Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College and has written extensively on Sudan.
After years of obscurity and little reliable international reporting, the vast human catastrophe in Sudan’s Darfur region is again in the news. It was regularly making headlines before 2008, when the then-five-year-old genocide in Darfur had claimed hundreds of thousands of African lives, but a lack of sustained mainstream attention meant that the surging violence fell off the radar.
Few could have predicted that this remote and obscure region in western Sudan would galvanize American civil society. Then again, how could the loss of attention have been so rapid?
The United Nations recently estimated that 300,000 Darfuris had been displaced in the first five months of this year; more than 1 million civilians have been displaced since the fall of 2008. Human Rights Watch recently reported that “satellite images confirm the wholesale destruction of villages in Central Darfur in an attack in April.” The attacks were directed by Ali Kushayb, who was indicted in 2007 by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
Radio Dabanga — an extraordinary news network organized by Darfuris both displaced and still in the region — provides daily, highly detailed accounts of events in Darfur. Although rarely cited by news organizations, which themselves have no access to Darfur, Radio Dabanga has long reported brutal assaults on camps for the displaced, chronic breakdowns in the vast humanitarian effort in Darfur, an epidemic of rape and the appropriation of African lands by Arab militias, which ensures continued instability and displacement.
The ethnic animus in the assaults remains clear, although in recent years, conflicts among Arab tribes have become increasingly destructive. The regime in Khartoum, which cannot defeat the Darfuri rebels militarily and chooses not to address their legitimate grievances, has resumed its scorched-earth campaign, using Arab and non-Arab militias against anyone thought to be providing support to the rebels. Central Darfur’s Jebel Marra region has been the site of a three-year humanitarian blockade and endless aerial bombardment by Russian-built cargo planes that have been crudely retrofitted to drop shrapnel-loaded barrel-bombs. Useless against military targets, these attacks have caused countless civilian casualties while also destroying property and livestock among the region’s primarily non-Arab Fur people.
Although violence has ebbed and flowed over the past decade, it has accelerated sharply in the past year. Yet until recently, news coverage has been paltry and often deeply misleading. In February 2012, the New York Times declared from western Darfur that “one of the world’s most infamous conflicts may have decisively cooled,” citing “returns” by the displaced as evidence. In fact, half a million people had been displaced in the preceding two years and violence was unrelenting. Last August, western North Darfur became another arena of violence during a tribal-based land grab for the Jebel Amir gold mines. The major town of Kutum was overrun by Arab militias that looted humanitarian resources. Nearby Kassab camp was also overrun and emptied of some 30,000 people within a day.
As a senator in 2004, Barack Obama called the atrocities in Darfur “genocide.” He said so again as a presidential candidate in 2007 and chided the Bush administration for its accommodation of Khartoum. Invoking Rwanda and Bosnia as justification for humanitarian intervention in Darfur, Obama said, “We can’t say ‘never again’ and then allow it to happen again, and as a president of the United States, I don’t intend to abandon people or turn a blind eye to slaughter.”
But the slaughter has continued in Darfur: Some 500,000 people have died in the past 10 years from war-related causes. In 2009, as president, Obama again declared that “genocide” was occurring in Darfur, yet little followed from this. To be sure, much has intervened in the years since Obama was elected, including the Arab Spring, the drawdown from Afghanistan, rising tensions with China and a collapsing world economy. These issues, which impinge more directly on U.S. interests and obligations than does Darfur, have consumed much of the administration’s energies.
But the people of Darfur have been left defenseless largely because of an unforgivable lack of attention and leadership by the United States. The policies of Obama’s administration have hardly matched his rhetoric. Indeed, in a bizarre reprise of policies for which Obama had sharply criticized the Bush administration, on Nov. 8, 2010, senior administration officials explicitly “decoupled” Darfur from the largest bilateral issue between Washington and Khartoum: the latter’s place on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. That marked a shift in attention to South Sudan and implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, but the signal sent to Khartoum was that the regime could resume genocidal counterinsurgency warfare in Darfur. The campaign has been more chaotic than the early years of the genocide (2003 to 2005) but no less destructive, and with the continuing collapse of humanitarian efforts because of growing insecurity, civilian destruction could be wholesale.
It’s time to “re-couple” Darfur to all bilateral issues between Washington and Khartoum.