During my time as UN Chief in Sudan in 2003-2004, I witnessed the twenty-first century’s first genocide in Darfur. Its hallmarks were a scorched earth policy directed at black African tribes affected through aerial bombardment, and ground assaults including mass rapes by the dreaded Janjaweed, the Arab militia supported by the Sudanese armed forces.
I returned to Sudan early this year, almost a decade later, and travelled 1,000km through its Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile states, close to its Darfur frontier. I saw the malignantly successful Darfur tactics in full play again in Nuba and Blue Nile, except that Khartoum’s military machine is now deploying more modern weaponry such as rockets and missiles as well as landmines and cluster bombs. These have terrorised helpless civilians, causing them to flee to mountain caves in Nuba or bush hideouts in the Blue Nile.
Homesteads, food stores, marketplaces, water wells, schools and clinics have been destroyed. Once-fertile fields burn from the incendiary bombs dropped by Antonov bombers. People forage for roots and berries and the lucky ones manage to eat a meal every couple of days. Every child I saw was malnourished.
Such attacks are also inspired by ethnic hatred. Khartoum refers to Nubans as insects and its Blue Nile citizens as black plastic bags. Its military has been exhorted to cleanse the land of them.
An estimated four million people are affected by Sudan’s many different conflicts. Of these, at least 0.5 million are refugees in neighbouring Chad, South Sudan and Ethiopia. The numbers also include at least 2.5 million people with very limited or no access to humanitarian relief. Additionally, perhaps half a million have died over the past decade. As the world has been preoccupied by Afghanistan, Iraq, the Arab Spring and Syria, Sudan has been burning; in numbers alone, it represents the world’s biggest human rights and humanitarian crisis.
Presiding over the carnage is Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir, the only serving head of state that has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Arrest warrants are out for him, his Defence Minister Abdelrahim Hussein, and his governor of South Kordofan, Ahmed Haroun, nicknamed ‘the Butcher of Nuba’.
The world has watched the crisis deepen and widen, even as the African Union (AU) and UN have tried to negotiate solutions. But Bashir has run rings around the fragmented international community, and reneged on all agreements. Added to the muddle are border-delineation and oil-sharing issues between South Sudan and Sudan that have made life even more hazardous for the long-suffering people at the borderlands.
There can be no peace and stability across the two Sudans unless the long-standing grievances of the ethnically marginalised are addressed. All the conflicts there are inter-connected, and taking a piecemeal approach to them has, so far, simply played along Khartoum’s divide-and-rule tactics. Will the AU summit recognise this and act more smartly?
There is much more that the AU and UN could do. History teaches us that without justice and accountability, peace cannot be made or sustained. So although justice is still to be done in Darfur, there is ample prima facie evidence for additional crimes against humanity in Nuba and the Blue Nile. The AU and UN should formally investigate them so as to consider another referral to the ICC. This will add to the pressure on the Khartoum leaders already indicted for crimes in Darfur.
Diplomatic isolation and wider travel bans would also send Khartoum a strong political signal that business as usual is not possible with a regime headed by indicted war criminals. Economic and trading sanctions, as well as an embargo on arms transfers, would degrade Khartoum’s means for waging war on its own people.
Meanwhile, we have learnt from interventions elsewhere that change is best when it comes from within. The opposition groups – both armed and unarmed – have taken hesitant but welcome steps to unite in crafting a new vision for an inclusive Sudan that respects the rights and dignities of all its citizens on an equal basis. This has brought some hope for the oppressed, and has already rattled Khartoum. More could be done to stimulate the regime to rot from its head downwards and to support political and civil society organisations that will generate new leadership and social values at all levels.
History, however, also teaches that although no regime lasts forever, and that Bashir and his cronies will eventually leave, they are likely to inflict much more suffering before they do so. The people I met in Nuba and the Blue Nile appeared determined to resist Khartoum whatever the cost. But as their homes and fields burn, even they wonder if there would be many of them left to welcome a new dawn. As Nagwa Konda, Director of the Nuba Relief Rehabilitation and Development Organisation, put it: ‘You can’t eat a communiqué; a communiqué can’t protect you from air strikes.’
So the priority for the AU Summiteers, backed by the UN Security Council, is clear: while their political efforts continue, they must endorse the provision of urgent humanitarian assistance by all possible means, including by cross-border operations. Delays in doing so and other obstructions have already cost many lives.
It would be truly ironic that a world in stand-by mode helped Khartoum to complete its grand ethnic cleansing project by letting the people who have managed to survive the bombs and bullets now to perish from hunger and disease.