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Genocide may be underway in Darfur — again

There is mounting evidence that an ongoing campaign of ethnic cleaning in the Darfur region of Western Sudan may cross the threshold to genocide. Again.

Over the past several weeks, a number of human rights organizations, international humanitarian NGOs and genocide prevention experts have warned about the increasing possibility of genocide in Darfur. Among those whose job it is to monitor such things, the risk of another genocide in Darfur looks to be suddenly acute. 

The current disaster has its roots in the 2003-2004 crisis, in which the United Nations estimates that 300,000 non-Arab Darfuri civilians were killed in a genocide perpetrated by the Arab-dominated government of Sudan and local Arab militias, known as the Janjaweed. The similarities between 20 years ago and the patterns of violence today are striking. The perpetrators of this calamity are the successors to the Janjaweed militia, which have since been rebranded as the Rapid Support Forces. The victims, again, are non-Arab Darfuris. And like the early days of the Darfur genocide, most of the information about the unfolding calamity is coming from refugees who have fled over the border to Chad. 

The violence today is occurring in the context of a civil war that broke out in Sudan in April. Since then, over 380,000 people have fled to Chad. The majority of these refugees belong to the non-Arab Masalit tribe. Over the course of three days in June, tens of thousands of Masalit refugees arrived in Adre, Chad, where the aid group Medicines Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders has a hospital. The stories shared by these refugees suggest they were targeted explicitly on the basis of their ethnicity. “‘All slaves must stand up and if you want to live, leave Sudan because Sudan is for Arabs,’” one victim recounted his tormentors saying. “We started running and the armed men were shooting at people at random … Everywhere I looked, I saw death.” Several other similar accounts were compiled by MSF and sent to reporters on August 1.

Many fled a rampage in the Western Darfur city of El Geneia, where in the early morning hours of June 15 CNN found evidence that the Rapid Support Forces and allied militias began hunting down Masalit civilians, tens of thousands of whom raced towards the Chad border. In one grisly scene recounted by witness testimony and backed up with satellite imagery, RSF gunmen stood at the banks of a rushing river, shooting civilians as they crossed.

Meanwhile, through interviews with victims and survivors, Human Rights Watch documented 78 rapes of Masalit women by mostly RSF soldiers and their allies. Again, the testimony of survivors reveals a potential genocidal motive. “The survivors all said that the attackers explicitly mentioned their ethnic identity and used ethnic slurs about the Masalit or non-Arabs more generally,” says the report, released August 15. Some victims told Human Rights Watch that their attackers deliberately sought to impregnate them. “‘We should rape the Nuba women until they give birth to our babies,’” one victim recounted her rapist saying.

In addition to these first-hand accounts, the UN’s Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights confirmed a mass grave containing the remains of 87 Masalit killed by RSF in the middle of June. Satellite imagery has documented the extensive destruction of Masalit villages in Western Darfur. Human Rights Watch, notes that at least seven villages burned to the ground in West Darfur in recent weeks.

All this mounting evidence makes it possible to infer a pattern of violence that may fit the international definition of genocide, which is a unique crime under international law. The systematic killing of a large number of individuals that belong to the same ethnic, religious or similar group does not necessarily constitute genocide. It is certainly a crime against humanity, but genocide implies something more sinister than just killing many people from the same group. Rather, what distinguishes genocide in international law is that the predicate crimes against humanity (killing, rape, forcible displacement, etc.) are pursued with the intent to “to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, in whole or in part, as such.” In other words, to establish that a genocide is underway, you need to find evidence that crimes are committed with the specific goal of wiping out a group.

Genocidal intent is a high bar to cross. Thus far, no major international human rights group has made that declaration. But we are still at the early stages of gathering evidence. And if present trends continue, we may soon speaking of the “Second Darfur Genocide.” 

Mark Leon Goldberg is the Editor-in-Chief of the Global Dispatches newsletter and podcast and of UN Dispatch.

Tags Africa Chad Darfur Genocide Human rights refugees Sudan United Nations