With international attention focused so relentlessly on the referenda in South Sudan and Abyei?scheduled to be held less than four weeks from now (on January 9, 2011)?it was all too predictable that the continuing human catastrophe in Darfur would be rendered increasingly invisible. Indifference has begun to replace engagement with the Darfur crisis, as peace talks under African Union and Qatari auspices make no progress, reporting from the ground (including from human rights organizations) has become almost nonexistent, and aid organizations are unable to speak out about humanitarian conditions because of UN timidity. We are thus without any comprehensive chronicling of the massive human misery and genocidal destruction that has gone on for almost eight years.
But Darfur has not been entirely eclipsed, largely because the voices of Darfuri survivors continue to make their way to Sudanese news websites and human rights organizations, including the Sudan Tribune, Radio Dabanga, and the African Center for Justice and Peace Studies (ACPJS). None of these operates inside Sudan; the few workers for Radio Dabanga courageous enough to try to remain in Khartoum have now been arrested by security forces. But all these external sources have surprisingly good access to Darfuris on the ground by means of a range of electronic communication, and in my experience have proved consistently reliable (as opposed to statements by rebel groups, which often turn out to be exaggerations). Darfuris who have fled the region are also a source of news and intelligence, for those with contacts in this embattled diaspora.
An especially revealing example of the kind of news we get only from Darfuris, as opposed to the feckless UN/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), is the reporting on a September 2, 2010 massacre at Tabarat village. Tabarat is some seventeen miles from a UNAMID post at Tawilla and only fifty miles from el-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur and the primary location for both UNAMID and Khartoum?s military forces. Even now, there are conflicting accounts of how many Fur men and boys from Tabarat were executed by the Janjaweed militia during the assault, how many others were killed while fleeing, how many were seriously wounded, and how many of these later succumbed to their wounds. But a reasonable estimate may be made by collating assessments from the omda (tribal leader) of Tabarat, from Radio Dabanga, from ACPJS, from interviews with the Tabarat survivors by Reuters? Opheera McDoom, and from a press release from Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which runs a clinic in nearby Tawilla.
What such collation suggests is that more than fifty people were killed, virtually all men and boys, many shot in the head at point-blank range; those seeking to escape were also shot, and many remain unaccounted for. Some of the victims were tied to vehicles and dragged until they died. Those who succeeded in escaping?more than 500 families?made their way to Tawilla. There they desperately sought to have the unoccupied UNAMID forces rescue the wounded and retrieve the dead. But as an internal and confidential memorandum from UNAMID acknowledges,
[The UNAMID commander] advised the relatives [of the Tabarat victims] that prior approval from El Fasher Headquarters is needed before proceeding to the place [Tabarat] and with that they were advised to be back to Tawilla Base tomorrow morning for possible medical evacuation movement to Tabarat market once it has been approved by the higher Headquarters.
But no such evacuation occurred; and six days after the massacre (on September 8) UNAMID announced in a terse briefing: ?On 7 September, a UNAMID [mission] on its way from El Fasher to Tarabat was stopped by a Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) convoy and were informed by the commanding officer not to return before two days due to ongoing SAF operations in the area.?
The ?ongoing operations? certainly included sanitizing the scene of the massacre by moving bodies and other evidence, doing all that was possible to obscure the nature of what had occurred. The newly appointed UN Expert for Human Rights in Sudan, Chande Othman, called on the Khartoum regime to conduct ?as a matter of urgency a thorough and transparent investigation into the attack on civilians in [Tabarat] North Darfur. This incident should be investigated thoroughly and impartially and those responsible should be brought to justice.?
Of course no such investigation by the Khartoum regime has been undertaken or even begun, despite the fact that Tabarat villagers know precisely who their attackers were. Unless spectacularly naïve, Othman should have known this would be the case. His urging should have been directed to the UN Security Council, which has said nothing of consequence about the Tabarat massacre despite receiving a confidential report on Tabarat from UNAMID, which had assumed the task of investigating the atrocity. But when I recently questioned the UNAMID Director for Public Communications in Khartoum about the investigation, he informed me that though a report had been completed in the days after the massacre and forwarded UN Headquarters, it was still not publicly available and there were no plans to make it so. Specific questions about UNAMID access to Tabarat after the massacre went unanswered. We know that a week after the massacre UNAMID had still not reached Tabarat because of Khartoum?s obstruction. On the basis of the response to me by the UNAMID spokesperson, it?s not clear that UNAMID ever succeeded in actually investigating the site of the massacre, though it was certainly able to interview survivors, whose stories would have strongly suggested the compelling need for thorough and authoritative investigation.
But UNAMID under the dysfunctional leadership of Nigeria?s Ibrahim Gambari has again and again proved all too willing to accommodate Khartoum; it avoids all confrontation and, as Tabarat demonstrates, refuses to make public damning evidence of atrocity crimes. Even UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in the wake of the Tabarat attack and Khartoum?s obstruction of UNAMID, could only bring himself to say in a press conference,
In some cases it is true that there was some difficulty in getting smooth administrative support from the Government of Sudan. There is a Status of Forces Agreement [guaranteeing freedom of movement to UNAMID], of course. The Sudanese government should be faithful to provide the necessary support and cooperation. In reality, when we are not able to get such support, it really constrains the movement of our people and peacekeepers.
The insipid fecklessness of these remarks vitiates their apparent purpose: Khartoum can only conclude that an atrocity crime as egregious as the Tabarat massacre will prompt no meaningful response?from any part of the UN system. It signals to both Darfuri civil society and rebel groups that they should expect nothing from UNAMID or the UN leadership or the Security Council. This works directly against the success of any imaginable peace process for Darfur.
Darfuri doubts are only encouraged by the Obama administration?s recent announcement that in seeking to reach a deal with Khartoum on the Southern referenda, U.S. diplomats have been instructed to ?decouple the Darfur issue,? at least with respect to the largest carrot that can be put on the table: removing Khartoum from the U.S. State Department?s list of terrorist-sponsoring nations. This is a disastrous signal to Khartoum that our commitment to a resolution of the crisis in Darfur is diminishing?whatever unctuous declarations to the contrary by ?senior administration officials.? It is also deeply cynical. The Obama administration knows?as does the world by virtue of diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks?that Khartoum continues to support the terrorist organization Hamas, not only by providing a safe haven in Khartoum but by attempting to serve as a conduit for Iranian arms destined for Gaza. Canada, the European Union, Japan, and many other countries still consider Hamas a terrorist organization. The Obama administration?having come so belatedly to appreciate the difficulty of securing the Southern referenda?is now prepared not only to ?decouple? Darfur, but to ignore the reality of Khartoum?s continuing support for Hamas.
Darfur has been betrayed by the international community in every way, as even aid efforts become increasingly subject to Khartoum?s cruel attenuation of humanitarian reach and capacity. Georg Charpentier, the UN?s senior aid official for Darfur, continues to withhold key data and reports on such critical matters as malnutrition (we know this by way of remarkable statements from Nils Kastberg, head of UNICEF in Darfur). Ibrahim Gambari, who was a well-chronicled disaster as the UN Secretary General?s special representative to Burma (WikiLeaks cable revelations are again highly telling), has expanded his résumé of malfeasance in Darfur; and perversely, he has sought an even greater role in the Doha peace negotiations, despite the conspicuously unfulfilled civilian protection mandate of UNAMID, which he nominally leads.
There will in all likelihood be many more Tabarats in the coming months. Presumably the Obama administration expects as much; it continues to use the word ?genocide? to describe the human destruction in the region. And as the seasoned Reuters reporter who interviewed the survivors of Tabarat observed, ?the attack was reminiscent of the early years of the counter-insurgency operation in Sudan?s west,? when genocidal violence was at its greatest. But the world?s knowledge of future atrocity crimes hangs by the slender thread of reports from the ground to the Darfuri diaspora and a very few news and human rights outlets. Khartoum has begun, in its growing military campaign in Darfur, to cut this final thread.