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Fighting for Darfur
Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide
By Rebecca Hamilton
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2011 Rebecca Hamilton
All rights reserved.
AN UNGOVERNABLE LAND
"Our village now is only a name. They burnt everything. When our village existed it had about 100 houses. From those 100 houses, there are no men left. All the children are without fathers now. My children—all of them were male, so all of them were killed." Miriam averted her gaze. "I don't know what they do to the women, but the women cry all the time."
It was August 2008, and I was sitting in a refugee camp in Chad under a makeshift cover of triangular cloth strung between two sticks and a mud-brick wall. As the midday temperature hovered around 115 degrees, Miriam told me how she managed to survive the attack by government-backed militias, known as Janjaweed, that destroyed her home across the border in Sudan some five years earlier.
"I was sitting in my kitchen, making food for my children. It was 2 p.m., just after prayer time. A neighbor ran into my home and said that Janjaweed were surrounding our village. I ran outside my house and I saw horsemen shooting guns. I was afraid for my children, and so I ran back inside, but aircraft started bombing," she explained.
Miriam described a pattern of attack that was central to the Sudanese government's counterinsurgency campaign to destroy Darfur's non-Arab villages. The campaign was the latest chapter in a series of atrocities conducted under the watch of General Omar al-Bashir, who has run Sudan, geographically the largest country in Africa, since a 1989 military coup. His regime initially hoped to create an Islamic state but subsequently abandoned the plan in favor of staying in power by any means necessary. To quell a rebellion in Darfur, those means included sending Janjaweed, recruited from predominantly landless Arab tribes as its proxy militia; the Janjaweed attacked on the ground as the Sudanese air force bombed from above. The targets were people like Miriam, whose only "crime" was being from the same non-Arab ethnic groups that most of the Darfuri insurgents were from.
"There were four Antonovs [Russian-made airplanes]," Miriam remembered. "One was a camouflage color, and the other three were white. The Janjaweed had control of our village. They killed the men and took our animals. Everyone tried to run toward the mountains to escape, but the Janjaweed chased us. It was a terrible time. I cannot explain how it was to you. We couldn't even take the wounded with us—we just had to run." Miriam readjusted the bright yellow cloth of her headscarf, waited for my translator to finish, then continued. "Those of us who managed to escape walked through the night. Finally we arrived at Abu Leha, but all we found was dead bodies, everywhere."
"On our journey we used donkeys to carry our children. We had some few grains of sorghum but that was all.... There were about 45 of us in the group. The journey took us nine days. We would walk only at night, and during the day we hid ourselves in the bushes."
When Miriam first reached Chad in 2003 there was no refugee camp set up to provide her with shelter, nor was there any humanitarian operation equipped to respond to the thousands of dehydrated, wounded, and traumatized like her, who were scattered across an inhospitable desert terrain. The regime that bombed her village and gave weapons to the militia that killed her children was in the midst of negotiating, with the support of the international community, a peace agreement that would stop a different war, one that had been fought for two decades in the south of the country. Experts hailed the agreement as a chance to bring a democratic transformation across the whole of Sudan. And so none of the world powers said a word about Darfur and the thousands of people like Miriam.
SUDAN HAS BEEN in a state of almost continuous civil war since it became the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to gain its independence from the British in 1956. One consistent source of conflict has been over what makes a person Sudanese. The debate over race, religion, culture, language, and ethnicity defines who is included and who is excluded from the wealth and power of the country.
The struggle for consensus over national identity can be intuited just by looking at a map. Sudan's sprawling territory borders nine countries, from Egypt and Libya in the north to Uganda and Kenya in the south—or, imagined differently, from the Arab world to the African world. Sudan's rulers, who have always governed from the north of the country, have typically defined Sudan as an Arab nation, thereby disenfranchising those who affiliate themselves with an African identity.
The various layers of Sudanese identity, however, run along more than just an Arab-African divide. For example, Sudanese also draw a distinction between the Sudanese Arabs from around the Nile River (known as the riverine Arabs) and those who are not. The latter tend to be nomads, centered in the eastern and western areas of northern Sudan, while the riverine Arabs have traditionally been traders. For as long as anyone in modern-day Sudan can remember, the three ethnic groups that make up the riverine Arabs have held political power and thus had the upper hand in defining what it means to be Sudanese. The result has been the marginalization of vast areas of the country. In the south, the east, the far north, and the western region of Darfur, where Miriam comes from, Arabs and non-Arabs alike have suffered economic and political discrimination under the minority rule of the riverine elite.
These present-day governance problems have their origins in the period well before Sudanese independence. In 1899, Britain and Egypt jointly ended a four-year insurgency against Turco-Egyptian rule, which had been instigated by the Mahdi, a Sudanese Islamist whose initial support had come from Darfur. The two nations agreed to share sovereignty over Sudan. But because Egypt had itself been occupied by Britain for a decade, the agreement amounted to British rule. Twenty years later Egypt revolted against British occupation, and by 1922 Britain had granted Egypt its independence. The British feared that the newly independent Egyptians would foster nationalist aspirations among Sudan's educated elite, so they tried to counter this with a new system of governance in Sudan called Native Administration.
Native Administration meant that local areas were governed by so-called tribal leaders. In many areas tribal leadership as the British envisaged it did not exist, but this did not deter them from simply creating it by giving honorific titles to men who had not previously played a leadership role. The British preferred to bestow leadership upon uneducated locals than on the newly educated class who might seek independence from Britain.
The aspirations of educated Sudanese were not the only threat that the British perceived. Remnants of the Mahdi's movement repeatedly challenged their rule, leading the British to worry about Islam as a mobilizing force. To try and reduce the threat, the British instituted a policy of physical segregation, with permits required to cross between the north and south of the country. And while development projects progressed in the northern area that the British ruled from, the south was economically neglected. In the subsequent decade, the separatist policy went further still, enforcing a system of religious and linguistic segregation. By dividing the country and effectively outsourcing any responsibility for the provision of education and welfare services in the south to Western missionaries, the British hoped to create an English-speaking Christian population in the south that would be isolated from Islam.
The British segregation policy was not cut from whole cloth; during the Turco-Egyptian period (1821-1885) the slave trade was run by northerners who viewed southerners as inferior and therefore enslavable. Economic discrimination also was entrenched long before the British arrived, with rulers predating the Turco-Egyptian period viewing the peripheral areas of the country as places to be exploited in order to sustain growth in the northern area where they ruled. British policy institutionalized these distinctions, contributing to the identity gap among Sudanese citizens. And after solidifying these fractures, the British abruptly left Sudan to fend for itself.
At the end of World War II, largely to counter Egyptian claims over Sudan, Britain advocated Sudanese self-determination—a concept favored by the newly formed United Nations. But by 1952, a change in leadership meant that Egypt no longer wanted Sudan and so encouraged the Sudanese to call the British bluff. By 1953 the British had been cornered into agreeing to Sudanese self-determination. The next year "Sudanization" began, and 800 governmental positions held by British and Egyptians were transferred to Sudanese; just six of those posts went to southerners. As one southerner described it, "our fellow northerners want to colonize us for another hundred years." With "Sudanization" effectively being "northernization" a mutiny began in the south. As the mutiny escalated, Britain refused to deploy forces to diffuse the situation, fearing that British intervention would encourage Egyptian intervention. Instead, the British brought forward the date for independence, seeking to extricate themselves from problems they had helped create.
The 1955 mutiny became a 17-year war between southerners and the northerners to whom the British handed over control of the country at Sudan's independence. The deal that ended the fighting, the Addis Ababa agreement, granted southerners semi-autonomy with a southern regional government. The deal was enshrined in Sudan's 1973 Constitution, which also stated that Sudan was a secular state with sharia (Islamic law) governing only personal matters between those who were Muslim. However, the agreement was deeply unpopular among some northern political factions, particularly the Muslim Brothers, a group that advocated the creation of an Islamic state with sharia law enforced nationwide.
In 1983 the peace unraveled. To preempt what he feared would be an attempt by the Muslim Brothers to overthrow him, Sudanese president Jafaar Nimeiri dissolved the southern regional government by dividing the single southern region into three blocs; with southern political power emasculated, he then imposed sharia across the country, including for non-Muslims in the south. In response, a group of southerners formed the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), with a military base in Ethiopia, led by U.S.-educated southerner John Garang. Sudan returned to civil war.
At the time, the Sudanese armed forces consisted of just 60,000 men—not enough for Nimeiri to be victorious; he looked for a way to strengthen his hand. Like the rest of Sudan, the south was diverse, and local disputes often broke out between different groups, particularly over access to land for farming or grazing. Seeking to bolster his limited military capacity, Nimeiri began exploiting these tensions by arming nomadic Arabs from the border region between the north and south to conduct raids against the key ethnic groups from which the SPLM/A gained support. The raids by the government-sponsored militia, known as mujahedeen, followed a common pattern—one that would be repeated against Darfuris like Miriam two decades later. When a village was attacked, the men would be killed, the women raped, and the livestock looted.
In 1985 Nimeiri was ousted. A Transitional Military Council took control of Sudan and, remarkably, allowed democratic elections in 1986, bringing to power the Mahdi's great-grandson Sadiq al-Mahdi. But not for long. By 1989 with the war ongoing, Prime Minister al-Mahdi came under pressure to reach a political settlement with the southerners and arranged a meeting with the SPLM/A leader John Garang. The Muslim Brothers, who now called themselves the National Islamic Front, feared that an agreement with Garang would undermine their goal of securing Sudan as an Islamic state; a few days before the scheduled meeting they overthrew al-Mahdi.
In the years immediately following the 1989 coup, General Omar al-Bashir was the public face of the new regime. Behind him were key figures from the National Islamic Front: Ali Osman Taha and his mentor, an Islamist intellectual and lawyer named Hassan al-Turabi.
I interviewed al-Turabi at his sprawling home in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, in 2009. He told me that his only concern in the overthrow was to deliver democracy to the Sudanese people. It was an improbable spin on events given that the overthrown government had been democratically elected. When pushed, al-Turabi attempted to justify his statement by arguing that what "the people" really want is an Islamic state—thus, if democracy delivers anything other than an Islamic state, it must be due to a flaw in the democratic system.
Once the National Islamic Front came to power, "the people" had very little say. Al-Bashir issued a dizzying number of antidemocratic decrees, banning political parties, dissolving trade unions, and prohibiting demonstrations. Meanwhile al-Turabi began implementing his long-held plan to make Khartoum the global center of an Islamic revolution.
In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, al-Bashir's regime declared that no "Arab brothers" would require a visa to enter Sudan, and al-Turabi formed a Pan-Arab Islamic Congress to support Islamic revolutionaries in 50 different countries. The most notorious of his efforts involved hosting Osama bin Laden in Sudan. Bin Laden was just one of many Islamist militants whom the National Islamic Front supported throughout the early 1990s, leading the U.S. State Department to designate Sudan a state sponsor of terror.
Al-Turabi's scheme came to an abrupt end in 1995 after he and Taha sponsored a failed assassination attempt on Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who was facing internal opposition from Islamists backed by al-Turabi. The story captured world headlines, and the UN Security Council responded by sanctioning Sudan for its role as a state sponsor of terrorism. In a subsequent effort to regain a veneer of legitimacy, al-Bashir authorized the formation of political parties, changed the name of the National Islamic Front to the National Congress Party (NCP), and in 1996 expelled Osama bin Laden. Nonetheless, al-Bashir's attempts to curry favor did not change perceptions in Washington.
In 1997 President Bill Clinton issued a wide-ranging executive order prohibiting all trade with Sudan. The following year, after terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa were linked back to Sudan, the United States bombed a pharmaceutical factory they believed was manufacturing chemical weapons in Khartoum. By this time, Washington had downgraded diplomatic relations with Sudan and no longer had an ambassador posted in Khartoum. Yet, throughout this period of drastically deteriorating U.S.-Sudan relations, one branch of the U.S. government stayed heavily involved with the war-torn south of the country.
SUDAN'S CONGRESSIONAL CHAMPIONS
In April 1989 Republican congressman Frank Wolf traveled into a remote part of southern Sudan to meet John Garang. The meeting—the first between the SPLM/A leader and a member of the U.S. congress—went well, continuing late into the night until Wolf finally fell asleep on an old mattress in the bombed-out shell of an abandoned building. Roger Winter, who accompanied Wolf on the trip, says the congressman became committed to the plight of the southern Sudanese. And Wolf was not alone.
The summer of 1999 marked Democratic congressman Donald Payne's fourth trip into southern Sudan—this time the former head of the Congressional Black Caucus brought two Republican representatives with him: Congressman Tom Tancredo and Senator Sam Brownback. In a mud-walled church, Tancredo stood before a congregation of hundreds of southerners displaced in the ongoing war and told them how he first heard about their suffering at his church back in Colorado. Tancredo had been alerted to the scale of the human crisis by a coalition of evangelical Christian and African American advocates who subsequently formed a group called the Sudan Campaign. Senator Brownback assured the southern Sudanese congregation, "The three of us are members of Congress, and we will be carrying the message of your cause back to the United States. You are not forgotten."
Excerpted from Fighting for Darfur by Rebecca Hamilton. Copyright © 2011 Rebecca Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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