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Story Publication logo July 20, 2008

Genocide in Darfur? What Genocide?


Media file: Sudan_Photo.jpg

Northern Sudan is a region that has largely been ignored, eclipsed by rebellion in Darfur and a...


In an upper-class neighbourhood of the Sudanese capital, three men sit on a rooftop patio, talking politics between spoonfuls of ice cream and sips of espresso.

"I see the government as good - among the best governments we've had," one says.

Another pipes in: "This government solved the two biggest problems in Sudan - peace in the South and the discovery of oil." He goes on: "Of course, it has a lot of disadvantages: It still hasn't solved poverty, problems of education, job opportunities, unemployment ..."

This week, the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor sought an arrest warrant for Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, accusing him of genocide and crimes against humanity for the slaughter of up to 35,000 non-Arab civilians in Darfur and the related deaths and displacements of tens of thousands more.

The atrocities in that conflict have shocked and frustrated much of the world during the past four years. Yet in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, Darfur does not even make the list of many people's concerns.

Not once has a mass demonstration been organized to press the government to resolve the Darfur crisis. Some members of the older, less-educated generation are barely aware that Darfur even exists. "I've heard of Darfur," says Fatima Ahmad, an elderly woman from a village a five-hour drive north of the capital. "But I don't know anything more."

When asked about Darfur specifically, the men on the patio admit that there is a "small" problem between tribes and that the government should have intervened earlier. "But," they add, "the government is not the cause of the Darfur conflict."

Many people in Khartoum refuse to believe the numbers - according to the United Nations, as many as 300,000 dead and 2.5 million displaced. They cannot comprehend that their government could be responsible for such actions, perhaps because accepting that reality would open doors many prefer to leave untouched.

The men on the patio say the janjaweed, identified by international observers as Arab militias armed by the government to subdue non-Arab rebels, are just bandits of various backgrounds. The United Nations camps for displaced people have only created more need, they add, comparing the displaced to "tourists" and insisting that the UN is staying in Darfur only to get donor funding.

Such perceptions are widespread in parts of Sudan that, like Khartoum, are populated mostly by Arabs.

Analysts in Sudan say there are several factors at play. "Access to information is very limited," says Omer Egemi, a professor at the University of Khartoum who formerly worked with the UN Development Program in Sudan. "I lived in Europe, for example. I feel that when I was in Europe, I was more informed about what is happening in Sudan than now, having lived in Sudan for almost 15 consecutive years."

Most media in Khartoum and northern Sudan are state-run, and while there is also an independent press, journalists have been jailed and newspapers closed or raided by the security services for making allegations against the government, according to Reporters Without Borders.

According to British analyst Jago Salmon, press censorship has been reintroduced since the government signed its peace agreement with semi-autonomous southern Sudan in 2005. The airwaves are tightly controlled, almost 40 per cent of Sudanese adults cannot read and newspapers are not widely available across the country.

Many Sudanese, then, follow the government in blaming anti-Muslim prejudice for the charges against Mr. al-Bashir. They see the conflict in Darfur as something not only exaggerated by the Western media, but even created by it.

"The West thinks the government is responsible. We see that the West is responsible for the war," says accountant Mubarak Abdullah Mohammed, who lives about 500 kilometres north of Khartoum, in Dongola, the capital of the Northern state.

He is among many who say the cause of problems in Darfur is foreign interference and not a genocidal regime.

"The West needed a reason to construct their anti-Islamic sentiment. They took Darfur as a reason to play this negative role," says Ahmed Mohamed Obeid'Allah, a health worker in Al-Taitti village in northern Sudan.

Others say the West's interests in Sudan are strategic, linked to large oil reserves and underground aquifers.

Yet even among those who know the truth about Darfur are unwilling to speak their minds. Sudanese secret police are feared to be everywhere, even posing as taxi drivers and local non-governmental organization workers.

"We sympathize with Darfur's problem," one Arab Sudanese from al-Taitti village says, "but we cannot interfere because the government will kill us or terminate our jobs."

It's this climate that makes many in Africa fear that the charges against Mr. al-Bashir could worsen Sudan's instability rather than bring justice. Along with the fear and propaganda, there is a measure of apathy and denial, analysts say.

"Darfur is a symptom of a much larger series of problems that affect, to differing degrees, not just Darfur but all of Sudan, including the core northern areas of the government - poverty, lack of basic services, lack of democratic and participatory governance and exclusion from the political system," says Dr. Salmon, who has studied Sudan for years and lived here since 2006.

Sudan has witnessed almost continuous war since independence in 1956, with rebellions in the south, east and centre of the country. "For many people in Sudan, war is much more normal than it is to observers abroad," Dr. Salmon says.

"For many in Khartoum, the war has never really come home," he adds.

The conflict is not primarily fought by the sons of Khartoum's powerful families and, according to the International Organization for Migration, most displaced Darfurians have fled to other parts of Darfur or outside Sudan altogether. Few of them have come to Khartoum to tell their stories.

People started becoming aware of the conflict in Darfur only when it reached the capital's doorstep in a rebel attack in May, Dr. Egemi says.

Meanwhile, rather than suffering economic losses, Khartoum's oil economy has boomed since the war in Darfur (despite the threat of renewed north-south conflict over the oil-producing region of Abyei, which has been called "Sudan's Kashmir").

Dr. Egemi says the Sudanese people have "inner fears" of what would happen if they tackled Darfur head-on - issues of categorizing people, the reconstitution of tribalism and social polarization.

Dr. Salmon points to "a reluctance to admit that their government and, by implication, they have been responsible for this. So it is easier to ignore it than it is to accept it. That's very much to do with how Sudanese society works."

But Dr. Egemi says this needs to change if the conflict in Darfur is ever to be resolved: "One of the main reasons the Darfur crisis has continued for a long time - I think it is the passiveness of the Sudanese society."







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