Campus & Community

Genocide in Sudan

7 min read

SPH’s Leaning investigates and urges action

Leaning with leader and residents of refugee
Jennifer Leaning (holding notebook) talks to the leader of the Goz Amer refugee camp. The man in the blue shirt at left and the woman behind Leaning to the right are both translators working with the Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) team. Because of the sensitive nature of testimony given by female refugees, many of whom were raped, PHR interviewed men and women separately. Leaning, working with a female translator, interviewed women who had been raped or suffered other forms of sexual violence. (Photo courtesy of Physicians for Human Rights)

The international community has not succeeded very well at stopping incidents of genocide. From Armenia to Rwanda, efforts at intervention have generally been either nonexistent or too little and too late.

The fact that new opportunities to finally get it right occur with distressing regularity can hardly be regarded as a positive factor, yet for those who seek to mitigate human suffering, these opportunities are still a powerful call for action and hope.

These young people have settled at a refugee “location” (not a camp) near Chad’s border with Sudan. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has moved most refugees in such settlements to camps because of the danger posed by frequent cross-border attacks by Sudanese militia. This group feared that UNHCR would not be able to transfer them to camps before the rainy season began. (Photo courtesy of Physicians for Human Rights)

The Darfur region of western Sudan is the latest area to give rise to such a call. The non-Arab inhabitants of this poor and arid region have become the direct targets of attack by a loosely organized Arab militia known as Janjaweed, with apparent backing by military forces controlled by the Sudanese government. The conflict arises in a context of resource constraints and was initially described as a response to two rebel groups who formed against the Sudanese government. But in the past 16 months it has evolved into a vicious program of terror and death, aimed at destroying the livelihoods of the non-Arabs and driving them off their land.

The Arab marauders have swept into non-Arab villages in Darfur, murdering the men, raping the women, burning houses, stealing livestock, and forcing the survivors to flee into larger towns in Darfur or across the border into Chad. So far, more than a million non-Arab Darfurians have been displaced within Darfur and another 200,000 have sought refuge in Chad.

In May, Jennifer Leaning, professor of international health in the School of Public Health, spent two weeks observing conditions and interviewing Darfurian refugees along the Chad border as part of an investigative team sponsored by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). The team’s report was published June 23.

Jennifer Leaning, professor of international health in the School of Public Health, was part of an investigative team that reported on the conditions of Darfurian refugees along the Chad border. Leaning says, ‘What has been delivered to the government of Sudan, very forcibly I think, in the last couple of weeks, is the message: “Hold on to any of your expectations, guys. You are not going to be readmitted back into the community of good nations until you adequately settle this problem in Darfur.”’ (Staff photo Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office)

Since her return, Leaning has appeared on radio and TV programs and has visited Washington to urge government officials to take action. At the moment, she said, the prospects for mobilizing some sort of intervention seem to be looking up.

“I would say that things are looking more hopeful, largely because just in the last three weeks there has been a progressive groundswell of discussion about what’s going on in Darfur. More and more media outlets are handling the story, and there are higher- and higher-level discussions in government and in national institutions about actually doing something.”

What PHR and other human rights groups hope to do is pressure the Sudanese government to end its support of Janjaweed and force the group to stop its genocidal campaign in Darfur. According to Leaning, there is some possibility of accomplishing this goal because Sudan has been looking forward to improving its standing with the international community as a reward for ending its long-running civil war between the north and the south.

“What has been delivered to the government of Sudan, very forcibly I think, in the last couple of weeks, is the message: ‘Hold on to any of your expectations, guys. You are not going to be readmitted back into the community of good nations until you adequately settle this problem in Darfur.’”

Secretary of State Colin Powell has recently visited Sudan to make his own assessment of the situation in Darfur. He is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the country in several decades. Andrew Natsios, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) accompanied him. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has also recently traveled to Darfur. And, according to Leaning, President Bush has been in communication with Sudanese President Umar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir. Human rights organizations would like Bush and leaders in other countries to apply greater pressure on al-Bashir to fulfill a promise he made June 19 that he would call off the Janjaweed militia.

The visits of Powell and Annan have helped to raise the visibility and urgency of the need to organize a response to this ongoing attack on a civilian population. “But Powell only went to the areas that are already well traveled. He didn’t see the most isolated and trapped – and he did not complain about that. We are still not putting enough pressure on the Sudanese government to bring about an immediate end to this conflict and this policy of obstruction of aid,” Leaning said.

But even with high-level officials beginning to pay attention to the genocidal activity in Darfur, a favorable outcome to the situation is anything but assured. Already, many thousands have died, and many thousands more have been rendered homeless and at risk of disease and death in a harsh, unforgiving environment. The rainy season has now arrived, washing out primitive roads and making it all but impossible to bring food, water, and supplies to the refugees, except by airlift. Even under present conditions, trucking supplies to the displaced persons in Darfur has proved difficult because of efforts by the Sudanese government to obstruct access.

“This part of the world is very hard to survive in,” said Leaning. “When people are driven from their water sources and land, when their animals are killed or stolen, it deprives them of their source of livelihood. Then, if they can’t get outside aid, they will die.”

Even if people are able to wait out the rainy season, returning to their land afterward is absolutely essential to ensure their continued survival, for that is when they must plant crops for the next harvest, Leaning said.

A further concern is that the Sudanese government will fail to respond to pressure and change its policy in Darfur. In this case, the matter will have to be brought before the UN Security Council, with the possibility of greater coercive measures adopted, including sending troops under a Chapter VII mandate, perhaps invoking the Genocide Convention of 1948.

“The problem now,” said Leaning, “is that the United States has not publicly stated what we all know to be the case: that the Sudanese government is responsible for supporting this conflict in Darfur, for obstructing humanitarian aid, and for arming the Janjaweed. Nor has the U.S. managed to persuade major European nations to back a stiff UN Security Council resolution that calls the Sudanese government to account and demands immediate action.”