Chemical weapons used against unarmed civilians, including children. Half a million unarmed civilians killed by their own government. Barrel bombs dropped by the air force from 30,000 feet on unsuspecting villages, and the systematic rape of women by soldiers. I am not describing Syria, but Sudan.
It has been 15 years since the start of the Darfur genocide, and yet the ethnic cleansing of Sudan continues. You probably haven’t heard much recently about this Rwanda-in-slow-motion. Why? Because the regime responsible for the slaughter is also the West’s partner in stopping Africans migrating over their territory toward Libya and the Mediterranean coast. Even though the Sudanese ruler, Field Marshall Omar al-Bashir, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court(ICC) for genocide, we avert our eyes to his campaign of ethnic cleansing.
For decades, Bashir’s regime has been trying to rid Sudan of its non-Arab and non-Muslim population, aiming to create a purely Arab and Muslim country. This policy ignores centuries of intermarriage, and the presence of millions of black African citizens. However, the regime also targets Muslims who do not subscribe to its narrow, jihadist interpretation of Islam. And it jails brave Arab lawyers, journalists and human rights activists who want democracy and freedom of speech.
In 2015, Genocide Watch estimated that 500,000 Darfuris had died in the conflict, and millions have fled to squalid internally displaced persons camps, or across the border to refugee camps in Chad. Many have been there since 2003, dreaming of going home to their farms, but knowing their villages have been destroyed, their livestock stolen, and their wells poisoned.
Apart from the regime’s blatant racism toward black Africans, climate change has played a role. The southward drift of the Sahara allowed the regime to enlist aggrieved Arab herders as its proxies. With diminishing grazing land, a militia of herders, known as the Janjaweed, took the Darfuris’ farms by force, killing the inhabitants. Journalists have been denied access since the start of the conflict, but the NGO Waging Peace, with whom I have been working for years, collected hundreds of children’s drawings. They are eerily familiar to anyone who has seen the Theresienstadt concentration camp pictures. The ICC accepted the pictures as evidence of the context of the genocide, and I was honoured to speak at the event marking the transfer of drawings to The Wiener Library in London. The pictures can be viewed here.
In 2016, Amnesty International reported that the Khartoum regime had used chemical weapons against civilians in the Jebel Mara region of Darfur. A British journalist who tried to retrieve soil samples there was captured, imprisoned and tortured by the Khartoum regime for five weeks. Yet, there was no demand from the West to send the chemical weapons inspectors who are now in Syria to investigate Amnesty’s claims.
Some years ago, when Darfur was briefly in the news, the international community dispatched a joint African Union-UN peacekeeping force. This followed the Save Darfur campaign, led by the American Jewish community, to respond to the horror occurring away from the television cameras, in the remote and arid western region of Sudan. However, there was never much international political will behind the soldiers, and the Sudanese regime regularly prevents them investigating attacks on civilians. In theory, it should be protecting Darfuris, but it has neither the resources nor the necessary political backing to do so. It is only a matter of time until it leaves the people of Darfur to fend for themselves.
The UN has passed numerous resolutions condemning the violence, and together with the African Union, it has convened a series of peace talks. However, as long as the regime breaks its word, denies humanitarian groups access, and continues to bomb its own people, any deals lack legitimacy with its war-weary citizens.
Recently, President Trump dropped sanctions against Sudan, and is said to be preparing to remove it from the US list of state sponsors of terror. Khartoum, which sheltered Osama bin Laden for five years, is being rewarded for giving intelligence of dubious quality to the CIA. Ironically, this avowedly Islamist regime is counted as our partner in the global war on terror. This is despite their role in transporting weapons from Iran, taken by land across Sudan, into the northern Sinai Peninsula, and then smuggled into Gaza. Wikileaks revealed that on two occasions, in 2009 and 2012, it is believed that Israeli fighter jets bombed the shipments as they headed for Sudanese docks. On a third occasion, in 2014, Israel intercepted a shipment of Iranian arms heading for Sudan.
So, while the people of Sudan suffer in a media vacuum, the international community contorts itself like a pretzel to justify ignoring one human rights outrage, while reacting, occasionally, to another, in Syria.
At Waging Peace, we are members of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust Partnership Group. We continue to support Sudanese refugees who make it to the UK, helping them to build meaningful lives here.
Maurice Michaels is rabbi of Bournemouth Reform Synagogue