Our generation went to college when green “Save Darfur” rubber bracelets were ubiquitous on campuses across the country. Congress passed a unanimous resolution in 2004 declaring that the situation in Darfur amounted to a state-sponsored genocide by proxy Janjaweed militias. We stood on the National Mall and chanted “never again starts right now.” A decade later … Darfur is up in flames once again.
New images from the Satellite Sentinel Project offer the first independent confirmation of the reprisal of Janjaweed attacks in Darfur this year. Sudanese government restrictions on access to the conflict zone mean that reporters and human rights groups have to rely on second- or third-hand descriptions of this fighting. These accounts, smuggled out through a network of activists and civil society groups, are still our best source of evidence. But, Digital Globe satellite images dated March 17, 2014, corroborate their stories.
In the photographs we can see at least 150 homes reduced to black ash on the western side of the Darfuri town of Saraf Omra, where Janjaweed fighters are once again wreaking havoc. Our expert analysts say confidently that the patterns of destruction in Saraf Omra mean that the damage was intentional—not accidental. The damage leaps across natural firewalls, leaving an indisputable trail of destruction.
When actor and activist George Clooney and John Prendergast first came up with the idea of using a private satellite to monitor Sudan’s conflict zones, they were focused on the Nuba mountains in the eastern side of the country. Since then, the project has expanded its scope to report on violence in South Sudan and also in Darfur. As co-founder Clooney explains, “We’re going to keep watching and reporting to keep the spotlight on as bombs drop from the sky and villages burn once again.” With the publication of each of these images, the Satellite Sentinel Project seeks to bolster local human rights reporting and challenge the government’s denials.
While the conflict in Sudan’s troubled western region never really stopped, 2014 has seen a dramatic escalation in violence. According to the United Nations, 215,000 people were displaced by violence in Darfur in the first 11 weeks of this year. The sheer scale of these numbers is difficult to comprehend, especially in a place that saw half a million people pushed from their homes by violence last year. The UN has quit updating its Darfur death tolls and even experts on the conflict are hard pressed to provide accurate estimates. We just know that the numbers are growing by the day. Darfuris are living through a largely forgotten war. Waves of violence just keep on sweeping over them, but the world’s attention is elsewhere.
Clooney explains, “We’re going to keep the spotlight on as bombs drop from the sky and villages burn once again.”
In 2009, almost 20,000 aid workers were delivering services in Darfur, but by the end of 2013 only 6,800 aid workers were operating in the conflict zone. This year, just as the Janjaweed forces have embarked on their rampage, the Sudanese government has prevented both the Red Cross and a French relief organization, ACTED, from operating, making the effective delivery of assistance even more difficult.
Eyewitnesses say influential Darfuri leader Musa Hilal led the deadly attacks in Saraf Omra that began the morning of March 3. Hilal was famous during the early days of the genocide for his brutal role in mobilizing Janjaweed fighters. The UN Security Council took the extraordinary step of singling him out for individual sanctions, including a travel ban and an asset freeze. Still, almost a decade later, he remains an active threat to peace. In late February, Hilal’s militias advanced toward Saraf Omra, clearing local roads and attacking civilians. Sources tell the Enough Project that Hilal’s advance ultimately sparked clashes between the Abbala, Gimir, and Tama communites in Saraf Omra, leading to even more fighting. These attacks in Saraf Omra killed at least 19 people and injured 60 according to news accounts, and displaced almost 65,000.
Hilal now says he has seized Saraf Omra and three other nearby towns. He has dismissed local authorities and announced the creation of a new local administration. With this step, its not an exaggeration to say that while native Darfuris are languishing in camps for the displaced, the Janjaweed forces, which Khartoum funded and fueled for years, are now running the show. Some say Hilal is consolidating power in a bid to increase his leverage when bargaining for greater political influence with Khartoum. Others say he is deeply dissatisfied that Khartoum can no longer fulfill his financial demands for his forces. What we do know is that he’s engaged in a bloody standoff with North Darfur’s governor, and continues to make life hell for civilians.
Hilal’s bid for power comes at the same time as the emergence of a reconstituted Janjaweed group loyal to Khartoum. The 6,000-strong Rapid Support Forces (RSF), sometimes called the Rapid Response Force (RRF), initially served in the government’s heavy military offensive in other conflict zones in Sudan: South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Killing civilians and leaving a trail of burned homes in its wake, the RSF then advanced into North Kordofan. While in El Obeid, the state capital, the group pillaged and raped the locals until the local government scraped together $3 million to pay them off and send them on back to Darfur. Sources in North Kordofan have told diplomats in Khartoum that, after witnessing Janjaweed brutality first hand, they now believe Darfuris about the grave abuses they alleged at the height of the genocide. When they got back to Darfur the group attacked more than 35 towns, killing and raping civilians and burning homes to the ground. A string of RSF attacks in North Darfur within the past week has destroyed 16 villages west of Mellit twon and 25 towns north of Kutum.
Darfuri civilians are once again suffering as militias vie for control of territory and resources. Infighting among competing government-backed forces is intensifying and intercommunal clashes are deepening, further complicating the security landscape. Khartoum’s long-time counter-insurgency strategy of ‘divide and conquer’ is behind the recent violence, obviously, and the Sudanese government’s continued unabashed financial support for armed groups that attack civilians shows a disturbing trend. The culture of impunity for Khartoum and its client killers has emboldened all the armed gangs across Darfur, leading to even more violence.
The forgotten war goes on.