Home | Comment & Analysis    Friday 26 March 2004

"Ethnic Cleansing" or Genocide in Darfur?


Let us be sure that a debate about definition does not obscure the realities of human suffering and destruction

By Eric Reeves

March 25, 2004 — As the massive scale of deliberate, systematic human destruction and displacement in Darfur becomes relentlessly clearer, and as the ethnic hatred animating this savagery becomes steadily more undeniable, the need for ultimate judgment in an international criminal tribunal becomes commensurately more compelling. To this point, the indictment rendered by UN officials, diplomats, the US Agency for International Aid, and human rights groups has been for "ethnic cleansing." But though this is also the phrase proffered in a recent and remarkably frank interview by Mukesh Kapila, UN humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, Kapila went a very distinctive step further, declaring:

"’The only difference between Rwanda and Darfur now is the numbers involved’ [said Kapila]." (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, March 22, 2004)

Kapila, who was in Rwanda ten years ago during that country’s massive and utterly unambiguous episode in genocidal destruction, is clearly implying that Darfur too is the site of genocide. The implication is made explicit at another moment in Kapila’s interview:

"This is more than just a conflict, it is an organised attempt to do away with a group of people." (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, March 22, 2004)

Kapila has offered an ominously close paraphrase of the operative language from the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crime of Genocide. The "group of people" being "done away" with in "organized" fashion are the African peoples of Darfur; they are the victims of deliberate, widespread, and systematic attacks by Khartoum’s National Islamic Front and its Arab militia allies, the "janjaweed." To be sure, a primary feature of these attacks is violent displacement, and not necessarily extermination; but the means are typically brutal and destructive. Rape, torture, the blowing up of water wells and irrigation systems, the burning of dwellings and foodstuffs. Moreover, displacement by means of such actions can in itself, in the arid and forbidding landscape of Darfur, be genocidal.

The 1948 UN Convention speaks not just of murder and killings, which have occurred on a massive scale in their own right in Darfur. Also highlighted in the Convention is "[b] causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group." Here it is worth recalling a description from another moment in the UN IRIN report on Dr. Kapila’s remarks:

"In an attack on 27 February [2004] in the Tawilah area of northern Darfur, 30 villages were burned to the ground, over 200 people killed and over 200 girls and women raped---some by up to 14 assailants and in front of their fathers who were later killed. A further 150 women and 200 children were abducted."
(UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, March 22, 2004)

Can such brutality, directed against the African tribal peoples of the region, be construed as causing anything but the most terrifyingly painful "bodily or mental harm"? Moreover, the abductions referred to here are increasingly prominent in reports from Darfur, and this should put us in mind of another clause from the Genocide Convention: "[e] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."

Yet another clause from the genocide convention must also figure in any assessment of the nature and consequences of the systematic and widespread attacks on the Africa tribal peoples of Darfur: "[c] deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part." The International Crisis Group, in a highly authoritative report issued today, finds that the "indiscriminate attacks on civilians" by Khartoum and its Arab militia allies entail "the widespread destruction of schools, clinics, wells, and irrigation pumps," with a "clear intent to displace the original inhabitants permanently" ("Darfur Rising: Sudan’s New Crisis," the International Crisis Group [Nairobi/Brussels], March 25, 2004, pages 6; available at:

ICG also notes the report of a recent investigator in Darfur:

"The foundations of houses in Fur villages are built from stone or cement, and the roofs are made from sorghum. The Janjaweed would come and burn the roofs, but the army would then shell the villages, destroying most of the stone foundations. These were attempts to drain the population base supporting the rebels, and clear people from the areas. Every village I saw within 150 kilometers from the Chadian border was completely or partially burned." (ICG report, page 18)

Again, given the arid and unforgiving nature of the land in Darfur, there can be no doubt about the consequences of, or intention behind, such actions: "[c] deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part." Moreover, the destructive consequences of the actions chronicled by ICG must be assessed in the context of Khartoum’s deliberate and systematic denial of humanitarian access. The "systematic" nature of this denial of humanitarian access has been highlighted for months now by UN officials, diplomats, as well as by humanitarian and human rights organizations.

Ambassador Tom Vraalsen (the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Humanitarian Affairs for Sudan) declared over three months ago that:

"Delivery of humanitarian assistance to populations in need is hampered mostly by ***systematically denied access*** [latter phrase emphasized in text]. While [Khartoum’s] authorities claim unimpeded access, they greatly restrict access to the areas under their control, while imposing blanket denial to all rebel-held areas."
(Ambassador Tom Vraalsen, Note to the Emergency Relief Coordinator; "Sudan: Humanitarian Crisis in Darfur," December 8, 2003)

Amnesty International very recently declared as well: "The government is still severely restricting humanitarian aid in Darfur." (Amnesty International [London], Press Release, March 15, 2004)

That such systematic denial of humanitarian access will soon be destroying the lives---overwhelming the lives of the Fur, Zaghawa, Masseleit, Birgit, and other African tribal groups---is clear from the very recent comments of Roger Winter, assistant administrator of the US Agency for International Development:

"[Winter] told reporters food shortages were inevitable because so many people had left their land, been robbed or had no seeds left. ’We believe the conflict there is so severe that a substantial number of people are going to be affected by severe food shortages. Even if there was a ceasefire arranged at this meeting in Chad, still a large number of people would die.’" (Reuters [Khartoum], March 24, 2004)

Winter’s comments are amplified in another report issued today:

"Conflict in Northern Darfur State of western Sudan is devastating social infrastructure and placing an increasing number of people at risk of hunger, according to agencies working in the region. A survey conducted by an NGO, Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), in February and March revealed that 40,000 households in Northern Darfur have missed this year’s cropping seasons due to displacement. Many of those who did cultivate, had their crops stolen."

"With no signs of an improvement in the conflict, the next planting season in April/May may also be ’very limited,’ [Laura] Melo [of the UN World Food Program] warned. This would have a major impact on food availability and leave people dependent on food aid for another year, she said. ’A widespread humanitarian disaster looms for the population of Darfur unless large-scale humanitarian assistance is rapidly made possible,’ commented a humanitarian source working in the region." (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, March 25, 2004)

But there is no near-term prospect of such "large-scale humanitarian assistance" for most of those displaced in Darfur. Moreover, the massive and deliberate destruction of human lives is a reality already upon us. The January analysis from Sudan Focal Point (South Africa) presents evidence suggesting that more than 1,000 civilians are already dying every week. Doctors Without Borders reported in February on "catastrophic mortality rates " in Darfur. And accounts very recently coming to this writer from Eltigani Seis M. Ateem, former Governor of Darfur State and chairman of the Darfur Union (UK), give a sense of how great is present human destruction, destruction that is occurring even as this dispatch is being written. Eltigani Seis M. Ateem reports:

"Two weeks ago the Janjaweed militia attacked the villages to the south of
Kass. All the villages in the Shattaya and Hamiya areas have been torched and a number of innocent civilians have been killed. The attack on Sindo which I have reported earlier has led to mass displacement. Between 11,000 and 13,000 people have fled to Kailaik [also Kailek] area where they have been surrounded by the [Janjaweed] militia. These people have no access to water or food as the militia has prevented any supplies of water and food. We have just received information that those who are now surrounded in Kailaik are dying of thirst and hunger. The situation requires immediate intervention to save the lives of about 13,000 innocent civilians trapped by the Janjaweed militia in Kailaik and are dying of thirst and hunger." (Received by e-mail, March 24, 2004)

It is difficult to doubt the authority or accuracy of this account in light of recent UN reports that provided detailed geographic corroboration:

"An inter-agency assessment team which traveled to Kass area report systematic burning of villages by the Jenjaweed around the area and there are reports of thousands of additional Jenjaweed heading towards the Kass area. About 11 kms from Nyala, the village of Gereisa was attacked early this morning by armed horsemen, 15 people were killed and around 30 people with gun shot wounds were admitted to Nyala." (UN Darfur Task Force Situation Report, March 2, 2004)

The "reports of thousands of additional Jenjaweed heading towards the Kass area" would seem to be fully borne out by the reported fate of villages to the south of this town, which lies on the road from Nyala to Zalingei (South Darfur). Though there is no way to confirm this account---Khartoum refuses not only humanitarian access (and thus reporting presence) but all news media access as well---there is every reason to believe that more than ten thousand human beings are in fact being slowly starved to death or dying from thirst in the Kass area. Another UN report ("Report of the Inter-Agency Assessment of Kass Locality," February 26-28, 2004) notes:

"Throughout the area findings were similar, from December onwards villages were burned, looted, women violated and people driven towards seven locations, Kass, Nam, Jamaza, Korokule villages, Kailek, Abrunimo and Goba. Over 44,000 people have been displaced into these locations, with the last people arriving into Kass on 26 February. The last area to have been attacked on the 22 February was Shateya, with 16,000 people displaced into Kailek, and 9,000 into Abrunimo." ("Report of the Inter-Agency Assessment of Kass Locality," February 26-28, 2004)

And this is just a single section in one of the three states that make up Darfur Province. Hundreds of thousands among the 3 million people now described by the UN as "war-affected" may be similarly threatened.

This is not displacement; it is deliberate destruction. This is not "clearing" or "cleansing" populations but slaughtering them. Moreover, there is unambiguous intent, intent marked by a racial and ethnic animus that Khartoum has viciously stoked and encouraged over the last year. This continues a pattern of manipulation that goes back to the late 1980s, when the National Islamic Front regime came to power. As the background section of today’s report from the International Crisis Group notes:

"[Khartoum’s] weaknesses and manipulation of the ethnic fabric of the [Darfur] region gradually produced an alarming shift in the nature of the conflict, with ethnicity becoming a major mobilizing factor. [ ] Traditional conflicts [between tribes] were generally sporadic and at low levels of violence. Ethnically driven conflicts that emerged in the late 1980s were sustained and exceptionally fierce, with ethnic solidarity helping to draw in additional parties." ("Darfur Rising: Sudan’s New Crisis," ICG, page 5)

This has culminated in the genocidal nature of the conflict that has exploded over the last 14 months. Moreover, given the complete breakdown of traditional means of tribal reconciliation---of conflict containment and resolution---it will be a generation at least before the consequences of Khartoum’s cynical and expedient manipulation of ethnic and tribal differences can be overcome...if then. This is without question one of the most destructive features of the present conflict.

Does all this amount to genocide? Or can we go no further than "ethnic cleansing" in describing the realities of Darfur? It certainly may be, as the ICG report notes, that "centuries of coexistence and intermarriage have reduced [tribal] distinctions to the cultural identification or non-identification with the Arab world, [inasmuch] as members of both groups [Arabs and non-Arabs] are dark-skinned" (page 4). But the present war in Darfur has made clear just how powerfully destructive this "identification" can be. In an extraordinary briefing presented today to the UN by "concerned humanitarian workers in Darfur," we are told that:

"[the Janjaweed Arab militia] make it clear that [Khartoum] has now given them a mandate to make these areas "Zurga free" (Zurga is a derogatory term for Black) and that they represent [Khartoum] in the area [Darfur]. Violence is systematically reported, people killed (especially males), goods including cattle looted, and houses burned. If people do not move immediately, a second more deadly attack is launched, and civilians are left with no option but to move away to the nearest ’safe haven,’ which is usually also attacked within the next few days." ("A Briefing Paper on the Darfur Crisis: Ethnic Cleansing," March 25, 2004, "presented to UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator to bring this to the attention of the international community")

"Zurga free"---and just how far are we then from the Nazi desire for a "judenfrei" Germany? and ultimately a "judenfrei" Europe? Christopher Browning suggests in "The Origins of the Final Solution" that a "commitment to some kind of final solution to the Jewish question had been inherent in Nazi ideology from the beginning. Thus Nazi Jewish policy first envisaged a judenfrei Germany through emigration, and then a judenfrei Europe through expulsion."

And "ethnic cleansing"? The term demands fiercer scrutiny than it has yet received---and not only in the ad hoc tribunals responding to the ghastly realities of the Balkans and Rwanda. Perhaps we should first recall that the Nazis referred to ethnic extermination as the "cleansing" (Säuberung) of Jews from German society and culture. To be sure, the advent of the phrase "ethnic cleansing" during the Balkan conflicts produced a particular UN definition, one whose history has recently been recounted by Samantha Power in her Pulitzer Prize-winning study, "’A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide":

"In February 1993 the UN commission’s five lawyers presented an interim report to the UN secretary-general in which they defined ’ethnic cleansing,’ the term that was then being used as a kind of euphemistic halfway house between crimes against humanity and genocide." "[The UN commissioners found that ’ethnic cleansing’ consisted of] murder, torture, rape, sexual assault, forcible removal, displacement [ ] of civilians, deliberate military attacks or threats of attacks on civilians and civilian areas, and wanton destruction of property." (page 483, "’A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide")

What they did not find was that the terms "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing" were mutually exclusive: "They said such crimes [as constituted ’ethnic cleansing’] constituted crimes against humanity and ***might well be considered genocide under the convention***" (emphasis added; page 483).

Ultimately, it will be of significance whether the realities so urgently, compellingly, and authoritatively reported from Darfur are genocide, or "ethnic cleansing." But in the terrible present we require not an understanding of international legal evidentiary standards, but a clear, detailed, and morally informed comprehension of what is happening to innocent human beings in Darfur. In turn, there must be a willingness to respond in a fashion that is fully commensurate with such comprehension.

This is enough. This is more than enough.

- Eric Reeves
- Smith College,
Northampton, MA 01063

- Tel: 413-585-3326
- Email: ereeves@smith.edu

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