July 22, 2005
Sudan: Welcome to Khartoum
BY Cassandra Herrman
Women and children displaced in Darfur, Sudan.
The dust-up in Khartoum between Sudanese security guards and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's staff is more than a diplomatic faux pas. It reveals once again how inept and unconcerned the Sudanese regime can be when it comes to world opinion. Roughing up Condi's communications director and dragging NBC's Andrea Mitchell from a press event won't exactly improve the image of a regime blamed for genocide and for crushing dissent.
The confrontation could not have happened in a more headline-grabbing way -- occurring during Rice's official visit to President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir in the presidential palace. Rice, of course, was furious and demanded an apology. After leaving the meeting and flying to Darfur to inspect a refugee camp, she received a phone call from Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail who apologized for the treatment of her delegation and the press corps. But I was struck by the excuse the foreign minister made -- that the incident was the fault of a few rogue guards. It reminded me of how casually he had dismissed the charge of genocide when reporter Amy Costello and I interviewed him last year for FRONTLINE/World. "War is war," Ismail told us.
From everything I've witnessed in Sudan, after weeks of reporting there, the manhandling of Rice's entourage is business as usual for the authoritarian regime in Khartoum: act with impunity and apologize, sort of, later.
It's been more than six months since Amy Costello and I were in Darfur for FRONTLINE/World to report our story The Quick and the Terrible." Since then, conditions have worsened in a conflict that's now in its third year. The death toll has risen to between 200,000 and 300,000 by some estimates -- there are now more than 1.8 million uprooted people living in camps. Hundreds of thousands more have fled to neighboring Chad.
"As the situation has deteriorated, nothing substantial has been done to stop the violence. Even though a year has passed since Colin Powell first declared Darfur a genocide."
I'd been to refugee camps in other countries but I'd never witnessed displacement on such a mass scale. In Darfur, there were tents as far as the eye could see and in every region I visited. At the time, many aid workers told us the situation had stabilized, both in terms of food distribution and medical care. Now, according to the U.N.'s World Food Program, more than half the population of Darfur can no longer feed itself, and getting food supplies to people has become increasingly risky with looting and attacks on aid convoys and relief workers.
When we were in Darfur, I had a hard time imagining how so many displaced people would ever be able to return home to a normal life. With the fighting unabated and more villages destroyed, a return to their farms and a peaceful life appears even more remote.
As the situation has deteriorated, nothing substantial has been done to stop the violence. Even though a year has passed since Colin Powell first declared Darfur a "genocide." Even though U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, in a visit to Sudan this spring, described life for the residents of Darfur as "close to hell on earth." Even though there has been increased news coverage.
To his credit, The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes frequent editorials about the unspeakable atrocities in Darfur. In one recent dispatch, Kristof wrote that fleeing villagers described how nine boys were "seized by the Janjaweed [the Arab militias], stripped naked and tied up, their noses and ears cut off and their eyes gouged out. They were then shot dead and left near a public well. Nearby villagers got the message and fled."
I find it hard to reconcile how atrocities like this can continue for year after year -- documented by U.N. and State Department investigations -- and be allowed to go on with no end in sight.
Men are conspicuously absent from the camps.
It's particularly painful for me to read about increased violence in places we visited last year during filming.
One of the most disturbing attacks took place in the town of Labado, a two-hour drive on dirt tracks from Nyala, the capital of South Darfur. When we traveled through Labado and stopped to talk to a young Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) fighter, the town was quiet. There had been some attacks along the road and in nearby villages but things were relatively peaceful. Yet just a month later, when SLA fighters ambushed government troops near Labado, the military struck back with characteristic brute force, lashing the town with helicopter gunships and mortar fire. More than 30,000 civilians fled the area and Labado, like so much of Darfur, became a ghost town overnight.
A few hours further south of Labado is Muhajiriya, where we met with Commander Hassan, a regional leader of the SLA. In recent months, Muhajiriya has seen a sharp increase in violence, revealing a sobering shift in the political alliances in Darfur -- rebel factions that were previously aligned have now split. The Sudanese Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) have begun clashing over territory and Muhajiriya has become a key battlefield.
What is most disturbing about this new development is the toll on civilians. Not only are they caught in the crossfire between the government and rebels but now they are caught between rebel factions.
I recall the many camps we'd seen around Muhajariya, camps conspicuously absent of men. When we stopped to talk to a group of women and Amy asked how many had lost men to the war -- brothers, husbands, sons -- nearly all raised their hands. Commander Hassan had proudly claimed that the SLA was protecting these people, and yet with the recent violence, I wonder what has become of these women we met. The United Nations recently declared Muhajiriya a "no-go" zone for U.N. staff, further isolating those who most need help.
Nearly 2 million people are housed in camps in Darfur.
The most glaring example of how little has changed since we reported from Darfur is the negligible increase in African Union troops monitoring the ceasefire. When we filmed an A.U. deployment at the El Fasher airport, there were less than a thousand troops on the ground. The teams we traveled with had just gotten car radios and moved into their new base. But there was great hope then that the number of peacekeepers would significantly increase in coming months and that their mandate would be expanded to allow them to protect civilians.
Today there are only 2,300 African Union troops in Darfur and they can still do little more than monitor a nearly defunct ceasefire.
There has been some progress: the European Union, the United States, Canada, Britain and others agreed in May to contribute an additional US$300 million to provide logistics, communications and other support for the African Union troops and the goal is to increase the forces in Darfur to 7,700 before the end of September. But that deadline is fast approaching.
On the political front, a heavily anticipated U.N. Commission report on Darfur released in January found widespread evidence of war crimes, the killing of civilians, torture and rape, but stopped short of calling the atrocities genocide. The report said individuals responsible may have acted with "genocidal intent."
In response, the U.N. Security Council approved a resolution to prosecute Sudanese war crimes suspects before the International Criminal Court (ICC), the first resolution of its kind. The Bush administration, which has made no secret of its disdain for the world court, at first argued against the resolution but finally agreed not to use its veto. Koffi Annan gave the ICC a list of 51 perpetrators, said to include top Sudanese government and army officials, militia leaders and rebel commanders.
Sudan's government immediately rejected the U.N. resolution and insisted that Sudanese citizens would only be tried in Sudanese courts.
The U.N. Security Council resolution sparked massive demonstrations in Khartoum, where tens of thousands of Sudanese marched through the capital denouncing the United Nations and the United States, shouting "Down, down, U.S.A."
The U.N. action sparked massive demonstrations in Khartoum, where tens of thousands of Sudanese marched through the capital denouncing the United Nations and the United States, shouting "Down, down, U.S.A." The protest was an indication of how unpopular the United States remains in Sudan, at least in Khartoum, and how much opposition there is to Western intervention. There is a history here, as I was reminded when we visited the nearby ruins of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory, bombed by the Clinton administration when it was erroneously said to be an Al Qaeda chemical weapons factory.
The ICC has begun a formal inquiry into suspected war crimes in Darfur, but the Sudanese government remains hostile to the investigation and so far no one has been punished.
There was a glimmer of hope in early July when John Garang, the leader of rebels in southern Sudan who had been fighting a 21-year civil war against the government, accepted his post as the country's new vice-president. A result of a U.S.-brokered peace deal last January, Garang's new role is a symbol of reconciliation, ending a bitter North-South, Muslim-Christian conflict. But that accomplishment has been soured by the ongoing violence in Darfur.
Khartoum's defiance of world opinion on Darfur also led to the recent arrest of two senior officials of the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders. The officials were interrogated about a report the group released in March revealing that MSF doctors had collected medical evidence of 500 rapes in Darfur in just over four months. The report didn't accuse the Sudanese government per se, but it did say that more than 80 percent of victims reported their attackers were soldiers or members of government-supported militia.
The MSF officials were charged with spying, publishing false information and undermining Sudanese society. A few weeks later, Mustafa Osman Ismail, the officially designated apologist, announced that the charges had been dropped.
Meanwhile, as the fifth round of African Union-mediated talks between the Khartoum government and the Darfur rebels plods along in Nigeria, President Bush recently broke months of silence to reiterate his belief that genocide is taking place in Darfur.
At a White House photo op with South African President Thabo Mbeki, Bush said of Darfur: "This is a serious situation."
Producer and camerawoman Cassandra Herrman has reported for FRONTLINE/World from Nigeria, Venezuela, Kenya, South Africa and Sudan.