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November 2004
No Protection: Refugees from the Janjaweed in Darfur
The Satya Interview with Julie Flint
 

 

The situation in Darfur, Sudan is complicated at best. In a country that has been war-torn for years in what has been perceived as intra-religious strife, the mess in Darfur is easily confused. Julie Flint is an award-winning journalist who traveled around the area in March and April of this year documenting the extermination of Sudanese of African origin by marauding militia of Arab origin called the Janjaweed. Allied with the Sudanese government and under the guise of putting down the Sudanese Liberation Army, the Janjaweed have been ethnically cleansing the countryside of people of the Masalit, Fur and Zaghawa tribes. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced. In the refugee camps alone, 70,000 are known to be dead, while the actual body count is still uncertain.

Flint co-authored an in-depth report on Darfur with Human Rights Watch and testified in June to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As Flint points out, this is a racial war, not a religious one: the Janjaweed are Arab Muslims killing Muslims of African origin. Flint visited refugee camps on the border of Chad and forayed into Darfur to witness villages devoid of all signs of life. That’s the most chilling result of what has been going on: nothing is left. The thoroughness is terrifying. Not only have villagers been murdered and raped, the elements needed to sustain life have been destroyed: food stores gone, animals killed, cooking utensils crushed. To complicate matters, as the government of Sudan denies any wrongdoing, obfuscates humanitarian aid and ho-hums charges of genocide, the Janjaweed have joined the Sudanese army and merely changed their clothes. The refugee camps are protected by the very men who terrorized the countryside.

To help us understand the situation and the failure of the world to protect people, as well as the role of the West in what can be done, Catherine Clyne spoke with Julie Flint by phone from her home in Beirut. Squealing in the background was a ten-day old kitten Flint rescued from a nearby lot. All in a day’s work.

Can you give a brief overview of what’s been going on in Darfur and what you know of the situation now?
Basically what you’ve got is a government-inspired campaign to put down a rebellion by tribes of African origin—as opposed to Arab origin—by draining the water. In order to defeat the rebels, they’re systematically attacking the civilian population, and the Janjaweed are one of their weapons. There’s much evidence to support this; most obvious is the fact that in many of the villages, the first sign of attack comes from government planes, followed by ground attacks by Janjaweed, then accompanied by the regular government army. The government cries ethnic, tribal troubles—this isn’t a little local trouble between tribes. This is a war which has displaced several million people, and since March, 70,000 people have died in the camps alone that we know of. This excludes people not in camps—people who have died in fighting; who are living with host communities outside camps. It’s huge.

In March, I was in an area belonging to the Masalit tribe; the countryside was completely empty, no people were there. None. Zero. Many had fled to Chad; some had congregated around larger villages which had a police station or a little army post. But the countryside had been emptied of all life. Everything needed to sustain life had been destroyed—food stores, houses, cooking implements, everything; women had been raped; people had been killed. It’s just mindless.

For several months now, you and human rights workers have been trying to raise awareness about this. Why do you think so few people have paid attention?
Well, I think people—people in the West—have paid attention. A big problem is, in the [days] of Iraq and Abu Ghraib, any alerts to come from the West are disbelieved, so the Arab world says, “Weapons of mass destruction was a lie; Darfur is a lie.” So almost automatically the Arab world, the Islamic world doesn’t even listen, doesn’t even consider what you’re saying.

The problem is people in the West are not putting their money where their mouth is. They solemnly intone “never again” ten years after Rwanda; but the UN’s appeal has simply not been met for Darfur. The money isn’t there to feed, house and protect these people. The rest of the world, I’m afraid, is simply disbelieving.

What is happening now that Westerners are at least bandying about the term “genocide,” and what does it mean that they are using the g-word?
Well, it hasn’t meant anything at all. I oppose labels. I do not think they’re useful. It simply gives people who don’t want to listen another argument—Is it genocide or not? We shouldn’t be arguing about labels, we should be arguing about what needs to be done. We shouldn’t be saying, “Is it ‘genocide’? Is it ‘ethnic cleansing’?” We should be saying, “70,000 people dead in camps, what are we going to do about it?”

[Colin Powell has said] it’s genocide, but that doesn’t mean we have to do anything about it—which means the Genocide Convention is absolutely meaningless. This debate has taken up a lot of time and energy and at the end of the day means absolutely nothing.

What do you think realistically needs to happen now?
The first thing is to save lives among the people who’ve lost their homes. That means people have to fund the UN appeal. The government of Sudan has to be subjected to consistent pressure. Sudan’s record shows it will do just enough to escape action against it. It will never of its own accord permit relief work in areas like Darfur. You need reinforcement of the African Union; you need human rights monitors to witness what is going on. Are the Janjaweed being disbanded? Or are they, as we know they are, being integrated into the government security forces? A couple of months ago the Janjaweed were raping and murdering as ‘Janjaweed’; today they’re doing this as the Sudanese army. They’ve simply changed their clothes. You need a monitoring force; and it would be fantastic if that could contain people from the Arab world as well as from the West. In the days after Iraq it is so important to unite, to try to bridge the divide between the West’s perception and the Arab perception. And you need a protection force. This could be the African Union, or Tony Blair suggested some kind of European Union military force to help in cases like this.

In the second stage—to get people back to their villages—you have to first feed them where they are, because they’ve missed the planting season, their homes are destroyed. They can’t go home because there’s nothing to sustain life there. But they’re extremely liable to disease in these unhealthy, inhuman, unnatural conglomerations. We’ve got to get them back to their villages. In the last couple of weeks, people have gone back under pressure from the government, who says to the international community: “Everything is okay now, the war is over. We’ve called off the Janjaweed, [who’ve] been disciplined by us. People can go back to their villages.” So people have been forced back and guess what—they’ve been attacked and looted a second time. So you have to have a protection force to help people get back to their villages and stay there in safety. For longer term, some kind of human rights monitoring presence to report in a systematic way on what happens in the future.

Are people not safe in the refugee camps?
I wouldn’t say no one is ever safe at all, but as a general rule, they’re not. They’re being protected basically by the very people who’ve been oppressing them. This is not a little local trouble between tribes. It is a campaign absolutely backed by the government. There has to be some kind of force which isn’t the government of Sudan—at least supervise the army and police in their efforts.

What do you think is going to happen?
I’m very pessimistic. There’s a lot of self-righteousness about this, countries shouting “never again.” It’s not enough to say the Sudan government is committing genocide or whatever you want to call it. You have to put your money where your mouth is and they’re not doing it. Don’t forget, there’s many people who haven’t gone to the camps because they are mostly government-controlled territory. They’ve chosen to go deeper into rebel areas in the mountains, areas where there’s almost no relief whatsoever. [Sighs.] So I’m pessimistic that the international community is not going to fund this crisis about which it’s shouting; or that enough pressure can be brought on the government of Sudan. Kofi Annan began very well by making comparison with Rwanda. That really put Darfur on the front pages. Since then the UN has not done the necessary thing.

The Security Council will never ever take action which puts real pressure on the Sudanese government. Members of the Security Council have political and commercial interests with Sudan; there is going to be no coercive UN action. The only thing that could shake up the Security Council is reform.

The war, the fighting is continuing, the displacement is continuing, the rainy season is continuing, disease is spreading; it’s a disaster. I really don’t see that there can be a happy end to this. The world is far too late in reacting and largely because the U.S. wanted a success in Sudan. It was in trouble in Iraq, it desperately wanted a success in Sudan. All the focus of U.S. journalism was on the north/south peace talks in Kenya. There was a willful refusal to look at the crisis in Darfur.

I think what’s so hard for some people to understand, myself included, is that, from what I understand, the Janjaweed are Arab Muslims, correct? And the Masalit are Muslim too.
Yes. Everybody in Darfur is Muslim. There’s no question about this.

If people know anything about Sudan they understand it as clashes between Muslims and Christians.
That’s always been a misrepresentation. This has never been primarily a religious war, religion is only one of the elements. [Sighs.] It’s so complicated. Ever since this government took power, the National Islamic Front in 1989, it has oppressed other Muslims. It has imprisoned and tortured northern Sudanese Muslims; in the Nuba mountains, tortured and killed Nuba Muslims; destroyed mosques and systematically desecrated Qurans—they shat all over mosques, on Qurans, they tore up Qurans, they burned mosques. There has been no respect for Islam unless it was the Islam of the ruling elite.

This war is basically about state power. In the early days there was a strong impulse to try to Islamize the whole of Sudan. It quickly became clear that wasn’t possible. It then developed largely into a war for state power and control of oil. If people who got in the way of the government’s plan were Muslims, that simply didn’t matter. There’s a strong racist element to this war. The government is an Arab-centric government. It has systematically oppressed Africans. And many northerners will tell you that the Islam practiced in Darfur by the Africans is not a good Islam. They’ll say it’s inferior; it’s not the proper Islam. And of course the Africans in Darfur will say, “We’re good Muslims, we pray, we don’t kill people. We don’t rape. Who’s to say who the bad Muslims are?”

The basic thing is this government has had no hesitation in torturing, murdering, raping, imprisoning Muslims, whether they were northern Arabs, southern Africans, western Darfurians; religion has been irrelevant. If they got in the way of the state they were stomped on.

What gives you hope when you know about all of this?
I have little hope. There are so many clocks that need turning back in Sudan: the oil fields where nobody ever talks about using the word genocide—huge areas are completely depopulated. All the UN has done is say the government must discipline the Janjaweed and put arms and travel sanctions on them, which is nonsense—the Janjaweed don’t travel, they’re camel nomads; they don’t go to Paris. Arms sanctions—they have plenty of arms, they don’t need more; they get them from the government if they do. The people that need the coercive actions are the government. Possibly you could be seeing 200 to 300,000 people dead so far. Where’s the grounds for optimism? I don’t see it.

If they were white, if they were Western, it wouldn’t have happened.

Yes. That’d be a completely different story.
It wouldn’t have happened.

Visit www.hrw.org to read the full report on Darfur.

 


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