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January 28, 2008

Sands Shifting in Darfur Genocide

In Darfur, the sound of approaching horses can break a mother’s heart. It’s the sound of Janjaweed militiamen raiding a village, starting fires, murdering children. It’s the sound of imminent rape. It’s the sound of impossible decisions—pull a child from a burning hut, or run away while there’s still time with the children who have been spared.

For nearly five years, in the western Sudan region of Darfur, Janjaweed militiamen have committed atrocities and genocide that have gone unthwarted and unpunished. If the world does not take action against the Sudanese government, “The evidence of these crimes will be swallowed by the sands of the Sahara,” warned John Prendergast, human rights activist and author of Not on Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond. In a recent talk given at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Prendergast offered strategies for halting the genocide, as well as reasons to believe that the tide is turning.

In 2003, when climate change and desertification prompted migrations and small-scale insurrections by non-Arabic Darfuri herders, the Sudanese government supported and armed a paramilitary force of Arab-descended militiamen to stop the insurgencies. These militiamen, known as the Janjaweed, are, according to Prendergast, a group of “loosely organized bandits who believe their race superior.” Prendergast compared the Janjaweed to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), but with even more government support in the form of weapons and consent.

The result of the Sudanese government’s strategy has been anarchy—“exactly the intended result,” said Prendergast. Sudan’s sponsorship of Janjaweed attacks on civilian populations is a classic counter-insurgency action, he said, the “oldest military strategy in the book.” He referred to it as, “Drain the water to catch the fish,” a tactic that involves wiping out rebellious populations so that the rebellion withers on the vine. “It’s murderous,” he said, “it’s megalomaniacal, but it’s not irrational, and it’s not random.”

For the most part, the world community, and especially the U. S., has stayed silent on Darfur. The genocide began at roughly the same time that the U.S. entered into the conflict with Iraq. In addition, as the U.S. military began its search for al Qaeda terrorist Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, President George W. Bush’s administration decided to build positive relationships with the Sudanese government, believing that the Sudanese leaders possessed valuable information about the terrorist operation.

But now, five years later, Prendergast has reason for hope—three reasons, in fact. He cited the beginnings of trans-Atlantic cooperation between the U.S. and Europe, particularly the governments of France and Great Britain. Also, President Bush met this month with U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan Rich Williamson, giving Ambassador Williamson his “full support” on Darfur. And lastly, China, which is the largest investor in the Sudanese oil industry, has become concerned with its own image as the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing draws near. International efforts to tag it the “Genocide Olympics” have compelled China to quietly pressure the Sudanese government for change.

Prendergast recounted the words of a Darfuri mother who’d watched Janjaweed militiamen murder two of her four children—one by fire and the other by gunshots—during a raid of her village: “Now that you’ve heard this story,” she said, “you must do something.”

“Stopping Genocide in Darfur” was held at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on January 22, 2008, and it was sponsored by the J.B. Grant International Health Society, the Health and Human Rights Group and the Student Assembly

—Christine Grillo