Having lived in Rochester since 2000, Sudanese native Mohamed Bilal has fully adjusted to the cold weather.
Even so, he feels the chill of fear every day.
He worries daily about his mother, who lives in the northern part of the Darfur region in western Sudan. Bilal is afraid that she one day might become a target of the Janjaweed, a collective term for several nomadic outlaw militias with thousands of members. Human-rights organizations say the Janjaweed have brutally raped, murdered and terrorized millions of subsistence farmers.
“(They) burn the whole village without even thinking about it,” said Bilal, 43.
Although his mother lives in a large city, Bilal worries because she belongs to the Fur tribe, one of three tribes comprising individuals who have rebelled against the Sudanese government. He talks to cousins and other family members in Sudan every several weeks, anxious for news about his mother and other relatives in Darfur. They are at risk, he explained, because of their ethnicity.
Although estimates vary, about one-third of the 6 million people in the Darfur region have been driven by the warring Janjaweed from their villages into camps for “internally displaced persons,” where they subsist by scrounging for food, water and aid from day to day. Another third remain in their homes but are dependent on foreign aid. Estimates of the dead range from 200,000 to 400,000.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who human-rights activists claim has had a history of lying and blocking international efforts to stop the bloodshed, recently claimed that only 9,000 have died.
Following a 20-month investigation, an International Criminal Court prosecutor last week issued an indictment against a Janjaweed commander and a high-level Sudanese government official close to al-Bashir for their alleged roles in 51 crimes against humanity and for war crimes in Darfur during 2003 and 2004. Al-Bashir has refused to hand over the officials, questioning the legitimacy of the court.
Meanwhile, more than 500 people in Rochester came together during a rally Jan. 21 to protest what some have called the first genocide of the 21st century. Bilal, who recently graduated from Monroe Community College and has been accepted at Rochester Institute of Technology, said the turnout at the rally gives him hope for Darfur’s future.
“That’s just telling me that American people are really caring,” Bilal said.
In making his case for international intervention to stop the killings in Darfur, Smith College Professor Eric Reeves recalled another time in history when the world’s apathy allowed genocide to continue.
In 1936, most of the world’s major countries agreed to participate in the Berlin Olympics, unaware that just days before the games opened, anti-Semitic signs had been removed, police had rounded up Gypsies and anti-homosexuality laws had been suspended for foreign visitors, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Few then realized that the Nazis had genocidal ambitions that would eventually lead to the deaths of 6 million Jews, the museum points out.
Reeves — who has become one of the foremost experts on Darfur and is writing a book about the conflict — now foresees another Olympics overshadowed by genocide.
China, scheduled to host the 2008 Olympic Summer Games, is Sudan’s biggest financier, buying the bulk of the country’s $3 billion in oil exports a year, he explained.
That’s why Reeves announced during a Feb. 8 University of Rochester lecture that he has launched a viral media campaign (a type of marketing that is spread from person to person) to dub the 2008 Olympics “Genocide Olympics.” He said his goal is to show the world how China has bankrolled a genocidal regime.
“We can take this message to every single computer in the world,” he said.
According to the indictment by the International Criminal Court, clashes between rebel forces and the Sudanese government escalated in 2003 when rebels attacked an airport in North Darfur, killing military personnel and kidnapping the Sudanese air force commander. Working together, the government and the Janjaweed wiped out entire villages, burning every building and forcibly uprooting up to 7,000 residents in one instance, the indictment claims. Reeves also charged that the Sudanese military has bombed villages using Chinese and Eastern European helicopters, planes and weapons it had purchased with oil-export money.
The indictment details the alleged brutality of just two officials involved in incidents in 2003 and 2004. One of them, Ahmed Muhammed Harun, was then head of the government’s Darfur Security Desk and is now Sudan’s humanitarian-affairs minister.
The indictment claims Harun personally delivered arms to the Janjaweed and funded its militias using cash from an unlimited, secret budget. Ali Kushayb, a Janjaweed commander also known as Ali Mohammed Ali Abd-al-Rahman, also was named for allegedly personally leading attacks on villages.
One of the attacks described in the indictment was said to have lasted five days, killing 100 civilians, including 30 children. Others include mass murders, instances of burning and whipping prisoners, and repeated rapes of women.
“The attackers did not target any rebel presence,” the indictment said. “Rather they targeted civilian residents based on the rationale that they were supporters of the rebel forces. This strategy became the justification for the mass murder, summary execution and mass rape of civilians who were known not to be participants in any armed conflict.”
Although the Sudanese government has told prosecutors that Kushayb is under criminal investigation, Reeves contends the government investigation is just for show, and prosecutors say they still have jurisdiction.
Reeves said the indictment is wrong on one point: Rather than being attacked indiscriminately, as the indictment suggests, he asserts that villagers were targeted based on perceived racial differences, noting that Arab-speaking nomadic tribes had begun migrating into Darfur in the 1960s during two decades of civil wars in Chad. The nomadic tribes and such agricultural non-Arab ethnic tribes as the Fur, the Massaleit and the Zaghawa — known in Darfur as “Africans” — clashed over such resources as land, firewood and water.
Several activists have noted that it is very difficult for foreigners to tell the difference between the two sides, because, for the most part, both rebels and militia members are Arabic-speaking Muslims.
“The civilian residents were constantly attacked on the basis of their ethnicity,” Reeves asserts in an article on his Web site, www.sudanreeves.org. “How else to explain why ‘Arab’ villages as close as 300 meters from ‘non-Arab’ or ‘African’ villages stood unharmed, even while total annihilation was occurring in the neighboring but ethnically distinct villages? How to explain the attacks on villages of the Fur, Massaleit, Zaghawa and other African tribal populations that had no proximity whatsoever to significant rebel military presence? How to explain the characteristic use of racist language by attacking Janjaweed forces?”
During his talk at the University of Rochester, Reeves said the destruction now includes about 80 percent to 90 percent of the “African” villages, where wells were intentionally poisoned with corpses, food and seed stocks were burned, and slow-growing fruit trees were chopped down.
While Reeves casts the conflict as genocide, the Sudanese government claims that it has simply responded to a localized rebellion. According to reporting by the Associated Press, Sudanese President al-Bashir, speaking by satellite to the Nation of Islam convention in Detroit Feb. 23, said the United States has exaggerated problems in Darfur in an attempt to turn his country into a Western colony.
Although the U.S. Congress declared the 2003 and 2004 attacks to be genocide, and the U.N. launched international-court proceedings based on allegations of genocide, the U.S. special envoy for Darfur said in January that the current situation does not constitute genocide. However, Reeves’ Web site notes that the U.N.’s “responsibility to protect” doctrine holds that if countries are aware of genocide occurring, they are obligated by international law to take immediate action to stop it.
On the other hand, Bilal said he doesn’t believe the crisis in Darfur is genocide, but noted that he hasn’t been back in the country since 2000.
“They started fighting for food or places because things are getting harder there,” he said. Still, he said he believes the Sudanese government let the situation get out of control and resisted help.
“I think it started, then the Sudanese government took advantage and made it worse,” Bilal said.
Meanwhile, although it has a front-row seat to atrocities, the International Committee of the Red Cross, an apolitical humanitarian organization, says it won’t testify in war-crimes courts so as to not jeopardize current and future aid efforts.
“The ethnic and perceived racial basis of the violence has been documented by the U.S. Department of State, the United Nations, independent human rights organizations, and international journalists,” stated the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience, which has an active genocide alert for Sudan.
Running out of time
One aspect of the Darfur crisis is painfully clear: Time is running short for those living in the region’s camps for displaced people. Attacks on camps in West Darfur became more frequent in the fall of 2006, and Reeves said as many as 100,000 Darfurians a month die from disease, malnutrition, dehydration and violence as they become cut off from aid organizations.
“It is no longer violence, but what I call genocide by attrition,” Reeves said, noting that depriving people of materials needed for life also is illegal under international law.
According to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, Sudanese military planes continue to bomb “African” villages in violation of a largely ignored May 2006 cease-fire. A peacekeeping force of about 7,000 troops from the African Union, an organization of African countries, is providing the security for humanitarian efforts, but activists say a lack of funding and equipment has hampered the union’s first major peacekeeping initiative.
In 2006 the U.N. authorized a peacekeeping force of up to 22,500 for Darfur. The force never was sent due to protests from the Sudanese government, which at the same time denied visas for an envoy of Darfur-bound human-rights inspectors, human-rights organizations say.
U.N. officials say violence has spilled into neighboring Central African Republic and Chad, where more than 230,000 Sudanese have taken refuge. U.N. peacekeepers now are headed to Chad, and prosecutors say they are gathering information about current crimes committed by all parties to the violence in Darfur and throughout the region.
“Our work sends a signal: those who commit atrocities can not do so with impunity,” Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo said in a statement.
According to the U.N., the relief effort in Sudan is the biggest in the world, with aid topping $1 billion a year. Yet in December 2006, attacks on humanitarian operations worsened dramatically, causing several relief organizations to pull out with no plans to return, Reeves said.
On its Web site, www.humanrightswatch.org, Human Rights Watch said humanitarian access in Darfur is at its lowest point since 2004 due to obstruction from government officials and a lack of security that has isolated those in need. On the other hand, representatives of Catholic Relief Services, which operates a camp for displaced people in West Darfur, said that security in their region has improved somewhat in the past several weeks.
“From a humanitarian point of view, it’s a very complex and difficult situation,” said Scott LeFevre, CRS’ regional representative for the Horn of Africa, noting that security in February 2007 was worse than it was in February 2006.
In November and December 2006, some deliveries of food and other aid had to be canceled due to attacks on aid workers, LeFevre said. When security improved in January and February, CRS entered areas it couldn’t reach in December, LeFevre said.
Even when CRS can’t reach its camps, trained Darfurians continue educational efforts to teach fellow displaced people how to stay safe, he said. Most camp residents would like to return home, he noted, but it is too dangerous.
“Their basic needs are generally being met,” LeFevre said. “I can’t say we are meeting all their needs, and there are certain areas that we do not have access to.”
Local eyes on Darfur
In the Rochester area, meanwhile, several recent events have helped to keep the spotlight on the crisis in Darfur. Rochester’s George Eastman House is hosting a Darfur photo exhibit through April 22. The opening rally featured Bilal, NBA star Manute Bol, a native of Southern Sudan, and local politicians who spoke to an audience of more than 500.
“What happened to the Southern Sudanese is happening again to Darfur,” Bol said at the event. “They are dead by disease and by militia and by the government.”
Rep. Louise Slaughter, who also spoke at the rally, said effort is being put forth on the diplomatic front.
“Please don’t think your government is not trying,” she said. “We have sent countless resolutions (regarding the situation in Darfur) to the U.N.”
A local religious leader who attended the rally also suggested that people should keep the Darfur crisis in their prayers.
“I think we are dealing here with a huge spiritual crisis, where the use of power is used to drive people off their land and where the great religions of the world are divided against themselves so they are not able to act,” said the Rev. Richard Myers, president of the Greater Rochester Community of Churches.
Catholic teaching compels people to ease others’ suffering, Father Brian Cool, director of the University of Rochester’s Newman Catholic Community, noted in an interview after Eric Reeves’ U of R talk.
“It’s not just the necessity to get involved because our faith tells us to,” Father Cool said. “In the least of our brothers and sisters, you find the passion of Christ.”
Other local Darfur events have included a photo exhibit at Nazareth College in Pittsford and relief-effort collections throughout the area. Both the University of Rochester and Cornell University have pledged to stop investing in companies that make money from Sudan. During the Rochester rally, participants signed letters asking officials at all levels of government not to invest funds in Sudanese companies.
Yet divestment initiatives are not without their critics, including humanitarian billionaire Warren Buffett, who recently defended his company, Berkshire Hathaway, for its holdings in a Chinese oil company with ties to Sudan. The only feasible divestment plan, according to a company statement, would be for the parent company of Petro China to sell at a bargain price its stake in an oil operation, noting that the only likely bidder would be the Sudanese government.
“After such a transaction, the Sudanese government would be better off financially, with its oil revenue substantially increased,” the statement said.
Some international observers advocate military intervention, such as a no-fly zone over Darfur. Others would like to see sanctions against Sudan.
LeFevre said he believes diplomacy is still possible.
“Whatever agreement is reached, it has to be done with all the stakeholders involved,” he said.
Reeves said action of some sort is needed now.
“Why, in place of stopping genocide, has the world offered unprotected humanitarian assistance and meaningless U.N. resolutions?” he asked during his U of R talk. “We can’t afford to hear these questions without the greatest moral urgency.”
Ways to help Darfur
What things can be done to help Sudan?
* Visit the Darfur-Darfur exhibit at the George Eastman House, which will be displayed through April 22. For details, visit www.eastmanhouse.org or call 585/271-3361.
* Visit the exhibit Rwanda/After, Darfur/Now, featuring photographs by Michal Ronnen Safdi. It is on view in the main lobby of Nazareth College’s arts center, 4245 East Ave., Pittsford, through March 31. For details, visit www.naz.edu or call 585/389-2170.
* Visit www.sudanreeves.org for details about the Genocide Olympics campaign.
* Ask universities and local, state and national governments to divest funds in companies that make money off Sudanese genocide and to push for laws to protect organizations that divest.