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Sudan Tribune

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Notes from the Field: A diner with Sudanese defense official

By Refugees International

Darfur, Feb 22, 2005 — “I am on the list,” the Sudanese defense official said, referring to the 51 people that a UN inquiry found might be guilty of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in Darfur.

“How do you know? The names on the list aren’t public.”

“They think that I run the Janjaweed” in this area of Darfur, he said, referring to the mounted Arab militia that has been blamed for much of the violence in Darfur.

This exchange followed a lengthy dinner at which the official and four of his associates hosted three Refugees International advocates over the weekend.

The dinner was remarkable on several levels. First, RI doesn’t often meet with people who think they could be brought before the International Criminal Court or some other international tribunal. Second, such people don’t often seek out RI or other humanitarian organizations for informal discussions. But in this case both RI and the Sudanese defense official had much to say and much to hear. The discussion was long, frank and often heated. We parted by agreeing that peace is necessary in Darfur, but with little agreement on the causes of the current war, the consequences of the war and the ways to achieve peace.

Several things were clear from the beginning. The defense official and his team are in deep denial about the humanitarian consequences of the vicious two-year civil war. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has called Darfur “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” According to the UN, nearly two million people have been displaced, hundreds of villages have been burned, sometimes after bombing from the Sudanese air force, hundreds of women have been raped and thousands of people have died. According to some recent estimates, the death toll for military action, exposure, starvation and disease may be as high as 300,000 over the last two years. By contrast, the Sudanese officials said that displacement was not higher than one million and that only 2,000 people-mostly government soldiers and Arab militia men-had died.

“No women and children have died,” one of them said flatly, denying eyewitness reports of children being torn from their mothers’ arms and burned alive.

They also denied that the fighting in Darfur is mainly a series of attacks by the Janjaweed on innocent villages. The Janjaweed, drawn largely from nomadic Arab herders of cattle, goats and camels, according to the UN inquiry, are often armed and commanded by Sudanese government officials. Most, but not all of their victims are African farmers, who grow crops in the fields surrounding their villages. Our host denied that the Janjaweed is a military force, calling it instead a bunch of bandits.

Many have accused the government and the Janjaweed of mounting a campaign to drive African farmers from their land so that pastoralists will have larger grazing areas. But our dinner host says the fighting is merely a response to rebel forces. Every country has a right to be secure, he said.

It was also clear that the Sudanese official was deeply worried about the possibility of international criminal proceedings, as recommended by the UN report. “Punishment will start the war all over again,” he warned, “There will be an explosion.”

“Why are criminal prosecutions so important to the international community?” he wanted to know. This led to a lengthy discussion of the importance of justice and reconciliation proceedings in healing deeply damaged societies after genocide or brutal ethnic wars in places like Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Sierra Leone.

“Why does America hate Sudan?” he wanted to know and he repeatedly asked us what tribes we were in. When we told him that Americans didn’t think of themselves as members of tribes, he seemed surprised. Darfur remains an intensely tribal society.

“Why is the international community against Arabs and for the Africans?” He was concerned that while some Arabs may be poor and starving, they get little or no aid. He is correct on this point; most of the aid goes to the two million refugees and internally displaced, and most of them are from African villages and are farmers. In addition, he charged that many people are flocking to camps to get free food, not because their villages have been destroyed. The UN, in fact, is worried that its food distribution program may be attracting people from neighboring towns, although most of the displaced are fleeing violence and destruction.

Discussion of what must happen before the displaced can return to their farms and villages was long and heated. Our host and his associates said that Darfur was largely safe and secure, so that people can return with confidence. He said that the police are providing adequate protection. But displaced people say that police are often part of the problem. There are reports that the police have been penetrated by the Janjaweed. As a result, the police are often deeply distrusted by displaced villagers. People in camps repeatedly said they are afraid to go home because their villages are still subject to attack.

Most of the men’s assertions were clearly wrong. They said, for instance, that the war was over and the villagers are returning quickly. In fact, fighting continues and most camp residents are afraid to stray far from the camps for fear of being attacked, let alone go home.

As we left, it was hard to know whether or not our host was proud or worried to be on the list of potential human rights violators, but what was clear is that he, as a government official, was not ready to take any responsibility for the death, destruction and displacement throughout Darfur.

Ken Bacon, Eileen Shields-West, and Shannon Meehan are surveying humanitarian conditions in Darfur.

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