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My name is Tomo, I’ve been in Darfur

August 1, 2007

by Apostolis Fotiadis

 

The desert of Sudan is a sea of sadness. The war that began in 2003 was overshadowed by the noise of the US invasion in Iraq. Over the next four years it developed into an unrestrained massacre in which thousands of innocent people were tortured, raped and executed. Slowly and steadily the scale of the horror, underlined by the 2 million refugees, became far too big to ignore. The Western world seemed hesitant to become involved, so the majority of us spent our objections in some half-hearted emotional denouncements, swallowing our guilt that once more, after Rwanda, the ‘civilized world’ had turned it’s back on Africa.

 

“Saying that Darfur is too far away, is like saying that it is too black,” I remember Robert Balogh, an intelligent and melancholic student from Hungary, saying irately to his colleagues at a student conference in Portoroz, Slovenia, last September. He was right; if white people were assassinated in Darfur no one would dare say it is too far away to interfere. At the time I also heard about a Slovenian journalist who had traveled to Darfur the previous months. Tomo Kriznar was indeed one of the few eye-witnesses to risk a journey to Darfur in the last three years and he attempted to break the silence surrounding the brutality of this war which the government of Sudan has concealed in every way possible.

As he later explained, his relationship with the region was not a new one. He arrived in Sudan for the first time in 1980. He then spent a good while living with the Nuba tribe in central Sudan recording their culture. He went back at the end of the 90s, when the Nuba were suffering under mounting oppression. He prepared a book and a documentary on the situation in the region and returned there many times until the peace agreement of Nairobi, which marked the end of the war in southern Sudan. His latest trip to Darfur took place when the president of Slovenia Janez Drnovšek recommended him to become his envoy in the area in an effort to ascertain the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis and to research the possibilities for organizing a peace process.

To my proposal for an interview about Darfur, he responded with an honest lack of enthusiasm. “Another conversation about Sudan is pointless if someone doesn’t explain firstly the complications of this reality.” Indeed, by being one of a handful of journalists to have traveled to Darfur over the last few years, an area equal in size to France, he was more than right. People understand the Sudanese reality merely through small distant reports in which evil Muslims occasionally slaughter helpless Africans.

What, though, is the reality of this war and what is responsible for its cruelty? In his description, Kriznar insists on how complex the reality is. He explains the differences between the tribal rebel leaders of SLA Abdel Wahid and Minni Minawi, who fight against the government of Sudan and sporadically against each other; the ambiguous role of the neutral African Union; and the limited support of the western humanitarian societies to the victims in Sudan. The war as Kriznar describes it is not a simple confrontation between fundamentalist Janjawiids and African rebels of Darfur. It reminds of Ryszard Kapuciski’s stories, the Polish journalist who covered the wars and rebellions all around the continent during the collapse of colonization and the national awakening of Africa. Tribes fight for scarce drinkable water; ruthless bandits run amok in a frontier-less battlefield burning and looting; governments and leaders equip them and manipulate them according to their interests.

After three months in Darfur – during which he lived and traveled together with the rebels fighting against the Janjawiid paramilitaries – Kriznar was arrested by the African Union in July 2006. “The government was afraid that the documents I had gathered would expose the level of genocide,” he says. “My status as a representative of the president of Slovenia was expiring formally in May 2006, at the moment of the peace agreement in Abuja of Nigeria between the Sudanese government and the section of SLA led by Mini Minawi. Still I decided to stay, believing that peace didn’t have a chance.”

What persuaded you to do this?

The people I met everywhere were asking me to stay. It was terrible when I listened to them saying that my presence as a journalist there, with a camera, a pc and a satellite connection was the reason that Janjawiid wouldn’t attack them – simple women and small children. So I stayed for much longer than I should until the passage to Chad became extremely dangerous because of armed conflict between various rebel groups. Then, with the assistance of the Slovenian president, I referred my case to the African Union asking for their assistance in crossing into Chad. In the beginning they agreed, but when I appeared they said that they didn’t want any involvement and they took me to the regional headquarters of the AU. There their head, an Arab from northern Darfur himself, decided to surrender me to the military security service.

What were you accused of and how was the experience of your detention?

I was detained for sending correspondences from the rebel regions without special permission from the government; nobody though gets permission from this government. Initially the reason for arresting me was that I had entered the country without an entrance visa, later on the charge was upgraded to dispersion of false information and espionage. I spent five days in the hands of the military security service and another five in police custody before going before a court, which ordered an investigation into my case. The investigation procedure was somewhat difficult since my captors were screaming and cursing constantly, they punched me once, and another time six soldiers, without an officer present, took me to the garbage dump and ordered me to urinate in a hole dug to my size. Two, three, tough minutes passed before they started joking and took me back to my cell. Finally, in a letter of pardon the president of Sudan awarded me amnesty in the name of Allah after an appeal from the president of Slovenia. When I was held captive during August 2005 two more journalists were arrested. A young American and Paul Salopec, two times awarded with the Pulitzer Prize. All of us were released in the end but there were moments when we thought that our fates depended on the political gains the government would reap in exchange.

To what extent can the term ‘genocide’ be attributed to what you have seen in Darfur?

The extermination of rebels in Darfur reminds very much of the war in southern Sudan. Essentially it is the methodical destruction of communities who support them. This translates to ‘dry the water hole and you will get the fish.’ For me this is equal to genocide. It seems that for others the crematoriums and the professionalism of the Third Reich are necessary in order to use the term. Still, people who have passed through the region agree that a systematic pattern of extermination of the African population and a transformation of the country into an Arab one is being exercised there. When a document proving the existence of mass graves was found on my computer, a high ranking military officer from Khartoum ordered for anyone taking pictures of graves to be executed, including UN officials. It was only the fear of the political cost that prohibited something like this from happening.

Under what conditions do the people of Darfur live in today?

Very, very difficult, very depressing. There is no future, living under the constant fear of the Janjawiid attacks. We all know the government promotes their attacks. From villages on the border with Chad to the rebel groups, I met people everywhere eating from packages sent by the World Food Program of the UN. Without food supplies, famine would be rampant, since over the last four years all livestock has been killed, peasants have left and the land isn’t cultivated. The picture I have is that 90% of international aid goes to refugee camps that are under the control of the government, 9.90% to the population of the regions where Mini Minawi controls and only 0.10% to the areas where the Abdel Wahid forces are situated. Lack of food and clean water is another cause behind the continuation of this war. The distraction of every infrastructure has driven people towards the mountains where they are forced to confront local tribes who are defending their land.

How responsible are Western societies for the degree of this humanitarian crisis and how could a more determined international community alleviate these dreadful conditions?

I am certain that international public attention could protect many people in Darfur from annihilation or displacement to Chad and Central Africa. In my case, when serious pressure was exercised on the Sudanese government for my release they responded. Politicians and the government take criticism, comments and pressure that exercised on them very seriously. The intransigent profile they cling to is a pretense; in fact they are very careful not to isolate themselves. Initially there should have been a clear-cut denouncement of the genocide from the European Union. There is no doubt that in the last 50 years a plan for the Arabization of people has developed in Sudan.

Why has the confrontation between the African population and the Arab element reached this level of violence?

This relationship is a subject of great interest. The Arab element arrived in the area at the end of 17th beginning of 18th century. It was merely because of commerce that the Arab culture and Islam dispersed and gradually marginalized other regional cultures. However, there are still major internal complications. For example. Arabs in Darfur are characterized by other Sudanese as pagan Islamists, and their mosques are destroyed and their Quorans burnt. But, the real causes of war have always been the political and economical interests that capitalized on and accentuated these divisions. The government of Sudan is mainly accountable for the war both in the south and in Darfur; it never respected human rights or any sense of humanism.

What are the interests you refer to?

One should consider the complexity of the situation in order to have a clear picture of the war in Sudan. Imagine that Libya under colonel Kadafi – who first to envision the creation of an Arab country and played a leading part in solidifying the Arab element – cooperates with and supports the rebels. I have seen with my own eyes the Mercedes trucks crossing the desert from Libya to Darfur carrying equipment for the rebels. On another level Darfur has increasingly become one of the fronts of war between networks of international terrorism and the US. The US, through Kadafi, is supporting the rebels of Mini Minawi, while Khartoum has always had some kind of relationship with Al Qaida. China, on top of it all, blocks every effort for a resolution in the UN, winning time in order to promote its interests, mainly oil, in the region. Even though we should be careful about making these kinds of generalizations, the war in Sudan doesn’t cease to be partially the result of a conflict between China and the US.

Is there any chance things will improve in the immediate future?

New negotiations are planned for Eritrea, which will be attended only by the government and one of the rebel groups. In the rebel’s eyes this country isn’t a neutral mediator. There is a huge deficit of trust on every side. For example, Arabs bribe people in the African Union, the personnel of which have very real and human weaknesses.

How possible is for the war to spread further in the region? The Janjawiid are already attacking eastern Chad and the insurgency is similarly spreading to this area. Plus the war in Somalia and other conflicts in the area make it one of the most unstable on the continent.

Many tribes who live around Darfur originate and remain culturally and historically tied to the region, while many young people are recruited to return and fight there. Eastern Chad is even poorer than Darfur, an immense part of a country in which everything of some value is in the hands of France since the era of colonialism. Years of war have increased inequality and people have no other means to resist domination and oppression than the most primitive. With conflict serving the interests of so many it wouldn’t be hard to predict new frictions breaking out in the area. If we are really interested in helping these communities we need to find a way to send foreign observers and to organize an effort abroad. Somewhere in Europe would be best.

Chronology

1955 – 1972: The first civil war took place between tribes in the south and Arab populations controling the northern part of the country. Differences between them had deepened during colonization because of a ban on population movements from north to south introduced by the British administration. The conflict ceased in 1972 with the agreement of Addis Abeba. Ten years of peace followed.

1970: With the end of the war in the south, armed conflict erupts in Darfur, lasting until 1994.

1983: President Gafaar Nimeiri attempts to cancel the agreement of Addis Abeba. Reactions to his plans cause the creation of SPLA (Sudanese People’s Liberation Army) and in June the treaty which recognized increased autonomy for Southern Sudan is deferred. The dichotomy grows deeper in September when Nimeiri recognizes Saria as the official law of the state. The second civil war begins.

1989: Current President Omar al Bashir and the leader of the National Islamic Front take power. War spreads and becomes more violent and destructive. Tribal, racial and cultural rifts deepen, and soon after, the first denouncements for the systematic extermination of Africans will follow.

2003: Armed conflict erupts in Darfur once more. On September 9, 2004, the then US secretary of foreign affairs Collin Powel refers to the war as ‘genocide.’

2005: In January the second civil war ends with the agreement of Nairobi. Southern Sudan gains its autonomy for six years after which the status of the area will be considered in a referendum. In August the vice-president elect John Garang, leader of the SPLA, dies in a helicopter accident. Widespread violent protest doesn’t compromise the agreement. A UN mission arrives in the South in March and starts offering humanitarian aid.

2006: The government and the faction of the SLA led by Mini Minawi strike a peace agreement for Darfur. This predicts disbanding the Janjawiid militia and the rebel groups. The government never initiates an honest implementation. The agreement fails as another faction of the SLA, led by Abdel Wahid, continues to fight in central Darfur.


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3 comments

  1. Good article, but claudia’s was better. Try again.


  2. Tomo is child of mother Earth.


  3. I arrived here after googling Paul Salopec, intruiged by his article in
    National Geographic, blown away by his writing style, and perhaps a detached view of horror.
    delighful writing.



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