By John Prendergast and Colin Thomas-Jensen  

Reports of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, western Sudan, began appearing in the Western news media in early 2004. The government of Sudan’s counterinsurgency campaign against two Darfur-based rebel groups targeted civilians from the ethnic groups whom the regime suspected of supporting the rebellion. Government security forces and their proxy militias—the Janjaweed—orchestrated a campaign of mass murder, rape, forced displacement, and destruction of livelihood. At least 200,000 people have died in the conflict, and more than 2.5 million have been driven off their lands and into camps for the internally displaced. The international community’s failure to protect civilians in Darfur echoed the failure to respond in Rwanda a decade before.

Sudan has been at war with itself almost continuously since independence from Great Britain in 1956. A succession of governments in Khartoum has hoarded the country’s wealth and treated its citizens with the utmost contempt. Khartoum’s wars against rebels based in Southern Sudan—the Anya Nya rebels from 1955 to 1972 and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) from 1983 to 2005—cost at least two and a half million lives. During the course of these campaigns the government honed a counterinsurgency strategy that exploited ethnic divisions by sponsoring ethnically-based militias to attack rebel groups, terrorize and forcibly displace civilians, and intimidate humanitarian workers to force their withdrawal.

Following nearly 20 years of ferocious conflict, a regionally brokered peace process between the SPLA and the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) gathered steam in late 2002 and early 2003. Under intense international pressure—especially from the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush—the two parties met in neighboring Kenya and began negotiating a settlement. However, the two-party negotiating framework posited by the international community left numerous aggrieved populations out of the equation. The unyielding control of wealth and power by a narrow ruling elite in Khartoum had economically and politically marginalized not only southern Sudan, but most of northern Sudan. Only a genuine devolution of wealth and power from the center to the periphery could have brought stability to the country.

In Darfur—one of the poorest and most neglected regions of the North—peoples of non-Arab origin had for decades engaged in frequent disputes with nomadic groups of Arab origin over scarce natural resources. The government had armed and trained many of these Arab nomads during the 1980s to prevent the SPLA from opening up a new front in Darfur, and throughout the late 1980s and 1990s Khartoum consistently backed Arab groups in increasingly violent, racially motivated conflicts to take land from non-Arab groups.

As the North-South peace talks progressed, frustrated Darfuris rebelled in late 2002. An alliance of Fur, Zaghawa, and Massaleit political leaders and fighters formed the rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and began attacking government outposts in February 2003. On 25 April, the SLA launched an audacious offensive against Sudanese military installations in El Fashir, the state capital of North Darfur. The rebels bombarded and temporarily captured the airport and the local military headquarters. They destroyed government aircraft, killed scores of government soldiers, captured the local military commander, and retreated into the bush with captured arms and ammunition.

Khartoum was humiliated and the military seemingly in disarray. Many of the army rank and file and numerous commanders were from Darfur, and their loyalty to the regime in a war against their own people was uncertain. But Khartoum’s long-time patronage of Arab nomadic groups against their non-Arab rivals offered an easy solution. Darfur’s descent into agony followed a grimly predictable blueprint.

The powerful security cabal within the governing NCP cut a land-for-war deal with its tribal allies in North and West Darfur. During mid-2003, Sudanese security services armed and trained Arab militias to attack suspected supporters of the rebellion—namely Fur, Zaghawa, and Massaleit civilians. Driven by ethnic and racial hatreds and the government’s promise of state-sanctioned robbery of land and booty, Arab fighters from within Darfur and neighboring countries (notably Chad and the Central African Republic) joined the militias and prepared for war. The government released criminals from jails to join the militias, made cash payouts to its surrogate killers of approximately 100 dollars, and provided them with AK-47 or G-3 rifles, camels, horses, and sometimes uniforms. By September 2003 the systematic destruction of Darfur at the hands of the Janjaweed militias had begun.

Government forces and Janjaweed usually attacked non-Arab villages before dawn. The onslaught often began from the air. Military aircraft—Antonov supply planes and helicopter gunships—would bombard and strafe civilians as they slept. In the chaotic aftermath of aerial attacks, government troops in 4×4 vehicles and mounted units of up to 300 Janjaweed fighters rode through the carnage to murder, rape, and drive villagers from the area. Mass executions and gang rapes were frequent, and attackers looted livestock, food stockpiles, and household goods. They burned houses, schools, mosques and other public buildings. Corpses were dumped into wells to pollute the water supply and farmers’ crops destroyed or fed to the growing herds of stolen livestock. By April 2004, the UN reported that coordinated attacks against civilians had displaced more than 860,000 people, including over 100,000 refugees in eastern Chad.

As the Sudanese military and the Janjaweed laid waste to Darfur, the peace negotiations in Kenya between the government and the SPLA lurched forward. The international community was reluctant to intervene in Darfur for fear of losing a long-sought and tantalizingly close agreement in the Khartoum government’s war with the South. The U.S., UK, and others already had invested considerable diplomatic and financial resources to push the peace process forward, and Darfur threatened to scuttle the deal and expose the inadequacies of the entire framework for negotiation. In early 2004, Western policymakers decided to first push hard for a North-South peace agreement and then focus on resolving Darfur. This was a monumental miscalculation; the NCP cynically prolonged the talks in Kenya to buy more time for the military solution in Darfur. In January 2004, the NCP’s lead negotiator, Vice President Ali Osman Taha, suspended the talks at a decisive moment and announced that he was going on the hajj. While the mediators waited patiently for Taha to return, Darfur burned.

Although some non-governmental organizations documented the atrocities in Darfur throughout 2003, the Western media did not pay close attention to the conflict until early 2004. The Sudanese government effectively prevented most journalists from traveling to Darfur, but many visited the refugee camps in eastern Chad. Refugees’ stories were a catalog of horrors: children thrown into fires, rape survivors branded with scalding iron, and groups of men executed and dumped in ravines. Janjaweed and government troops yelled racial epithets as they marauded through villages; rape victims were told they would give birth to Arab children.

In April 2004, the U.S., the African Union (AU), the government of Chad, and others brokered a “humanitarian cease-fire” between the government, the SLA, and the Justice and Equality Movement (a second rebel group with a small military wing and murky political agenda). The parties agreed to a cessation of hostilities and to allow unrestricted humanitarian access, and the government committed to “neutralize the armed militias.” The agreement authorized the AU to deploy cease-fire monitors and troops to protect them. However, both parties systematically violated the cease-fire from the moment it was signed.

Fighting persisted between the rebels and the government, the Janjaweed continued to raid villages with total impunity, and the government blamed the violence on “armed bandits” and “tribal hatreds.” While the UN and international humanitarian organizations took the cease-fire as their cue to begin the Herculean task of caring for the growing numbers of internally displaced, the government of Sudan restricted humanitarian access through bureaucratic rules and a cultivated state of continuous insecurity. In the summer of 2004, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to Sudan to demand that the government comply with the cease-fire. The Sudanese government listened politely and signed further agreements to disarm the Janjaweed, but the killing continued apace.

On 9 September, the U.S. government made history when it became the first to accuse another State of committing genocide. During a hearing before the U.S. Congress, Secretary Powell cited a State Department report based on interviews with refugees in eastern Chad and stated that “genocide has been committed in Darfur and that the government of Sudan and the Janjaweed bear responsibility—and genocide may still be occurring.” Yet Powell’s words were all sound and fury with no real impact on U.S. policy. According to the State Department, the finding of genocide did not impose obligations on the U.S. to halt the massacres. The U.S. hoped that strong rhetoric would stir international outrage and build additional leverage on Khartoum to stop the killings. It didn’t work.

Each of us separately visited Darfur in 2004—before and after the genocide declaration—and saw numbing evidence of state-sponsored slaughter. In a ravine deep inside rebel held territory, bodies of fourteen young men were lined up in ditches, eerily preserved by the scorching desert sun. It looked as though they had been lined up and shot in the back or the back of the head: seventeen shell casings resting in the sand indicated how efficient the killing had been. The story the rebels told seemed plausible: the dead were civilians who had been marched up a hill and executed by government forces the previous month. The bodies lay unburied, covered only by a thin layer of dust, so that the rebels could show people like us exactly what happens to people who oppose the government. The rebels asserted that there were many other such scenes.

Riding along the roads in government-held territory was a journey through a depopulated wasteland. Burned villages lined the roads, stolen livestock roamed freely through abandoned millet fields, and every so often a man on a camel with an assault rifle glowered from the side of the road. During a visit to a camp for some 30,000 internally displaced civilians in West Darfur, at least 25 Janjaweed could be seen resting with their camels under a tree next to the makeshift shelters of their victims. The intimidation and fear in the camp was palpable and overwhelming. In one interview after another, Sudanese refugees and internally displaced told us that they would never trust the government to disarm the Janjaweed, and that only an international force could protect them.

While the U.S. declaration may have been intended to galvanize international pressure on the regime in Khartoum, multilateral intervention through the UN was a nonstarter: Sudan had powerful allies in the UN Security Council. China, keen to protect its substantial oil interests in Sudan, and Russia, the regime’s main arms supplier, threatened to block strong action. The Sudanese government’s cooperation on counterterrorism, the continuing North-South peace talks in Kenya, and a general disinclination to intercede militarily in Africa reduced international will to push for a non-UN intervention, as NATO had pursued in Kosovo.

There to monitor the nonexistent cease-fire, the AU mission in Darfur assumed the international responsibility to protect. With acquiescence from Khartoum, AU member States (including Rwanda) deployed additional troops to increase security in Darfur. However, the AU mission lacked a strong mandate, adequate troop strength to cover a war zone the size of Texas, and the operational capacity to respond to outbreaks of violence and use force to protect civilians. Making matters worse, African policymakers argued that Darfur was an African problem requiring an African solution, dismissed suggestions of increased non-African involvement as meddling in the continent’s affairs, and provided the international community with a convenient excuse not to take stronger action to protect civilians.

Meanwhile, the UN Security Council authorized an International Commission of Inquiry to investigate violations of international law in Darfur. The Commission found evidence of serious abuses—including killing of civilians, rape and sexual violence, torture, forced displacement, and destruction of villages and livelihoods—and recommended that the Security Council refer the case to the International Criminal Court. (Contrary to U.S. findings, the commission concluded that the Sudanese government had not pursued a policy of genocide.) Remarkably, the U.S. and China put aside their strong ideological opposition to the Court and the Security Council referred Darfur to the Court in March 2005. However, the Sudanese government prevented Court investigators from visiting Darfur and thus significantly slowed the process of building cases against the people most responsible for the crimes against humanity committed there.

Under intense international pressure, a peace agreement for Darfur was signed in May 2006, but the deal was flawed and incomplete. The Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) lacked implementation guarantees for disarming the Janjaweed, security arrangements that would encourage the return of displaced people to their homes, and sufficient compensation for the conflict’s primary victims, Darfur’s civilians. Only one of the main rebel groups—a faction of the SLA led by Commander Minni Minawi—agreed to the terms. Although the Sudanese government had stated that a peace deal would be the trigger for the deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping mission, the handover from the African Union to the UN was not explicit in the DPA and the government quickly reneged.

Rather than peace, the agreement led to further conflict as non-signatory rebel groups realigned (often along ethnic lines) to continue military action. Violence intensified during the summer of 2006 and attacks increased on humanitarian workers, causing even greater hardship for Darfur’s displaced population On August 31, the UN Security Council passed a resolution authorizing a UN peacekeeping mission, but weak international efforts failed to gain the consent of the Sudanese government. Yet again, civilians suffered atrocities at the hands of the government, the Janjaweed, and, increasingly, splintering rebel factions.

The absence of punitive action against those who committed crimes against humanity during the first three years of the conflict established a dangerous state of impunity, especially in Khartoum. The NCP’s ruling clique saw that it need not fear any consequences for violating signed agreements and Security Council resolutions. While the ICC referral raises hopes that those responsible for crimes of war in Darfur may eventually be brought to justice, the international community’s glaring failure to protect the victims will undoubtedly be the conflict’s lasting legacy.

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