Displaced persons’ camp, Darfur
This month our roving humanitarian spotlight stops over Sudan, where a fragile and widely-flouted ceasefire agreement is collapsing and sparking a new phase of horrendous ethnic violence.
Sudan has internally broiled for over a decade, ever since a rag-tag alliance of indigenous African militias declared war on the Arab-dominated Sudanese government they accused of racial apartheid.
For hundreds of years Sudan has been ruled by the descendants of Arab migrants who came to the region in the twelfth century. Today Sudan’s population is 70% Arab, and over 90% are practising Muslims.
But Arab-African relations have been far from harmonious. Arabic culture is treated as supreme, while that of indigenous Africans is trampled over and demeaned. Sudan is oil-rich, but while the Arab north enjoys the proceeds, the impoverished African south goes without. In early 2003, rebels attacked police stations and military outposts in Sudan’s western Darfur region. Civil war was the result, and initially anti-government forces did spectacularly, state-embarrassingly well.
To save itself, the Khartoum-based regime had to radically rethink its strategy. It chose to fight guerrilla tactics with guerrilla tactics, calling on armed cattle herders known as the Janjaweed it had used to suppress previous inconvenient uprisings to tackle this latest insurrection.
Armed and funded by the state and backed by the Sudanese Air Force, the Janjaweed scythed into rebel-held territory. Arab settlements were left untouched, while the indigenous African population was slaughtered. Their towns and villagers were looted, bombed and burned, and suspected anti-government fighters were dismembered if they were lucky, summarily executed if they weren’t. Women and children in rebel areas were often (and, horrifically, often still are) systematically raped. Other times they were just executed. As time went on, the Janjaweed slash-and-burn campaign started to look like ethnic cleansing – a concerted attempt to wipe Darfur’s non-Arab Sudanese out of existence.
Today, we look back on what happened in Darfur as genocide. Approximately 400,000 people were killed, harrowingly many of them non-combatants, over 400 settlements were completely destroyed and over 2,500,000 people were uprooted by the violence.
A peace treaty was eventually signed in May 2006. In 2011, South Sudan, a hub of anti-government resistance, declared itself an independent state. But the region was left coping with a humanitarian catastrophe.
By its (official, sadly not actual) end, some were estimating that as many as 2,000,000 had been killed and 4,000,000 left homeless. Approximately 1,700,000 people are still living in makeshift aid camps in the region, with nearly 300,000 more in neighbouring Chad. Foreign aid is the only thing keeping them alive. The social fallout will be felt for generations – in one camp of 22,000 refugees, 20 babies conceived through rape are abandoned by stigma-fearing mothers every month.
What’s more, South Sudan has entered existence as one of the world’s poorest countries. Around 5,000,000 South Sudanese, roughly half the population, have dangerously little food to eat and approximately 250,000 are thought to be at serious risk of starving to death in border regions where renewed fighting has shredded vital farming areas.
President Omar al-Bashir
An already dire situation is further compounded by the actions of the regime back in Khartoum. Under Omar al-Bashir, the only sitting head of state ever to be indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, government forces are continuing to hound rebel elements still inside Sudanese borders. As violence reaches levels not seen since the 2006 peace agreement, indiscriminate bombing raids, looting, pillaging, and the rape and slaughter of innocents continue.
People displaced by the latest round of fighting on the Sudanese side of the border are fleeing en masse to their newly-founded impoverished Southern neighbour. A fledgling country incapable of feeding itself is now left coping with 19,000 more refugees.
NGOs are working heroically to provide life essentials like food and clean water, but the burden is increasing and UN commanders tasked with protecting homeless civilians are complaining they lack the manpower to do the job effectively. Sudan needs more aid, more peacekeepers and more media exposure to grab the attention of both the public and the Western political class.
At the moment, a situation even more horrific than the Syrian conflict we see splashed all over the newspapers is steadily worsening and getting shamefully little media attention. It’s terrifyingly possible that the international ‘community’ could, yet again, self-obsess its way through another preventable human calamity.
Oxfam is at the forefront of the bid to keep hundreds of thousands of people alive across Sudan and South Sudan. You can donate to their Sudan appeal here.