The Darfur region of western Sudan has been recognized as the site of genocide since 2004 by dozens of political officials and bodies (including the U.S. Congress and the EU Parliament), human rights groups, a wide range of genocide and human rights scholars, and such commemorative bodies as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Vad Yashem in Israel. Senator, candidate, and President Obama not only declared that genocide was occurring in Darfur but campaigned on the issue in 2008, referring to the Darfur genocide as a “stain on our souls.” Indeed, Barack Obama...indeed.
This judgments should hardly have been surprising. The annihilating character of attacks on non-Arab/African civilians and villages in Darfur; the systematic denial of humanitarian aid to these ethnic populations; and the pointed pronouncements of various officials and proxies of the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime—all made “genocide” the inevitable characterization. Only political diffidence or disingenuousness kept the characterization from being universally accepted.
Moreover, the outlines of the genocidal ambition were articulated with remarkable clarity in a memorandum originating from the headquarters of notoriously brutal Arab militia leader (Janjaweed) Musa Hilal in Misteriya, North Darfur at the height of the violence: “change the demography” of Darfur and “empty it of African tribes.”
Lest we think Musa Hilal as only a “man of letters,” we should recall that he was identified by numerous eyewitnesses as having presided at the February 2004 slaughter at Tawila, North Darfur. More than 100 people were killed, 350 girls and women were abducted, and more than 100 women were raped. A number of the women and girls were raped in front of their fathers, who were then killed. This was Musa Hilal's idea of "demographic change." And this was only one of many atrocities that he either directed or orchestrated.
More than a decade later, in September 2015, Human Rights Watch provided the world a clear, authoritative, and deeply researched report on the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), by then the dominant militia force in Darfur, called by some the “new Janjaweed.” This report is more important than ever as we survey the “militia state” that Darfur has become as part of Khartoum’s genocidal counter-insurgency; and the report provides compelling evidence that Musa Hilal’s ambitions continue to animate the violence orchestrated by Khartoum against non-Arab/African tribal populations. The voice of particular significance in this report is that of Vice President of the regime, Hassabo Mohammed Abdel Rahman—reported by a defecting militiaman:
Ahmed said that a few days prior to leaving for East Jebel Marra, Sudanese Vice President Hassabo Mohammed Abdel Rahman directly addressed several hundred army and RSF soldiers: “Hassabo told us to clear the area east of Jebel Marra. To kill any male. He said we want to clear the area of insects. … He said East Jebel Marra is the kingdom of the rebels. We don’t want anyone there to be alive.”
I am astonished that these words by Khartoum’s Vice President have not registered in a consequential way with those Western nations formulating various policies of accommodation with the regime, particularly since they define so precisely the nature of the violence that accelerated from 2012 through the militarily successful campaign against the Jebel Marra massif in Central Darfur in 2016.
Notably, the Jebel Marra campaign included the use of chemical weapons against clearly civilian populations in the region, a fact that raised not a shred of international indignation of the sort Bashar al-Assad’s attacks in Syria have. The campaign was successful and denied rebel forces in Darfur their last significant military redoubt. The genocidal counter-insurgency has—after fourteen years of unspeakable violence, destruction, and deprivation—succeeded.
In the wake of such victory, Khartoum is eager to begin dismantling the camps for displaced persons that have done so much to define destruction and suffering during the Darfur genocide. UN figures suggest that approximately 3 million people remain displaced from their homes, some 300,000 as refugees in eastern Chad. They are overwhelmingly people from the non-Arab/African tribal populations of Darfur. Extant mortality data and reports, while limited in many ways by Khartoum, when aggregated strongly suggest that well over 500,000 people have been killed directly or indirectly by the violence Khartoum has so effectively engineered Many tens of thousands of girls and women have been raped as sexual violence continues to be deployed as a brutal weapon of war.
Deprivation is unspeakable in many locations as the best current estimate is that 30 percent of the population in Darfur that remains inaccessible to humanitarian relief operations because of Khartoum’s obstructionist policies. Children die in unforgivably large numbers for lack of food, medicine, and shelter. 30 percent of the population in need represents almost 1 million people, as the UN has recently estimated that Darfur’s population in need is 3.3 million people.
I offer in a recent analysis representative examples of camps and locations that remain inaccessible despite the claim by former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power that there has been a “sea change” of improvement in humanitarian access in Sudan. Hers is a preposterous falsehood, and yet it stands uncorrected by any U.S. government official—past or present. It is a particularly outrageous falsehood, given the fact that in addition to obstructing humanitarian relief in Darfur, Khartoum continues to impose a total humanitarian blockade on the large and highly distressed populations in rebel-controlled areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. By crediting Khartoum with a “sea change” of improved humanitarian access, Power’s statement perversely works to diminish incentives for the regime actually to make such improvements.
All this is particularly significant given the terms of the last-minute Executive Order signed by President by President Obama in the last week of his administration, lifting sanctions on Khartoum and stipulating terms for the permanent lifting of U.S. sanctions on Khartoum—which include prominently an improvement in humanitarian access.
What does Darfur look like in the wake of this ghastly “success”?
The character of Khartoum’s success in Darfur is revealed in an soul-destroying dispatch from Radio Dabanga as well recent reports from the Small Arms Survey (“Remote-control breakdown: Sudanese paramilitary forces and pro-government militias”) and the Enough Project (“Border Control from Hell: How the EU's migration partnership legitimizes Sudan's militia state”). What they have in common is the characterization of the region as a “militia state,” one in which security has essentially been turned over to the militia forces that have fought for Khartoum and which will sustain themselves—beyond significant salaries in the case of the RSF—primarily by continuing predations on civilians and permanent and by violent expropriation of farmlands and pasturage.
Hamid Nur, a man known to me as someone of extraordinary knowledge, integrity, and humanity, is reported by Radio Dabanga to have offered the following assessment:
Sudan’s western region is politically, militarily, and economically dominated by militias, says the head of the Darfur Civil Society Platform. The Darfur displaced and refugees have no way to return to their [homes and farms] as the places are occupied by militiamen and their families. In an interview with Radio Dabanga, Hamid Ali Nur, head of the Darfur Civil Society Platform, called the repeated statements by the Sudanese government and the recent report by the US military attaché about the improved security situation in Darfur inaccurate and incorrect.
According to the civil society leader, the Khartoum government has, to a large extent, succeeded in changing the Darfur population itself. “Militiamen and their families have occupied the villages and farms left by fleeing Darfuris during all these years.”
The civil society activist said that the government's options given to the Darfur displaced, either to return to their villages of origin, or integrate them into the local communities by re-structuring the camps, are fake. “As the displaced are not able to return, Khartoum’s policy is aimed at permanently displacing them from their homes, lands, and heritage.”
This is the face of a “successful” genocide—successful for the perpetrators, catastrophic for the victims, the non-Arab/African populations of Darfur.
We have had warnings of such genocidal success for more than thirteen years. In February 2004 I warned in the Washington Post that,
There can be no reasonable skepticism about Khartoum's use of these militias to "destroy, in whole or in part, ethnic or racial groups"—in short, to commit genocide. 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, has refused to grant unrestricted 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 be rapidly 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.
These words have a morally scandalous relevance to this day, although I must admit I had no idea that I should be speaking of a genocide that would last years, not weeks and months—or that mortality from genocidal violence would be measured not in tens of thousands but hundreds of thousands of human lives.
Darfur has made “Never again!” seem to me the most appalling, the most disgraceful, and finally the most obscene phrase in the English language.
[Eric Reeves has written extensively on Sudan for almost two decades; he is a Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights https://fxb.harvard.edu/people/eric-reeves/]