Embassy, October 26th, 2005
By David Kilgour
Author who studied Rwanda's catastrophe takes a timely look at similar events continuing in Sudan
We live in unusual times when Gérard Prunier, a respected expert on East Africa and its Great Lakes region at the University of Paris, can publish a book about a government-created catastrophe, which continues even as his work appears. For his decade-old study on a similar event in Rwanda, the carnage had ended approximately nine months before that publication reached book stores.
The author is clear that the mass killings, gang rapes and slow deaths of internal refugees--being "African" Darfuri, at the hands of "Arab" Janjaweed -- are continuing despite the collapse in most outside media attention and the fact that U.S. President George Bush, for example, went almost five months this year without a single public comment on the situation.
Even in the few weeks since Ambiguous Genocide was published, violence has escalated to the point that on Oct. 1 a spokesperson for the chair of the African Union Commission on Darfur denounced a combined raid of 400 Janjaweed and government of Sudan helicopter gunships a few days earlier on three villages in West Darfur.
The book disentangles numerous complex truths from oversimplified fictions, including the government of Sudan's skillful campaign to trivialize the violence in Darfur as simply an ethnic conflict. In fact, the province was an independent sultanate for several centuries. Mr. Prunier explains that while virtually every resident there today is black and Muslim, the nomadic community came to be deemed "Arabs" while farmers became "Africans."
The Anglo-Egyptian condominium constituting pre-independence Sudan was extended over Darfur only in 1916; calm prevailed until 1976 when Muammar Gaddafi, having seized power in Libya years earlier, attacked Khartoum in an effort to absorb Sudan into his "Arab Union." This failed, but tensions inevitably grew between nomads and farmers across Darfur, which only worsened when a preventable famine struck in 1984. The Libyan leader continued his campaign to "Libyanize" Darfur until 1992--in the process infecting the population with ethnic consciousness, hatred and more violence. Mr. Prunier adds that because of this and decades of regional marginalization by Khartoum, by the late 1990s the province had become a "time-bomb waiting for a fuse."
The book argues that, by the time of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush was badly in need of "good Arabs." Omar el-Bashir's military regime in Khartoum was by then, for various reasons, anxious to so qualify both in fighting terrorism and signing a peace agreement to end the decades-long civil war with the Southern Sudanese.
The growing turmoil in Darfur was in reality ignored by most of the international community until Dec. 2003 when Jan Egeland, then head of UN Emergency Relief, declared that "the humanitarian situation in Darfur has quickly become one of the worst in the world." A few months later, his UN colleague, Mukesh Kapila, who had observed the earlier events in Rwanda, said
that the only difference between the two situations was in the number of deaths.
Profoundly embarrassed by an uprising in April-May, 2003 by some "African" Darfuris, the government of Sudan had unleashed the Janjaweed -- a combination of former bandits and other Arabs in Darfur, who played a strikingly similar role as the Interhamwe did in Rwanda -- to crush all non-"Arabs" with the help of its own bombers and helicopters. One method was to surround a village, rape the women and girls (some as young as eight), steal the cattle, burn the houses and shoot anyone who could not flee. Mr. Prunier explains that "Small children, being light, were often tossed back in the burning houses." This was essentially the modus operandi the government had perfected over the years in Southern Sudan.
The peace negotiations nonetheless continued with few outsiders being willing to admit that any comprehensive peace agreement with a regime capable of what it was continuing to do in the West while it talked peace for the South would quickly prove worthless. Eric Reeves, the leading American scholar on Darfur, repeatedly reminded the world that the el-Bashir government "lies repeatedly, shamelessly, egregiously and without consequences", but governments (including Canada's) continued to treat Darfur as a humanitarian emergency only. By the time the essentially paralyzed UN Security Council held a meeting in Kenya in Nov. 2004 demanding "an immediate end to violence", the government of Sudan knew that as long as it demonstrated good faith in the peace talks it could, as Mr. Prunier notes, "do what it wanted in Darfur."
The final part of Ambiguous Genocide assesses candidly the roles to date of various actors in Darfur, including the media, humanitarian NGOs, American diplomacy, the European Union, the UN and the African Union. Mr. Prunier concludes that what is continuing in Darfur is genocide under the 1948 UN definition, a coordinated attempt to bring about the physical destruction of a group in whole or in part, but not under his own definition, which requires "an attempt at total obliteration" of a pre-defined group. Correctly, he concludes, "The horror experienced by the targeted group remains the same, no matter which word we use."
In the meantime, as Eric Reeves recently noted, there are currently about 3.5 million "conflict-affected" Darfuris dependent on vulnerable humanitarian operations, with more than 6,000 now dying per month from various unnatural causes. An estimated 200,000 have already been murdered. Like others, Canadian readers can only ask as they finish the book: "Does 'never again' mean anything?"
David Kilgour is an Independent member of Parliament for the riding of Edmonton-Beaumont.