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Genocide in Slow Motion

The same paralysis occurred as Rwandans were being slaughtered in 1994. Officials from Europe to the US to the UN headquarters all responded by temporizing and then, at most, by holding meetings. The only thing President Clinton did for Rwandan genocide victims was issue a magnificent apology after they were dead.

Much the same has been true of the Western response to the Armenian genocide of 1915, the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s, and the Bosnian massacres of the 1990s. In each case, we have wrung our hands afterward and offered the lame excuse that it all happened too fast, or that we didn’t fully comprehend the carnage when it was still under way.

And now the same tragedy is unfolding in Darfur, but this time we don’t even have any sort of excuse. In Darfur genocide is taking place in slow motion, and there is vast documentary proof of the atrocities. Some of the evidence can be seen in the photo reproduced with this essay, which was leaked from an African Union archive containing thousands of other such photos. And now, the latest proof comes in the form of two new books that tell the sorry tale of Darfur: it’s appalling that the publishing industry manages to respond more quickly to genocide than the UN and world leaders do.

In my years as a journalist, I thought I had seen a full kaleidoscope of horrors, from babies dying of malaria to Chinese troops shooting students to Indonesian mobs beheading people. But nothing prepared me for Darfur, where systematic murder, rape, and mutilation are taking place on a vast scale, based simply on the tribe of the victim. What I saw reminded me why people say that genocide is the worst evil of which human beings are capable.

On one of the first of my five visits to Darfur, I came across an oasis along the Chad border where several tens of thousands of people were sheltering under trees after being driven from their home villages by the Arab Janjaweed militia, which has been supported by the Sudan government in Khartoum. Under the first tree, I found a man who had been shot in the neck and the jaw; his brother, shot only in the foot, had carried him for forty-nine days to get to this oasis. Under the next tree was a widow whose parents had been killed and stuffed in the village well to poison the local water supply; then the Janjaweed had tracked down the rest of her family and killed her husband. Under the third tree was a four-year-old orphan girl carrying her one-year-old baby sister on her back; their parents had been killed. Under the fourth tree was a woman whose husband and children had been killed in front of her, and then she was gang-raped and left naked and mutilated in the desert.

Those were the people I met under just four adjacent trees. And in every direction, as far as I could see, were more trees and more victims—all with similar stories.

There is no space in most newspaper articles to explain how this came to pass, and that is why the recent books under review are invaluable. The best introduction is Darfur: A Short History of a Long War, by Julie Flint and Alex de Waal. Both writers are intimately familiar with Darfur—Ms. Flint reportedly came close to getting herself killed there when traveling with rebels in 2004—and their accounts are as readable as they are tragic.

The killing in Darfur, a vast region in western Sudan, is not a case of religious persecution, since the killers as well as the victims of this genocide are Muslim. But, like the Christian and animist parts of southern Sudan, Darfur has traditionally been neglected by the Arabs (and before them, the British) who held power in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital. Flint and de Waal write that the British colonial rulers deliberately restricted education in Darfur to the sons of chiefs, so as not to produce rabble-rousers who might challenge their authority. As a result, in 1935, all of Darfur had only one full-fledged elementary school. There was no maternity clinic until the 1940s, and at independence in 1956 Darfur had fewer hospital beds than any other part of Sudan. After independence, Sudan’s own leaders nationalized this policy of malign neglect.

One result was the terrible Darfur famine of 1984 and 1985, which de Waal earlier made the subject of a powerful case study, Famine That Kills.1 That book has been reissued with a new preface because of the interest in Darfur, and it makes the point that, in places like Sudan, “‘to starve’ is transitive; it is something people do to each other.” The Darfur famine was the result not just of drought, but also of reckless mismanagement and indifference in the Sudanese government. It was transitive starvation.

During the 1980s and 1990s, ethnic antagonisms were also rising in Darfur. The civil war in neighboring Chad spilled over into Darfur and led some Arab tribes to adopt a supremacist ideology. Meanwhile, the spread of the Sahara desert intensified the competition between Arab and non-Arab tribes for water and forage.

The other book under review, Gérard Prunier’s Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide, makes the point that the shorthand descriptions from Darfur of Arabs killing black Africans are oversimplified. He’s right—there has been intermarriage between tribes, and it’s hardly accurate to talk about Arabs killing Africans when they’re all Africans. The racial element is confusing, because to Western eyes, although not to local people, almost everyone looks black. And of course the very concept of an Arab is a loose one; with no consistent racial or ethnic meaning, it normally refers to a person whose mother tongue is Arabic.

But while shorthand descriptions are simplistic, they’re also essentially right. In Darfur, the cleavages between the Janjaweed and their victims tend to be threefold. First, the Janjaweed and Sudanese government leaders are Arabs and their victims in Darfur are members of several non-Arab African tribes, particularly the Zaghawa, Fur, and Masalit. Second, the killers are frequently lighter-skinned, and they routinely use racial epithets about the “blacks” they are killing and raping. Third, the Janjaweed are often nomadic herdsmen, and the tribes they attack are usually settled farmers, so the conflict also reflects the age-old tension between herders and farmers.

The leader of the Janjaweed, whom the Sudanese government entrusted with the initial waves of slaughter in Darfur, is usually said to be Musa Hilal, the chief of an Arab nomadic tribe. His own hostility to non-Arabs long predates the present genocide. Flint and de Waal quote a former governor of Darfur as saying that Musa Hilal was recorded back in 1988 as expressing gratitude for “the necessary weapons and ammunition to exterminate the African tribes in Darfur.” In the mid-1990s, the early version of the Janjaweed (with the connivance of Sudan’s leaders) was responsible for the slaughter of at least two thousand members of the Masalit tribe. In 2001 and 2002, there were brutal attacks on villages belonging to the Fur and Zaghawa tribes.

The upshot was increasing alarm and unrest, particularly among the three major non-Arab tribes in Darfur. Their militants began to organize an armed movement against the Sudanese government, and in June 2002 they attacked a police station. The beginning of their rebellion is usually dated to early in 2003, when they burned government garrisons and destroyed military aircraft at an air base.

That’s when the Sudanese government, led by President Omar el-Bashir, decided to launch a scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaign, involving the slaughter of large numbers of people in Darfur. It was difficult to use the army for this, though, partly because many soldiers in the regular army were members of African tribes from Darfur—and so it wasn’t clear that they would be willing to wipe out civilians from their own tribes. The Sudanese leadership therefore decided to adopt the same strategy it had successfully employed elsewhere in Sudan, using irregular militias to slaughter tribes that had shown signs of resistance.

This wasn’t a surprise decision. As Prunier writes: “The whole of GoS [Government of Sudan] policy and political philosophy since it came to power in 1989 has kept verging on genocide in its general treatment of the national question in Sudan.” Flint and de Waal call this “counterinsurgency on the cheap” and note:

In Bahr el Ghazal in 1986–88, in the Nuba Mountains in 1992–95, in Upper Nile in 1998–2003, and elsewhere on just a slightly smaller scale, militias supported by military intelligence and aerial bombardment attacked with unremitting brutality. Scorched earth, massacre, pillage and rape were the norm.

In other words, when Sudan’s leaders were faced with unrest in Darfur, their instinctive response was to start massacring civilians. It had worked before, and it had aroused relatively little international reaction. Among the few who vociferously protested the brutal Sudanese policies in southern Sudan in the 1990s were American evangelical Christians, partly because many of the victims then were Christians; some American evangelicals have complained to me that the American press and television are now calling attention to Muslim victims in Sudan after years of ignoring similar massacres of Christians in southern Sudan in the past. The comparison they make does not seem to me entirely convincing, but they have a point. It’s probably true that if there had been more reaction to Sudanese brutality in the southern part of the country during the 1990s, the government might not have been so quick to launch genocidal attacks in Darfur.

After it had decided to crush the incipient rebellion in Darfur, Sudan’s government released Arab criminals from prison and turned them over to the custody of Musa Hilal so that they could join the Janjaweed. The government set up training camps for the Janjaweed, gave them assault rifles, truck-mounted machine guns, and artillery. Recruits received $79 a month if they were on foot, or $117 if they had a horse or camel. They also received Sudanese army uniforms with a special badge depicting an armed horseman. Prunier quotes a survivor from one of the attacks that quickly followed:

The Janjaweed were accompanied by soldiers. They attacked the people, saying: “You are opponents to the regime, we must crush you. As you are Black, you are like slaves. Then the entire Darfur region will be in the hands of the Arabs. The government is on our side. The government plane is on our side, it gives us food and ammunition.”

Flint and de Waal quote a young man who hid under a dead mule and was the only survivor in his family:

[The attackers] took a knife and cut my mother’s throat and threw her into the well. Then they took my oldest sister and began to rape her, one by one. My father was kneeling, crying and begging them for mercy. After that they killed my brother and finally my father. They threw all the bodies in the well.

  1. 1

    Oxford University Press, 1989; revised 2005.

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