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  • Marc Miquel Helsen

Darfur: A Forgotten Story Part I

Updated: Nov 21, 2018

By Marc Miquel Helsen

Special to the Epoch Times, Dec 23, 2005

Abdel Babker likes long drives. He likes to move around, to not be still for too long. Any given day of the week he'll hop in his car and drive from his home in Windsor to Toronto to run some errands and then pass through London to check in on his younger cousin, Hashim. He'll do it even when it's snowing outside and traffic is backed up on the 401.

"We're from the same town in Darfur," says Babker. "We're family. We check up on each other."

Today, Babker comes by because he knows Hashim is moving. It's not a big move; nothing like the one he made two years ago from Darfur, Sudan, to Egypt and then to Canada. There are no planes involved, no clandestine phone calls, no United Nations intermediaries, not even an immigration official. This time the move is significantly shorter. This time, it's across the hallway.

Sitting and sipping tea in Hashim's now former–and significantly larger–room, Babker jokingly chides his younger cousin as he moves his things across the border between this room and the next.

"You haven't moved yet?" asks Abdel, feigning disbelief. "Man, you're lazy. What, are you waiting for your girlfriend to come over to help you?"

They both laugh.

Abdel and Hashim aren't cousins by blood, though they refer to each other as such. Abdel says their familial bond is one that North Americans usually find difficult to understand. They seem to get confused, he says, when he explains that they are cousins because they hail from the same town, Nyalla. Maybe it's a bond that was reinforced through the immigrant experience–that of finding someone in a foreign land who is from your part of the world, who speaks your language, who understands your jokes, and who shares your past and present hardships. Hardships that forced you to leave family and friends behind, and that force you to dream of the day it will be safe to return.

Both Hashim and Abdel share many things in common, not least of which is this seemingly distant dream.

But if the situation in Darfur persists, Hashim and Abdel's dream of returning will remain just that, a dream. They say if the international community continues to ignore the call for intervention and mainstream media continue to shift their attention from what some have labeled a genocide in Sudan to other, more "marketable" crises, the people of Darfur will continue to die of hunger, disease, and ethnic cleansing.

"We must tell the world that we don't want another Rwanda," says Abdel. "If the international community does not get involved, Darfur will reach the point of Rwanda.

What can a few thousand African Union troops and three or four planes do in a region that is larger than France?"

Judging by the sporadic coverage of Darfur in Canada's major dailies, the average Canadian might be inclined to think the conflict in Darfur is a recent development.

It isn't.

Tensions between Africans and the ruling Arabs in the region of Darfur have run high since the 1970s, with both groups competing for scarce natural resources in the region. In early 2003, rebels groups of mostly African Muslims attacked the Arab government's outposts to protest the central government's neglect of the Darfuri people and the economic inequality between Africans and the predominantly Arab elite.

The Sudanese government, which was involved in the then 18-year-old bloody civil war against the south, felt it could not crush the uprising on its own, and enlisted nomadic Arab militias known as the Janjaweed.

Since then the Janjaweed (roughly translated as "armed men on horseback") have been terrorizing the region's three ethnic groups, the Fur, the Masalit and the Zaghawa.

Since the conflict began more than two years ago, thousands of Darfuri people have been killed and millions displaced. The Janjaweed have destroyed hundreds of villages and cut off aid and supply lines. Murder, abduction and rape have become common place. Women are systematically raped in an effort to wipe out African blood lines. According to Medecins Sans Frontieres, at least one incident of rape is reported every day.

When the international community first pressured the Sudanese government to control the Janjaweed, the government claimed it had no control over the armed militias.

Abdel and Hashim came to Canada to leave that violence behind. Hashim left Nyalla when he was 16, and first told his parents about his plans from a phone booth in Egypt. He's now 21 and living in London, Ontario. Although he was never attacked or robbed back home, he has childhood memories of marauding horsemen even before the recent conflict erupted.

Abdel's experience in Darfur was more precarious.

A student of electrical engineering at Sudan University, Abdel had been politically active with youth movements protesting the socio-economic divide between Darfur and the rest of Sudan. Involved with the political opposition, Abdel, now 27, became a hunted man. Fearing for his life and those of his parents, he left Darfur.

After a long exodus, Abdel arrived safely in Canada. But not without the painful memory of the friends he lost to the violence.

The international community has spoken out against the Sudanese government but has been slow to react and reluctant to exert more than verbal pressure. Critics are unhappy with the UN's lack of teeth in addressing an issue it called "the world's worst humanitarian disaster" and have voiced concern over its claim that the terror in Darfur is not 'genocide.'

Genocide, as defined in Webster's dictionary, is considered "the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group." Even the United States has referred to the crisis in Darfur as "genocide." Yet the political implications of acknowledging it as such are vast: they would warrant commitment and responsibility surpassing a level of rhetoric.

A UN report published early in 2005 found that government forces and Janjaweed militia "conducted indiscriminate attacks, including killing of civilians, torture, enforced disappearances, destruction of villages, rape and other forms of sexual violence, pillaging and forced displacement." The commission also named over 50 alleged perpetrators of crimes against humanity, and suggested that the Security Council refer the report to the International Criminal Court. But by not uttering the 'g-word' the United Nations have in effect, placed the issue of Darfur on the back burner.

International intervention has been further delayed by the fact that the United States, a key member of the Security Council with veto power, does not recognize the International Criminal Court. So, while diplomats argue which definition is most appropriate, people on the ground in Darfur are dying. Whether or not the violence is ethnically motivated, the reality is that Janjaweed militias are as effective and indiscriminate in slaying and raping as diseases are in wiping out Darfuris.

Oxfam says that up to 2 million people have fled their homes, and many have been left without any to return to. The Janjaweed's torch and burn practice has been highly effective in clearing the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa peoples from their hometowns. Farmers have been unable to harvest their crops because of the violence, and recent droughts have only made things worse.

Aid organizations like Medecins Sans Frontieres, Oxfam and the International Red Cross are finding it nearly impossible to meet the growing needs of millions of Darfuris, who are fleeing the danger and pouring across the borders into neighbouring countries.

Thousands of people are cramped in refugee camps, and diarrhoeal diseases, meningitis, respiratory infections and malaria are spreading quickly. According to World Health Organization estimates 10,000 people are dying a month of malnutrition or disease.

So why is it only now that the international community is taking heed of the conflict? Why have the thousands of deaths, which according to UN estimates number at around 70,000, failed to evoke the spirit of generosity that inspired so many people to empty their wallets in support of the victims of Hurricane Katrina or last year's tsunami? Why this game of favorites with the world's downtrodden?



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