum’s bombing attacks forced the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to withdraw its personnel. In Silea, a town of 25,000, only 200 remained when aid officials arrived on February 14.
And if that weren’t enough, Khartoum has also suspended all humanitarian flights to the region; as a result, 160,000 people have been cut off from food, medical, and water assistance. Ominously, a large number of children aged 12 through 18 are missing, disproportionately boys. Both the Janjaweed and Khartoum’s regular troops have a long history of executing young males from non-Arab ethnic groups.
Survivors from Silea told UNHCR workers that ground attacks by the Janjaweed militia, supported by Khartoum’s bombers, nearly destroyed Abu Surug and heavily damaged four surrounding camps for internally displaced people. On February 18, the camp for displaced persons at nearby Aro Sharow was bombed, producing yet more displacement. Presently some 20,000 people are seeking refuge in the mountainous Jebel Moun area just to the east. Khartoum’s bombers and military units are following them, however, using the pursuit of JEM rebels as an excuse for attacking the Erenga and Masseleit people. As was the case at the height of the genocidal violence, Khartoum sees African tribal populations as a source of support for the rebels, and is determined to destroy them both.
The UN/African Union force in Darfur (UNAMID), designed to restrain the violence and protect civilians, is deploying much too slowly in response. More than six months after it was authorized by the U.N. Security Council, UNAMID has reached only a third of its required force level, and suffers from an acute lack of resources, especially helicopters which could provide the mobility required in a region the size of France. If UNAMID can’t quickly strengthen itself, aid organizations will likely withdraw, and the violence will only grow worse. Darfur is on the brink, and its people need not only life-sustaining humanitarian assistance, but also much more security than they’re receiving now.
Sensing a parallel between today’s events and those from February 2004, I reread a column I wrote for The Washington Post at the time. This was the concluding paragraph:
“Khartoum has so far refused to rein in its Arab militias; has refused to enter into meaningful peace talks with the insurgency groups; and most disturbingly, refuses to grant unfettered humanitarian access. The international community has been slow to react to Darfur’s catastrophe and has yet to move with sufficient urgency and commitment. A credible peace forum must rapidly be created. Immediate plans for humanitarian intervention should begin. The alternative is to allow tens of thousands of civilians to die in the weeks and months ahead in what will be continuing genocidal destruction.”
I could have written the same words in this article. Except four years have passed. In that time, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, the victims of violence, disease, and malnutrition. Over 2.5 million others have been displaced. And peace feels as distant today as it did then. There’s a word for this–one that nobody should be hesitant to say from now on: unforgivable.
[Eric Reeves is a professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College and has written extensively on Sudan]