A disaster revisited: Darfur

Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-part series looking at recent humanitarian crises. Tomorrow’s will look at Hurricane Katrina.

Dr. Ashis Brahma speaks about his experiences with the people of Darfur during a workshop on genocide on Saturday in Mondale Hall.

Steve Maturen

Dr. Ashis Brahma speaks about his experiences with the people of Darfur during a workshop on genocide on Saturday in Mondale Hall.

The western pocket of Sudan houses three states that have long been without roads and infrastructure, forsaken by the Muslim Arab Sudanese government, based in the northern part of AfricaâÄôs biggest country. And after a bloody, two-decade civil war in the country that left 2 million dead, 4 million displaced and resources scarce, a Darfur rebel group decided to seize the voice that the Sudanese government wouldnâÄôt willfully give them. Following the rebel attack, Sudan President Omar al-Bashir launched a genocide campaign against all black Africans âÄî those not identified as Muslim Arabs âÄî in Darfur. Since 2003, nearly half a million people have fallen victim in Darfur to the government-sanctioned mass extermination. âÄúThe first genocide of the 21st century is occurring as we sit here today,âÄù said Ellen Kennedy, director of the University of MinnesotaâÄôs Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. âÄúâÄòGenoâÄô means people and âÄòcideâÄô means killing and âÄògenocideâÄô means the destruction of people.âÄù Augustino âÄúTingâÄù Mayai is one of the âÄúLost Boys of SudanâÄù who fled to the United States after a pilgrimage out of his home country and away from death. When he left SudanâÄôs Warrap state , which he said hasnâÄôt seen development in 50 years, Mayai didnâÄôt understand that his departure was related to economics or religion. âÄúAs a child I knew nothing about Sudanese politics,âÄù he said. âÄúWhat I did know is there was a war and I was running for my life.âÄù The conflict is often labeled one based on race, ethnicity and religion. But thereâÄôs an overarching theme that has brought on war throughout history: money and power. Darfur is no exception, Kennedy said. Especially in a land of dwindling resources such as Sudan, the prospect of those two commodities becomes especially desirable. Referring to another African genocide in 1994 that killed 800,000 people in a single year, Kennedy said, âÄúDarfur is Rwanda in slow motion.âÄù

Violence remains in camps

The gory government-sponsored violence that forced millions of Darfuris into refugee camps in neighboring countries lingers in the camps themselves. At a camp in neighboring Chad , where Dr. Ashis Brahma worked as the sole trained physician for about 25,000 refugees, roughly 90 percent of refugees are women and children. The men, he said, are killed or are still fighting âÄî leaving the women with tremendous responsibility. For example, as populations grow, they place increased strain on the desert ecosystem of central Africa. Refugees exhaust the naturally limited resources of water and firewood for cooking. The women, Brahma said, are faced with the difficult decision: To serve their young children raw food in an environment with rampant infectious and parasitic disease, or to wander an ever-increasing distance to find wood, chancing rape and death. Throughout the Darfur conflict and now in refugee camps âÄî supposed safe havens from the genocide âÄî rape has been a widely used weapon of demoralization, dehumanization and defeat. âÄúRape as a weapon of war has been on the rise, I believe,âÄù Brahma said, calling it the easiest way to destroy an opponent. âÄúThe conflict has been less militarily violent but the protracted conflict is going on.âÄù For Darfuris, the shame associated with rape is overwhelming. A violated woman is branded, signifying her impurity and disgrace. Her husband usually leaves her. âÄúThe women are raped, and then they are gang-raped, and then they are raped not only by bodies but with guns and sticks,âÄù Kennedy said. âÄúThey are devastated.âÄù And ramifications of rape extend beyond these broken women. When the mothers and wives âÄî the primary caretakers âÄî are made pariahs, the social fabric frays.


When basic needs like food and clean water are scarce, refugees experience increased strain. Malnutrition and outbreaks of common diseases plague camps and account for the majority of refugee deaths. Despite promises to deliver humanitarian aid, Brahma said âÄúa lack of funding, a lack of political willâÄù hinder efforts. Many refugees only receive half the nourishment necessary to thrive. âÄúThis is a region thatâÄôs on the fringe of living,âÄù Brahma said. Water issues are the most fundamental ones, he added. Refugees balance their needs with the restrictions placed on how much water they can take from limited purified reserves. Without water, hygiene and health suffer, and refugees canâÄôt build the mud-brick structures they live in. âÄúWhen you compete for water, it becomes hard not to have war,âÄù Brahma said.

Darfur and the future

In the past six years, DarfurâÄôs pain seems to have pricked global conscience. The ongoing turmoil has transformed the region into one of the most notorious conflicts in recent history. âÄúDarfur is, if not the [most], one of the most significant humanitarian disasters of our time,âÄù Barbara Frey , director of the UniversityâÄôs human rights program, said. âÄúIt continues to be a humanitarian nightmare, which brings shame upon the international community.âÄù One hundred and sixty countries have signed on to the International Criminal Court , a tribunal which prosecutes for crimes against humanity. For the first time, the court has indicted a sitting ruler, SudanâÄôs al-Bashir, for genocide. The United States is not a signatory nation. President Bill Clinton signed on, but President George W. Bush withdrew. Political pressure might contribute to a reluctance to move forward with al-BashirâÄôs prosecution. Emerging superpower China is a notable supporter of the genocidal regime, Kennedy said. But a new administration led by President Barack Obama, who as a senator had a strong record of supporting initiatives that would mean a firmer stance on Darfur issues, offers a semblance of hope for the future, she added. But still, a growing population and increasingly diminishing resources compounded by deforestation threaten further instability in Darfur and throughout the world. Additionally, the spread of lethal weapons and a burgeoning weapons-trade industry coupled with an increased penchant for violence could further chip away at stability. âÄúI believe the 21st century will be worse than the 20th century,âÄù Kennedy said. A global commitment to resolution in Sudan is key, she added, but beyond that, a concentration on genocide prevention is necessary. âÄúThese are manmade disasters,âÄù Kennedy said. âÄúThey can be prevented, unlike natural disasters that cannot.âÄù Without preventative measures in place, including global accountability for tyrannical leaders, crises simply continue to evolve. âÄúSometimes people think that the damage has been done and itâÄôs just at a status quo,âÄù Frey said. âÄúThey donâÄôt understand that the extent to which refugees continue to be targeted and suffer.âÄù Consequences of the genocidal Rwandan conflict in the 1990s have trickled into the Congo . âÄúGenocide is never over,âÄù Kennedy said, and humanitarian aid isnâÄôt an easy fix, though itâÄôs sometimes mistaken for one. In a nutshell, Sudan native Mayai said, peace and understanding are building blocks for a stable society. Diversity needs to be decriminalized, and social education âÄî such as teaching mothers to discourage children from drinking dirty water âÄî is paramount. Brahma said he sees hope for the future of DarfurâÄôs people on their faces. Many of the children and their mothers express enthusiasm about education, which he said is necessary to improve the region. âÄúWe donâÄôt give any security to these kids, but they still have dreams,âÄù Brahma said. âÄúThese people are survivors.âÄù –Karlee Weinmann is a senior staff reporter