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The desert and the
rugged bush country of Darfur, a region in western Sudan, is
littered with hundreds of burned-out, abandoned villages --
representing what some call one of the worst humanitarian crises
in the world and what others call genocide. In the fall of 2004,
FRONTLINE/World correspondent Amy Costello traveled to
Sudan, the largest country in Africa, to investigate the role
of the Sudanese government in the death of 70,000 of its own
people and the displacement of a million more.
In El Fasher, the capital of the north Darfur region, Costello (who is also Africa correspondent for the public radio program The World, on PRI) joins peacekeeping troops from the two-year-old African Union. The international community has expressed concern about the fighting in Darfur, but only the African Union has responded by sending soldiers, even if it is but a token force. While on patrol, they come across the remnants of a village that has been attacked by the Janjaweed, the Arab fighters who are responsible for much of the killing.
A villager who has been hiding in the mountains for months explains that the Janjaweed killed 18 people in their first attack on the village, some of whom were burned alive in their homes when the Janjaweed torched buildings at random. In later attacks, they killed more people, looted livestock and poisoned the wells to prevent anyone from returning.
For years, Arab nomads and African tribesman known as the Fur lived side by side in relative peace, but a prolonged drought increased tensions and competition over resources between nomads and farmers. "The government sided with the Arab nomads," Costello says, "and groups like the Janjaweed became more bold in their grabs for land."
In a camp for displaced Darfuris, Costello meets several women who have been driven from their home villages. "We're afraid for our lives," one tells her. "We're scared of everyone. How can we know who is who? They are all wearing khaki and killing people ... right in front of your eyes they'll kill your husband, kill your son, kill your mother, kill your brother." And the women are adamant that their villages also were bombed by planes. In Darfur, the only warring party with planes is the government of Sudan.
Back at the base of the African Union troops, a South African officer says that large swathes of Darfur are controlled by rebels who oppose the Islamic government in Khartoum. Costello notes that the current crisis in Darfur was ignited two years earlier when rebels attacked government forces stationed at the El Fasher airport.
Costello and camerawoman/co-producer Casey Herrman venture into rebel territory to meet with members of the main rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA). An 18-year-old recruit tells Costello that he joined the SLA after the Janjaweed attacked his village. "They even tossed babies into the fire," he remembers. An SLA commander declares that the government is conducting an ethnic cleansing of Africans in Darfur.
The word "Janjaweed," Costello explains, is an insult in Arabic that was previously used to describe outlaws and bandits on horseback in Darfur, but now refers more broadly to the pro-government Arab militias.
Going in search of the Janjaweed, Costello visits a camel market in Kabkabiya, where she spots men in white robes and in unmarked government uniforms who fit the description. She manages to arrange a nighttime interview with a local Janjaweed lawyer who claims that the Janjaweed are a "figment of the imagination," adding that maybe she means a group called the Border Intelligence Division in Mistiriyah.
The next day Costello travels with the African Union troops to meet these mysterious combatants from the Seventh Brigade -- the so-called Border Intelligence Division. They are not anxious to be filmed, but Costello and Herrman keep their camera running anyway. Costello asks two of the local officers where their orders come from. They say "the government," then abruptly end the interview.
But when Costello returns to the base, a commander of the African Union troops explains that these men are the Janjaweed, regardless of what their defenders might say, and that the men of the Seventh Brigade are proud of their nickname: "the quick and the terrible."
Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan, is the seat of an Islamic military government that backs the Arab militias in Darfur. This government, which is eager to export oil, has been sanctioned by the United Nations for its human rights violations. Osama bin Laden was welcome in Khartoum until Western pressure forced Sudan to expel him.
In Khartoum, Costello meets with the foreign minister, who claims that the bandits and killers who are members of the Janjaweed have nothing to do with the government. But he also says that the government is entitled to use military force to "clean" all rebel-controlled areas.
In the summer of 2004, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell toured the refugee camps of Darfur with the Sudanese foreign minister. A team of American investigators stayed behind to interview people in the camps, and a few months later, Powell testified before the U.S. Congress that genocide was being committed in Darfur.
The foreign minister tells Costello that the term "genocide" does not apply to Darfur and that Powell made his declaration of genocide because of pressures on President Bush during the presidential campaign. He also states that the term "genocide" does not apply to Darfur.
A short drive outside the capital, Costello discovers a sprawling camp that shelters displaced Christians from the south, where 2 million people have died in a civil war with the Arab north that has raged for more than 20 years. The camp, Costello notes, "looks remarkably similar to the camps I'd seen in Darfur." As in Darfur, government bombing and armed Arab militias forced these people to flee their homes in the south.
Costello then meets with Ghazi Suleiman, a human rights lawyer in Khartoum who says that the current crisis in Darfur is not a tribal conflict but a struggle for political power -- it is about who will rule the country and how its resources (including oil wealth) will be divided. He says the only solution is for Sudan to become more democratic.
Together they go to Khartoum University, where students are protesting against the government's war in Darfur. If the students were to voice their frustration outside the walls of the university, they tell Costello, they would go to jail.
Costello points out that the United States has been brokering peace talks between the government and southern rebels (a preliminary peace accord was signed December 31, 2004), but that the violence in Darfur has overshadowed the process. Ghazi Atabani, a former government diplomat, warns that "if the United States is keen not to have another hotbed for terrorism, they have to realize that if the center of authority in Sudan collapses, that means the 'Somalization' of Sudan." Another failed state, especially in a country as large as Sudan, could unhinge that entire region of Africa.
Just before Costello leaves Darfur, she visits a camp for
displaced Darfuris that was bulldozed the night before by government
police. African Union troops stood by during the attack because
they're not authorized to protect civilians, even from their
own government. As Costello walks through the devastated camp,
talking to angry and frightened people who no longer have even
the minimal safety and shelter of a camp, she can't help but
feel that a solution to the suffering in Darfur is still remote.
Although the U.N. team investigating the charge of genocide
will soon issue a report, Costello wonders how "any words, even
one as powerful as genocide, could fix such a broken place."
FRONTLINE/World correspondents report from the shadows
of mass murder in Chad, Cambodia, Rwanda and Guatemala.
Question of Genocide"
Amy Costello reports from Chad and Sudan in September 2004.
Following the trail of mass graves in Cambodia.
Courts in Rwanda dole out punishment to war criminals.
The legacy of a massacre 20 years later in Guatemala.
ASSOCIATED PRODUCTION MUSIC, LLC
U.S. SENATE PRODUCTION SERVICES
Produced in association with the UC
BERKELEY GRADUATE SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM
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