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  • Dr. Richard Quinlan

Why the Same Mistakes Cannot be Made in Darfur

August 29, 2023


Darfur, Sudan became a symbol of international suffering and torment in the early 2000s as years of brutal fighting escalated into what then United States Secretary of State Colin Powell labeled a genocide in 2004. While initial fighting in Sudan began in the late 1980s with the ascension of Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the world truly became aware of Sudan’s blood-soaked instability between 2003-2005, at which point the United Nations estimates over 300,000 people were killed in Darfur, with millions of others displaced and forced to live in refugee camps within their own nation’s borders or in neighboring Chad. Although the events in Sudan marked the first time any U.S. official ever uttered the word “genocide” to describe violence within a country, Powell’s words did very little to settle the unrest. The United States was not alone in failing to repress the atrocities committed against the Sudanese, and even after a referendum that created the two nations of Sudan and South Sudan, tensions and violence remained. South Sudan suffered through a civil war from 2011-2020, while Sudan witnessed the removal of al-Bashir in a 2019 coup who was then replaced by Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf. However, Ibn Auf’s position of power was short-lived as Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan, leader of the military junta responsible for the coup (the Rapid Support Forces), took command. In 2021, al-Burhan led a coup against the civilian government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who then abdicated power in January 2022 to Osman Hussein. Turmoil through coups and violence has allowed for the military to gain greater control and influence over the people. The Sudanese live in a state of perpetual fear and uncertainty about their homeland. Now, nearly twenty years after the recognition of genocide, Sudan once again finds itself in the midst of unimaginable violence and suffering. The question remains as to whether the global response will be swifter and stronger this time.


[Image source: The Economist, November 2019]

Human Rights Watch has carefully monitored the increasing instability and violence in Sudan and has publicly called upon the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate claims of widespread civilian deaths, particularly in the town of Masalit, a village in western Darfur attacked in mid-May. The killing of men, women, and children has been reported, with thousands of civilians forced to flee into Chad following the burning of their homes. One report from the attack noted that the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) shot individuals hiding in schools and mosques, and the region has become increasingly inaccessible to foreign aid, only exacerbating the dire nature of the situation. While brief cease-fires were negotiated, including one Saudi-brokered agreement in April, these agreements did not last and did nothing to suspend the killings reported by Al Jazeera. A mass grave of 87 people, including women and children, was discovered in June 2023. Among those who perished were victims who died slowly from “untreated injuries”, according to a UN Report cited in The Guardian. The RSF denied any role in the killings and an unnamed spokesman said the group would participate in investigations concerning the murder of civilians.


Just as the Janjaweed became symbols of terror in Darfur over two decades ago, the RSF now plays the same role. In addition to extrajudiciary killings, there are increasing reports of sexual violence against women and girls. One incident reported on by Kate Ferguson of The Guardian noted that the UN Human Rights Office in Sudan had been made aware of at least 21 incidents of gender-based violence against 57 women and girls by early July 2023. One attack included as many as 20 women assaulted in a single gang rape. The violence in Sudan not only threatens to undermine a country suffering the lingering effects of genocide and civil war, but this situation will deteriorate the already fragile governments of Sudan’s neighbors, particularly Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR).


The efforts to destroy the people targeted by both the RSF and government forces in Sudan is undeniably a genocide which demands immediate condemnation and action by the ICC and UN. The word “genocide” must be used to illustrate the magnitude of the violence and to pressure leading countries to work with other multi-national organizations such as the African Union to create a meaningful ceasefire and start peace negotiations. A lack of response will thrust Sudan into an increasingly bleak future but may also be the acts that lead Chad and the CAR into periods of mass atrocity as well. Both Chad and the CAR are among the nations labeled most at risk for mass violence, according to the Early Warning Project. With an increase in killings from non-state actors as well as hate-fueled propaganda, these two countries can easily descend into broader violence, creating the near complete disruption of trade, education, and political stability in the area surrounding Sudan. Chad is ill-equipped to handle the massive influx of refugees from Sudan who have been forced to flee the violence, now existing in hastily built camps.


Rapid Support Forces (RSF) celebrate after the capture of migrants trying to cross into Libya. [Image credit: Rashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images]

The United States labeled the mass murder of civilians in Sudan a genocide nearly 20 years ago and is responding to the contemporary situation with humanitarian aid. As of late June 2023, United States Agency for International development (USAID) pledged an additional 172 million dollars in aid to Sudan, increasing the total amount of aid sent to the country to 550 million dollars. Money is a significant step in assisting those tormented by genocidal violence, but with most corridors for assistance impossible to traverse, one must wonder where this money is going and who is truly receiving it. Financial support from the world’s leading nations is not to be undervalued, but the fighting has to stop before humanitarian assistance can truly take hold within the borders of Sudan. People must be able to return to their homes, engage in their businesses, return to their schools and mosques, and live in a country whose government is committed to stability, not chaos. All of this begins with language; namely, labeling what is transpiring in 2023 as genocide and holding those responsible accountable. Without a collective voice condemning the reality of Sudan’s contemporary violence, there will be ongoing bickering over semantics and misspent humanitarian aid while women and children face dehumanizing violence and men are summarily killed. The world responded too slowly in the past when confronted with the reality of genocide in Sudan; for the sake of those currently in anguish, this same mistake cannot be repeated.

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