In 2004 I visited refugee camps in Darfur, in the remote and arid western region of Sudan. There I interviewed terrified families who had fled from their villages, attacked by aircraft from their own government. The refugees told me the aerial bombardment was followed by Sudanese troops in armored vehicles working in concert with militias on camel and horseback.
The soldiers killed the men and raped the women, taunting the survivors with a promise they would soon die from a second genocide due to the HIV/AIDS virus with which they were infecting them. The militias screamed racial abuse at the women, calling them slaves, and told them they would make them pregnant, thereby diluting their “inferior” blood.
Put simply, this is what is meant by “ethnic cleansing.” The people I met in the camps were from Darfur’s Black African tribes, and those attacking them were from Arab Sudanese tribes and the Arab government in the capital, Khartoum. Twenty years ago the fundamentalist Islamic regime in Khartoum decided to ethnically cleanse its country of Black Africans. They enlisted the help of Arab nomads in waging war against the Black African tribes in southern Sudan, many of whom are Christian. An estimated 2 million people have died as a consequence. Now it is the turn of the Darfuris to be killed and chased away. The fact that the Dafuris are fellow Muslims seems of no consequence to Khartoum and its proxies.
As I listened to the Darfuri refugees in that pitiful and fearful camp, I could not believe that four years later the terror would still be going on, unchecked. However, 90 percent of the African villages have now been destroyed, and an estimated 200,000 Darfuris are dead. It is thought that 2 million are in refugee camps, but they have no protection from the Sudanese army or its Arab militias that continue to attack and kill at will.
I met one particular woman, Halima, who sticks in my mind. She was 17 years old, and the sole survivor of her family. She had been raped and branded with fire by a Sudanese soldier three weeks before, and she still found it painful to sit down. She asked me to tell the outside world what was happening in Darfur, because no one was listening to their pleas for help against their own government.
“It is so kind of your country to send food to our camp, but this is Africa and we are used to being hungry,” she said. “What we need is for someone to take the guns away from the men who are killing us.”
Although the U.N. Security Council has finally decided to send peacekeepers, only a fraction of those promised have arrived, and they have few vehicles or resources to do their job. Meanwhile, the Sudanese continue to bomb their own citizens with impunity, including the camp where I met Halima four years ago. At the moment it is impossible to get back to the camp, so I do not know if she survived.
Last summer, Waging Peace researcher Anna Schmidt was in neighboring Chad, where many Darfuris fled for safety. To distract the children while she interviewed their mothers, Schmidt handed out paper and crayons, asking the kids to draw her pictures of their lives. The result was 500 drawings showing remarkable and disturbing details about the types of aircraft and vehicles used by the Sudanese, and the systematic method of killing the Darfuri men and boys, and raping, beating and enslaving the women and girls.
The drawings are significant because the Sudanese regime still denies its own involvement in the ethnic cleansing. Khartoum has been careful to exclude the media and human rights agencies, so little photographic evidence of the genocide exists.
The International Criminal Court in The Hague has accepted Waging Peace’s drawings as proof of crimes against humanity, and they will be used in setting the context of the case against the architects of the Darfur genocide, when they eventually face justice.
Waging Peace is back in the camps in Chad right now, trying to organize psychotherapy training for community leaders to learn to become lay counselors, so they can offer the traumatized survivors the help they need. In the absence of adequate professional help, we take the view that teaching skills to local people is the next best way to provide counseling. If you feel able to support our work please e-mail me here. All help is gratefully received.
The Darfuri refugees have told us they feel isolated and forgotten by the world. Our researcher is taking with her drawings and letters of support from young people in the United States, Britain and Canada.
Children at All Saints By-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara are sending their own messages, expressing their sympathy and concern. Schmidt will exhibit them in the camps in Chad so Darfuris can see that people from far away do care about what is happening to them.
“It is hard to overstate the impact these drawings will have on the people in these camps who have lost everything and who live in constant fear of attack,” Schmidt said. “They need to know that although the international diplomats and politicians have abandoned them to their fate, there are people out there who are thinking about them.”
British journalist and part-time Santa Barbara resident Rebecca Tinsley is director of Waging Peace, a London-based nongovernmental organization. To contact her, click here.