Gamal Ali, a Darfuri cab driver, dropped me off in front of the United Nations headquarters two weeks ago and asked me about the International Criminal Court's indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. "You work inside?" he asked. "ICC Criminal Court? You think they'll arrest Bashir?"
I explained that it was my second week interning at Al Jazeera English, but he still wanted to know whether I thought the war crimes court would issue the warrant.
Even to those unfamiliar with the euphemistic, rhetorical hedging of UN diplomacy, the indictment seemed like a foregone conclusion in February. Nonetheless, it remained the topic du jour of the international community until the ICC made the official announcement on Wednesday. (Whether this is because it is the first time the court has issued a warrant against a sitting head of state or because the international community has directed its humanitarian gaze to Darfur, I cannot say). For the record, hearing Westerners talk about the "genocide," seems at best blissfully myopic and at worse stunningly hypocritical when so many are unaware of the injustices that are not covered in New York Times editorials. But if an indictment makes Gamal feel better, then it must be somewhat relevant.
Despite the cold weather and the apparent inevitability of the indictment, dozens of Darfuri men and a few women, waving pickets with slogans like "Thank You Luis Ocampo [the ICC Prosecutor]," "Justice will be done," and "Thanks ICC," rallied in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza on Wednesday.
One of the demonstrators, Baher Garo, found out Tuesday that his uncle, Al Taib Barsham, was killed during a raid on a market in the capitol city of Northern Darfur, Al Fashir. Militants shot Barsham while robbing his electronics shop and wounded the four other men inside, Garo told me at the rally. His 28-year-old cousin, Mohammad Mohadeen, was badly wounded in the attacks and is still in the hospital. He was months away from earning a college degree, Garo said. A few tears rolled underneath his sunglasses and down his face, as he talked about his uncle.
Garo was a city-planner in a government ministry for ten years before he left Darfur in 2003. Now he drives a taxi. Though Garo has not gone back to Darfur in the past six years, he speaks to his mother and brothers on the phone every few days. "Everyday I hear someone has been arrested," he said, "and it was worse before. Now they kill three or four people in a market, but they used to kill hundreds of people a day."
Garo believes the ICC move is a step towards justice, but he says the rest of the attention from the international community has not been helpful. "The UN troops are there but they don't stop anything. They don't stop the Janjaweed from coming into the middle of a market in the capitol city of Northern Darfur, and killing people in the middle of the day. It wasn't even nighttime."
None of the Darfuris I spoke to at the rally thought the ICC's prosecution would put their families in any more danger than they are currently in. "I am worried about my mother and brothers because I don't know what will happen to them tomorrow," Garo said. "My neighbor was killed outside of his house. So many people have already been killed and everyone has been displaced in the villages. There is no way to stop it except for regime change."
Across 2nd Avenue, a group of veiled, middle-aged, Sudanese women and a few waved Sudanese flags, sang patriotic anthems, and chanted "Down, Down ICC," in a counter-protest in support of President Bashir. A woman named Maha, carrying a "We say no to neo-colonialism" sign, handed out printed statements opposing the indictment on behalf of a coalition of womens' NGO's. A New York-based Sudanese man who was protesting the ICC warrant said that members of the coalition had been flown into the city for a week to support President Bashir.
Maha said the ICC indictment has prompted Sudanese to rally behind their president. "Even people who used to be against Bashir are now supporting him. Everyone is supporting him now because of the ICC double standard."
She is not alone in this assessment.