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Reflections on the 20th anniversary of the start of genocide in Darfur

By Niemat Ahmadi

Niemat Ahmadi is the founder of Darfur Women Action Group, a women-led anti atrocities nonprofit that aims to build awareness, mobilize, educate, and empower survivors of the Darfur genocide.

When I fled Sudan 18 years ago, I never thought I would be writing about the devastating genocide 20 years since it has started. Today, the situation is not much different, as millions remain in camps and can’t return to their land because their attackers have yet to be apprehended or held accountable. I was forced to flee the horror, leaving behind loved ones. It was not an easy decision, but they insisted I must leave. They told me that because I was outspoken, if I stayed, we may all be killed. However, if I fled to safety, I could be their voice. It was the faith and the hope of the people of Darfur that gave me the courage to walk out and carry on.

The genocide only became known to the outside world in 2003, making it one of the first genocides of the 21st century.

The violence in Darfur has since escalated into a full-blown humanitarian crisis. The Janjaweed militia, along with the Sudanese Armed Forces, have systematically destroyed the areas inhabited by the indigenous African tribes of the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa. The Janjaweed have been indiscriminately killing civilians, burning villages, poisoning water sources, looting properties, and using rape as a weapon of war. Conservative estimates hold that nearly 400,000 Darfuris died by 2006. Recent reports estimate nearly three million have been displaced and around 2.5 million people have been residing in internally displaced camps while still facing attacks.

The outrage and mobilization forced the international community to swiftly take measure.

After the Darfur genocide became known to the world, the international community motivated ordinary citizens, activists, policymakers, celebrities, human rights laureates, and interfaith groups to unite and call for action to end the genocide. Because of the pressure created by the power of people, humanitarian response started to flow to Darfur, saving millions of lives in the early days. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has launched investigations into allegations of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity committed in Darfur. The ICC has issued seven arrest warrants against government and Janjaweed leaders responsible for the crimes committed in Darfur, including the former president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir. However, the ICC dropped one of the cases due to a lack of evidence. The cases that are currently being pursued are those of al-Bashir, Ali Kushyab, Abdel Hussein, Abdhallah Banda, and Ahmed Haroun. Following the indictment by the ICC, al-Bashir’s brutality increased with escalated attacks. Darfur saw an increase in the bombing of villages. In addition, al-Bashir expelled 13 of the most effective international humanitarian agencies providing lifesaving aid. Darfur became completely isolated and was blocked from any international media or diplomatic missions. The international attention on Darfur started to fade away and Darfur fell out of the news. The suffering of those who live inside Darfur was unimaginable.

Consequently, funding for both humanitarian and advocacy efforts for Darfur has declined. Eventually, I established the Darfur Women Action Group in hopes of bringing Darfur to the forefront of the international community’s agenda. With a self-funded effort, we started organizing around the clock by holding rallies and conferences. We have advocated in international and regional forums for protection, peace, and justice for genocide victims left behind in Darfur.

In 2019, al-Bashir was ousted from power in response to months of protests. A transitional government was formed but plans for a civilian-led government vanished when the Sudanese military took control of Sudan’s government in a 2021 coup d’état. Any hopes that peace would be restored in Darfur were crushed, as violence continues to escalate at an alarming rate. The interim arrangements promoted two generals who have directed and administered the genocidal machine in Darfur. While the interim arrangements have not changed the reality on the ground in Darfur, the surrender of Ali Kushayb in 2020 to the ICC was a light at the end of the tunnel for the Darfur genocide victims. Although this significant milestone came so late, it has provided an opportunity for the victims to tell their story for the first time in a court of justice and has recognized their dignity.

Today, in spite of al-Bashir’s ousting, his totalitarian regime remains very present and continues to carry out their genocidal policies against the indigenous tribes who have been targeted and singled out for extermination for twenty years. The impunity that the perpetrators of the genocide enjoy sends a wrong message that gross violations will go unpunished. In one West Darfur village, reports indicate over 200 people were killed in two hours and 198 people wounded in recent attacks in April 2022. The number of internally displaced persons in Darfur has dramatically increased over the past two years, with horrifying living conditions abound. According to ACAPS, an estimated 442,000 new displacements were reported during 2021, five times more than the figures reported in the previous year, and the highest since 2014. The UN has reported over 80 percent of the estimated three million displaced in Sudan still live in Darfur, with more than 200 incidents of violence reported in Darfur in 2021. Women and children are among the most impacted and remain vulnerable to severe health conditions. Children born and raised in camps have known nothing but violence and strife. The level of trauma among survivors cannot be expressed in words.

Is it possible for the genocide in Darfur to ever end? The answer is yes. If we can mobilize the masses and empower them to speak up, they can compel their leaders and prompt action. Ending genocide becomes difficult when the world starts treating it with a diminished sense of urgency. To resolve it once and for all, Darfur and Sudan need an atrocity prevention approach that prioritizes accountability for those responsible before peace can be negotiated. History tells us that a genocidaire will never make peace with their victims. Without accountability for the perpetrators and justice for the victims, Sudan will never be transformed.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.