Episode 5: Darfur’s Forgotten War

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:00:02] I'm Imtiaz Tyab and this is The Take. In this week's episode, we're taking you to Darfur, the site of what some have called the 21st century's first genocide. It's one of many conflicts in that part of East Africa, but it's one that shadowed Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for more than a decade. But now he may be coming to the table with rebel leaders to broker a peace deal. And it's not just for Darfur, but across Sudan. Al Jazeera correspondent Hiba Morgan was just in Darfur reporting on the legacy of 15 years of war there. It's a war that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions.

Hiba Morgan: [00:00:46] You know you find people, they haven't gotten over the fact that in 2003 they were forced to be displaced and leave their homes and seek refuge in displacement camps or refugee camps. They're all still trapped in that mindset. But if you step outside, there are like cars driving some kind of security around them. It was quite interesting to just see two contrasts. Like you step outside and it's a normal town and you step inside a refugee camp where people have basically lost hope for the future effectively.

IT: [00:01:14] I reached Hiba at her home in Juba which is in neighboring South Sudan. South Sudan isn't really known for its stable phone and internet connections, but our Skype call worked.

HM: [00:01:26] Hello?

IT: [00:01:27] Mostly.

HM: [00:01:27] One, two.

IT: [00:01:28] Now Hiba knows Sudan and South Sudan really well. Not just because she's based there for Al Jazeera. She's actually from there.

HM: [00:01:37] Well, I am a South Sudanese, originally born Sudanese because South Sudan did not exist seven years ago. My dad is a diplomat and my mom is a college professor and I wanted to be a journalist since I was in sixth grade. And here I am.

IT: [00:01:52] Hiba's background is a really great place to start in explaining the history and geography of this part of Africa. Sudan is south of Egypt and shares a border with a bunch of other countries who have also had long running conflicts of their own. Countries like Chad, Libya, Eritrea, Ethiopia and the Central African Republic. The region of Darfur is in the middle of all of that.

IT: [00:02:16] It's in the western part of Sudan and borders a bunch of the unstable countries that I just listed. We're talking about a big, big territory. Bigger than California, almost as big as Spain. This is a complicated part of the world. It's where African tribal heritage clashes with Arab dominance. And everyone's still dealing with the legacy of European colonialism. And in Darfur, all of that has resulted in what feels like an endless war.

HM: [00:02:45] So we went mainly to see the stories of returnees, people who came back from refugee camps in Chad because we heard that they basically were leaving the refugee camps to return to Sudan because the situation in Chad was unbearable for them. The donor crisis, donor fatigue is setting in and a lot of refugee camps, a lot of places where aid is needed, they are having to face budget cuts.

IT: [00:03:09] So why does the name Darfur ring a bell for so many people?

HM: [00:03:14] Of course you remember 2003 and four and the years afterwards where like it was all over the news. George Clooney and all the other celebrities talking about it and trying to like raise awareness. But then eventually like it became a forgotten conflict.

IT: [00:03:29] Hiba I'd like to talk about what actually happened to the people who you've talked to before they even fled from Darfur. But before we do that, can you explain to us the makeup of Sudan?

HM: [00:03:40] Well Sudan is a very complex but beautiful country. You find various tribes, various ethnicities, and first of all let me take you a little bit back like all the way like, way way back centuries. Sudan was divided into kingdoms. You've got the Masalit kingdom, the Zaghawa kingdom, the Fur kingdom, the Kush kingdom, the Nuba kingdoms, and they were all like basically different. They had their different rules, different leaders, until the colonial times when the Brits came and put them all under one rule.

News presenter: [00:04:13] Thousands of Sudanese assemble in the open square of their capital to greet the arrival of the train bearing Britain's new pro counsel, Sir Stuart Signs.

HM: [00:04:24] And so they were basically forced to unite but then obviously there was also the Arab rule and the Arab invasion of Sudan. And initially things were, I would say, fine. As in there was no conflict. And they tried to work things out. Minor clashes here and there, minor issue of identity. But then obviously under colonial powers their whole focus was to try to get the Brits out.

News presenter: [00:04:48] Yes the country's independence had just been officially recognized by Britain and Egypt. And the Sudanese flag now replaced the flags of those two nations.

HM: [00:05:03] But then after the Brits left, there was this other issue of Sudan being declared an Arabic and Islamic country. And the people in the South were not happy with that and they felt they were marginalized.

IT: [00:05:13] Just help, help clarify a thought for me. So in Sudan the Arabs and the Africans fought together against colonial rule, against the British. And together jointly they pushed them out. Is that right?

HM: [00:05:27] Yes. That was during the colonial time. Yes. But then once that was over they turned on each other effectively.

IT: [00:05:35] What happened in 2003? And walk us through to where we are today in 2018.

HM: [00:05:41] Well in 2003, some armed groups in Darfur attacked government positions. And that's, that- that's how the Darfur war officially started. But if you go back in history you'll find that all the way in 1990s, some tribes some African tribes in Darfur were basically accusing the government of apartheid. And they tried to fight back and they tried to demand more representation in the government, demand more recognition and that didn't happen. So effectively in 2002, 2003 that's when they were like, enough was enough and they decided to attack government positions and took the government by surprise. Especially because at that point, Sudan as a whole was already going through two other wars in the south which was basically Africa's longest civil war with South Sudan and in the East on the Eritrean border.

IT: [00:06:31] Who were the rebels? Tell us who the rebels were.

HM: [00:06:34] Well there were various rebel factions that were fighting against the government. You had the rebel faction, the Sudan Liberation Movement. You had the Justice and Equality Movement. And you had various other movements, Abdel Wahid and obviously there were smaller tribes, because again we're talking about Sudan with a very complex makeup, various ethnicities, more than 90 in Sudan alone. So Darfur had a decent number of those, like dozens and dozens of ethnicities. And a lot of them basically felt like they were being marginalized.

News presenter: [00:07:06] The result of centuries of racial mixing between Arabs and Africans to the extent of ethnicity here is no longer defined by skin color but rather by how people feel inside.

IT: [00:07:18] And in 2003 the African origin Darfuri rebels attacked government forces and caught them by surprise.

HM: [00:07:25] Yeah so the government basically, it had better arms, better weapons and they were able to also mobilize Arab tribes that were in Darfur because again like I said the makeup was quite complex. So there were a minority, Arab tribes, but they had horses. And they were not traditional farmers like the other traditional Darfuri people were. And they basically employed these people and some of them got government positions. Some of them got basically the lands that they drove people off. It was all based on ethnicity. So if you come from a certain ethnicity and there's a belief that your, your ethnicity is fighting the government, then you are done for effectively.

News presenter: [00:08:02] Security developments to tell you about in Sudan, where some say a genocide is unfolding. The U.N. is giving the Sudanese government 30 days to disarm Arab militias accused of widespread atrocities against non Arab groups in the Darfur region.

News presenter: [00:08:16] Those who haven't been killed by government backed militias have been raped, seen their homes destroyed, and been chased into huge squalid camps both in Sudan and across the border in impoverished Chad.

IT: [00:08:33] So things got pretty bad. Walk us through just how bad things got.

HM: [00:08:37] Okay let's put it in terms of numbers. We're talking about, as per the U.N., between three hundred thousand and four hundred thousand people killed. You have peacekeeping forces on the ground. At some point the U.N. African Union hybrid mission which was stationed in Darfur was literally the largest U.N. mission in the world because of the level of the crisis. Because it was, they were they were trying to prevent a genocide or effectively stop a genocide that was happening.

News presenter: [00:09:06] All along the border there are now tens of thousands of displaced people struggling for life's essentials. Settlements are growing up with the displaced hoping there's strength in numbers. But the reality is that spears and bows and arrows will never stand up to guns.

HM: [00:09:23] Women were being gang raped. There were so many reports of sexual violence. Scorched earth policy where people would be forced off their land, off their farmland, and we're talking about a population which largely relied on farming. So they would be displaced off their farmlands and the farms would be burned to the ground and they wouldn't be able to come back and farm even if they wanted to. So that was the level of the disaster that Darfur was. At some point the U.N. basically described it as a human catastrophe.

HM: [00:09:55] So nobody knows exactly like after that three hundred thousand where the figures stopped. You're also talking about more than three million people who have been displaced from Darfur, from their homes. Some of them went to Chad, some of them went to- fled to Libya, and then onto onwards. You know they contribute to the migrant crisis that's currently going on. And then you've got some people who are internally displaced and in U.N. camps. So three million people effectively had to leave their homes and be displaced either internally or in their neighboring countries.

George Clooney: [00:10:26] What we cannot do is turn our heads and look away and hope that this will somehow disappear.

IT: [00:10:34] This is where Clooney and the other celebrities and politicians came in. A few years into the war, about 2006.

George Clooney: [00:10:40] And an entire generation of people will be gone and then only history will be left to judge us.

IT: [00:10:49] And not long after, in 2009, it seemed the activists had won a major battle when the International Criminal Court passed this ruling.

International Criminal Court: [00:10:57] Issued a warrant of arrest, for the arrest of Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

IT: [00:11:10] Tell us about Omar al-Bashir.

HM: [00:11:13] So Omar al-Bashir, who's the president of Sudan, has been in power since 1989. And he came to power through a military coup just like many other presidents, Sudanese presidents, before him. And when he came to power he basically declared that Sudan was going to be an Arab state, an Islamic state, and like I said earlier that's effectively how the Darfur war started when they felt like they were not being represented. And obviously his- he was accused of so many things. He was accused of marginalizing tribes because he comes from the north. He's a former soldier who actually fought in the South Sudan civil war, the Sudan civil war with the South, in the 60s. He's been accused of being a dictator, but yeah he's held several elections and he has surprisingly won them all.

IT: [00:12:02] And tell us about his role in Darfur from 2003 onwards.

HM: [00:12:06] Well his role according to the ICC basically was that he directed everyone who was responsible for, who played a role in displacing people, who played a role in raping the women, who played a role in burning down the villages and the farmlands, according to the International Criminal Court, the orders came from him. There was no way that somebody who was low level in the government would be able to issue all these, all these orders without him directly issuing that order, or without him at least green lighting and making it possible for people to do that in Darfur.

IT: [00:12:40] And so the International Criminal Court, they charged him with war crimes back in 2009. To say he's been defiant is an understatement. This is him addressing supporters.

HM: [00:12:56] So he was basically saying that you, not just to the International Criminal Court but to the whole world like, you can do whatever you want. You can regard this conflict however you wanted, but I'm here. I'm doing what I want and there's nothing you can do about it.

HM: [00:13:21] You know, at some point people lost the death count. Again because a lot of aid organizations were not allowed in. And those that were allowed in and they had to operate under strict rules. So nobody knows exactly how many people have died post the three hundred thousand figure that was initially put out.

IT: [00:13:41] Of the people you've been speaking to when you go to Darfur, when you talk about this collective trauma, what do they say to you about it? Do they talk about it? Are they willing to share with you how they feel about it or are they just trying to figure out a way to move beyond this?

HM: [00:13:58] Well the women, the few women I spoke to there, they would just say, you know, the rape. That that was one thing that they kept repeating over and over again, you know. I can't go out. What if I am raped? And then the men who we spoke to, they keep saying, what about our homes? What about our ancestral lands? If the war happened and it's over and we can go back to our ancestral lands, we might be willing to forgive and forget because you know we can say let bygones be bygones and we can try to pick up our lives again. But we've lost family members, we've lost relatives, we want to go back out but now we're going to be sharing the land with the same people who committed these crimes. So that's the situation right now we're having in Darfur.

IT: [00:14:39] Hiba given everything you've seen and everything you know about the Darfur region of Sudan, what's next?

HM: [00:14:47] Well last year the U.N. mission, the U.N.- African U.N. hybrid mission that was there was downsized. So in the next two years effectively that mission will be gone. So they've already started handing over some sites to the government and people are quite concerned about that. They're saying you know what happens when the U.N. goes? To answer your question, what's next for Darfur is basically what's next for these people, you know. Where are they going to get security from? There's, there's no more U.N. for them. There's no more U.N. peacekeepers that have protected them. There's there's going to be no more peacekeeping force.

IT: [00:15:28] There are obviously more problems than just fighting though. I mean up until October, Sudan was under U.S. sanctions. What sort of impact has that had on this and in some ways do you feel it is leading this push towards some sort of peace settlement or is it an entirely separate issue?

HM: [00:15:47] Well it's it's funny that you brought that up. When the sanctions were lifted last year in October, I went to Sudan shortly after that and I spoke to traders and we spoke to people and it was very surprising to see that instead of the currency getting stronger and things getting cheaper in the market and trade being more open, things were actually getting more expensive. And in January there were protests in different parts of Sudan that led to some people being injured, some people being killed. And it was all because the economy was getting bad and Sudan had to devalue its currency, it had to increase austerity measures on government officials.

HM: [00:16:24] And when I was there this time around, it hasn't changed. In fact, it's actually gotten worse. People can't withdraw money from the banks because the country was running out of cash and they had to print more cash, which results in inflation. What's driving them to try to negotiate for a peace settlement is that the U.S. also puts that on a terror list. And when the sanctions were lifted, Sudan was not lifted off the terror list. And what they're trying to do right now is trying to negotiate with the U.S. to show that they have improved and that they shouldn't be on the terror list, that they're fighting terrorism, that they're fighting human trafficking and that they're not fighting a conflict on their soil. So for them to prove that they're not fighting a conflict, there has to be a concrete peace agreement between the Sudanese government and the opposition.

IT: [00:17:07] As somebody who comes from this part of the world, as somebody who's lived there, somebody who's been reporting on it for a very long time, where do you see things in terms of a lasting peace? Do you think it's possible?

HM: [00:17:23] I'm cautiously optimistic, but what we're going to be looking at 10 years from now is we're going to realize that the number did not stop at three hundred thousand. And we're going to realize that maybe whether, whether, maybe the International Criminal Court was right and genocide was committed. Maybe they weren't right. But what we're going to realize is that you know some some disaster happened right in front of our eyes and we were not able to pay attention just because you know it happened in separate places at separate times in separate methods.

HM: [00:17:53] A gang rape here and a woman died. And somebody died there due to starvation because of the conflict. And somebody was directly killed in another part. And it was all in different ways that we were not able to put that data together. But when we do manage to do that someday, we're going to realize that the numbers were more than three hundred thousand. And it's going to be staggering. Whatever we're looking at right now is just the tip of the iceberg because we stopped at a certain point, we stopped counting. We stopped looking. We stopped analyzing because there was no way to be able to gather the data. There resources are just simply not there Imtiaz.

IT: [00:18:27] Basically what you're saying is that even if by chance they achieve some sort of peace agreement in Juba or later down the road, because we haven't acknowledged the fact that many more people have died than has been recorded, that unless that's dealt with, the issue of Darfur and the trauma of Darfur will not be resolved. Even if some sort of peace agreement is reached.

HM: [00:18:53] Well the issue of Darfur might be resolved, but the trauma is a completely different thing. So even if they do manage to solve the issue itself, the trauma that is that that has resulted because of this conflict, the psychological damage, the social damage that it has done, that would be very hard to fix unless actual justice is served. Unless people find ways to come together, confront the truth. Let's put it this way, look at the Rwandan genocide. They, they make sure they brought together people and they made sure that they were able to heal to be able to get over that trauma. And that's one thing that is lacking here. People are not given the chance to grieve properly. They're not given proper closure. And for them that's going to be an open wound that could be passed on through generations. And you have the issue coming out all over again and another conflict to deal with.

IT: [00:19:40] Hiba Morgan, thank you very much.

HM: [00:19:42] Thank you. It was a pleasure.

IT: [00:19:51] Officials told Hiba that they're still hoping they can bring all sides together, rebels and Sudan's Omar al-Bashir, for peace talks on Darfur. But at the time of this recording, nothing's been scheduled.

IT: [00:20:08] That's it for us this week on The Take. There's a link in the show description of this episode. It's for a survey where you can tell us your thoughts on the show. Jasmin Baoumy produced this episode. She had production help from Morgan Waters, Kyana Moghadam, Jordan Marie Bailey and me, Imtiaz Tyab. The show's lead producer is Graelyn Brashear and the sound designer was Meradith Hoddinott. Special thanks to Hiba Morgan. We'll be back next week.