February 8, 2004
A number of credible eyewitnesses from within far northern Darfur (near al-Atrun) are reporting a significant increase in fighting this past week, in a region far from any humanitarian or news presence of the sort that has begun to be established in the Tine area (on the Chad-Sudan border, over 300 kilometers to the south) and the al-Geneina (Darfur)/Adre (Chad) areas further south yet. Khartoum’s clear strategy, having begun to consolidate its brutal grip in western Darfur, is to shift the military effort to the far north. There the Berti and Midop tribal groups (related to the Fur and Zaghawa tribal groups) have begun to experience the same genocidal tactics already widely reported by Amnesty International, the UN, and news wires.
First the villages of these African tribal groups are bombed by Antonovs or helicopter gunships, and then they are attacked on the ground by Khartoum’s regular and Arab militia forces. Confident that there is no humanitarian or news presence that might expand our scope of understanding, Khartoum is further exploiting the international community’s unwillingness to do anything but talk about the urgency of the catastrophe in Darfur. One series of detailed accounts, coming to this writer and an Arabic-speaking human rights worker from Darfur, originates in the area of al-Malha, some 50 miles southeast of al-Atrun, far to the north in Darfur and almost 300 kilometers from the border with Chad (thus likely far beyond walking distance for most).
Of the twenty villages in this area, seven have been burned and destroyed. 48 people, all civilians, are reported dead, including four blind women and two disabled civilians who were burned to death by militia ground forces after a bombing attack on a heavily-used water well (this is an increasingly common and vicious military tactic on Khartoum’s part). The attacks were confirmed by means of telephone communications from multiple sources, several of whom are unknown to one another.
The absence of humanitarian access in Darfur, as well as the extremely limited range of news reporting from the region, makes verification of such reports impossible, even as their great number and similarity is all too telling. Similar difficulties, of course, attend efforts to establish accurate numbers for the Darfur catastrophe as a whole. Even so, all available evidence suggests steep increases in the numbers of internally displaced persons and those war-affected. Internally, UN staff are now using the figure of over 1 million displaced and 3.5 million war-affected (it would be useful for the UN to publicize these numbers, as well as explain precisely their meaning of “war-affected”). The number of refugees in Chad has quickly grown to over 135,000 according to the most recent UN public estimate (see UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, February 4, 2004).
But for some time now, the total civilian casualty figure has remained at an implausibly low 3,000. In the absence of an alternative estimate, or an actual body count, UN organizations and other humanitarian and human rights groups have been obliged to continue with this figure.
So it is especially important to note the figure of more than 30,000 dead that was cited in the very recently distributed monthly report from the highly authoritative and experienced Sudan Focal Point/South Africa (late January 2004). This figure is based on very significant and recent field research, and has powerful implications if it is correct (it is likely already an estimate too low, given the continuing deterioration in food security and the cumulative effects of disease and exposure). For the time-frame of the current conflict in Darfur, and the humanitarian crisis it has precipitated, make it reasonable to assume that this total figure implies a present civilian casualty rate of over 1,000 civilians a week.
The conflict in Darfur, which began in February 2003 as a response to years of marginalization and abuse at the hands of various governments in Khartoum, gradually accelerated through most of last year, with a brief (and partial) respite following a cease-fire accord in September 2003. Since the collapse of the cease-fire, fighting and destruction has greatly intensified, with a very rapid deterioration in the humanitarian situation. If we correlate the Sudan Focal Point figure of 30,000+ with the course of events over the last 50 weeks, and the very marked acceleration of human destruction reported since December 2003, it appears highly likely that casualties over the last three months likely reach toward 20,000. Certainly we are witnessing a crisis that has not been defined by an evenly distributed loss of life over these roughly 50 weeks. Rather, there has almost certainly been a dramatic increase that is coincident with the huge upsurge in refugees pouring into Chad: 30,000 in December alone and 20,000 in a ten-day period in January—over one third the total number.
In short, not only do chronology, refugee numbers, and all available reports on humanitarian conditions and military attacks suggest that more than 1,000 civilians are dying every week: this number is almost certainly on the rise.
For how could it be otherwise? Humanitarian access within Darfur remains denied by Khartoum or insecure because of the fighting that Khartoum has directed primarily against civilians. Food production in Darfur as a whole has fallen off precipitously with the war, and most of the African tribal groups that are the targets of Khartoum’s genocidal campaign are now too fearful to plant or harvest crops. Cattle looting by Khartoum’s Arab militias has been rampant, thus stripping people of their essential food reserve and insurance against famine. Those within Chad, along the border with Sudan, have made great efforts to assist refugees, who are often of the same ethnic group. But they, too, are largely subsistence farmers and their ability to assist is rapidly coming to a halt. International humanitarian efforts and resources—and indeed funding—for the crisis in Darfur haven’t begun to keep pace with the accelerating catastrophe.
As a consequence, the future (near- and longer-term) will inevitably be much worse than the past, even as what we are seeing now in the way of threats to the civilian population are far greater than what could have been seen or predicted even half a year ago. It is not impossible, given the terrible food insecurity throughout the area, and the lack of shelter and medical relief, that people will soon die in numbers closer to 10,000 per week. There is nothing in the evidence available that allows for any discounting of the possibility that such vast human destruction and suffering is in the offing.
Khartoum—because it has yet to pay any real price for its unrestrained military efforts to crush the insurgency groups in Darfur, and to destroy the civilian base of support for these groups—has been emboldened to attempt a final solution. The suspension of the Naivasha (Kenya) peace talks between the Khartoum regime and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) offers the perfect moment of military opportunity. The brutal attacks reported to this writer from far northern Darfur, in the area southeast of al-Atrun, are almost certainly being replicated throughout Darfur, especially the exceedingly remote northern Darfur. What Amnesty International has so thoroughly chronicled of Khartoum’s conduct of the war (see http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGAFR540082004) shows no sign of abating, nor does Khartoum give any evidence of being willing to begin serious peace negotiations under meaningful international auspices.
The ghastly impotence of the international community in the face of such stark evidence of genocidal destruction is at once appalling and a guarantee that such destruction will continue so long as Khartoum feels it will not be held accountable and will confront no meaningful response.
If this is to change, the international community—chiefly the UN, the US, the UK, Norway, Italy, and France—must accept the urgent need to plan for a cross-border humanitarian intervention of the sort intimated last week by Andrew Natsios, Administrator for the US Agency for International Development, and by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry. Since Chad is the only site that is truly practicable for such a humanitarian intervention, France should immediately use its immense diplomatic leverage with Chad to secure from President Idris Deby permission for such an urgent mission. French Foreign Minister Dominique De Villepin is due in Sudan shortly (Al-Anbaa newspaper [Khartoum], February 7, 2004), and this trip should focus sharply on Darfur, as well as making clear French willingness to assist in the immediate future with a humanitarian intervention through Chad.
Just as important is the urgent need for a clear and unambiguous signal to Khartoum: “war crimes from this time forward will be prosecuted, either (and preferably) in the International Criminal Court or by means of an ad hoc tribunal on the model of that presently convened for the Rwandan genocide of 1994.” Khartoum must be put on notice that Naivasha will not be the occasion for any negotiated immunity from war crimes committed by the regime in Darfur.
A blunt statement to this effect from Western governments most involved in the peace talks at Naivasha—the US, the British, the Norwegians, the Italians—would go a great distance toward forcing an end to a war effort that is nothing more than serial violations of international law, the Geneva Conventions, and a host of international treaties to which Sudan is nominally party (see Section 5 of the Amnesty International report: “International human rights and humanitarian law”). If the senior members of the National Islamic Front truly believed that they would be held accountable for all future war crimes, violations of international law, and crimes against humanity, the nature of war in Darfur could change precipitously.
As it stands, the regime understands from negotiations in Naivasha how unlikely it is that there will be a criminal tribunal for its all too similar conduct of the war in southern Sudan over the past fifteen years. The simple assumption, all too well warranted, is that the same will be true of Darfur. But we catch a glimpse of some telling anxiety on the part of the National Islamic Front with President Omar Bashir’s recent duplicitous effort to encourage Darfur refugees in Chad to return to Sudan (Agence France-Presse, February 5, 2004), this even as the UN is moving many refugees further into Chad for safety, this at the request of the refugees themselves, who continue to feel unsafe near the border (UN News Centre, February 6, 2004). As Bashir realizes, these refugees have seen too much, and have far too much to tell organizations such as Amnesty International and other human rights and humanitarian organizations, as well as news reporters (e.g., the BBC filed a dispatch from the Chad/Sudan border today).
But if the present conduct of the war is to change from its primary military effort of genocidal civilian destruction, there must be a clear articulation of consequences by those countries with the power to insure that war crimes will be prosecuted. To date, not a single country has declared as much, even though such a declaration has no diplomatic costs and would have future implications only if war crimes were indeed being committed. Since all evidence available suggests not only that war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide are being committed, but that they will continue until pressure is brought to halt them, the reason for this international silence is unfathomable—like the suffering of the people of Darfur.
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