UN peacekeepers ‘look on’ as ‘Russia-backed’ war rages in Darfur
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Victims of Darfur’s protracted war have been beaten, raped and killed as UN peacekeepers looked on, a former spokesperson for the UN mission tells FRANCE 24. She says Russia and China have forced the world body to turn a blind eye to the conflict.
Aïcha el Basri describes it as a “forgotten war”. More than a decade after Arabs and non-Arabs began massacring each other in the arid Sudanese region of Darfur, the brutal conflict rages on. President Omar al-Bashir is still wanted at the International Criminal Court for genocide and war crimes charges, more than five years after he was indicted. In 2014 alone some 315,000 people have been displaced. But after seven years on the ground and almost 11 billion dollars in spending, the UN has failed in its mission to protect civilians and is now thinking of pulling it’s 19,000-strong peacekeeping force out of the region.
El Basri, who spent eight months stationed with the UN-African Union blue helmet mission, describes Darfur as the UN’s “biggest peacekeeping failure”. She says that UNIMAD, under pressure from Khartoum’s closest economic allies and arms dealers, Russia and China, has not only failed to prevent genocide, but has added insult to injury by downplaying the ongoing violence in order to prepare a discreet exit -- something which Moscow and Beijing have long been lobbying for.
That manipulation of facts on the ground, which Ban Ki-moon has described as “under-reporting,” is what led El Basri to quit her job as UNAMID spokesperson.
“I witnessed several cases of systematic, deliberate and repeated cover-ups of attacks on civilians by the government of Sudan -- sometimes right in front of UN troops, and in some instances, the peacekeepers were looking on and taking photos,” she told FRANCE 24 at the UN on Monday. “There were heavy bombardments against civilians; mass rape; villages were razed... When I first arrived I was in shock.”
El Basri said she was told by her supervisors “not to worry and keep quiet”. She refused.
El Basri says it is no coincidence that the person leading the Darfur mission when the cover-up began was Russian (Karen Tchalian, who was briefly “relocated” in 2014, further discrediting the mission).
“There were many instances when I really didn’t know if Tchalian was working for the UN or for some other entity,” she said.
After resigning in April 2013, El Basri called on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to investigate her concerns, as well as Tchalian, with an independent public investigation. Her request was backed by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which indicted President al-Bashir in 2009 over charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity (the court has been unable to try him since the few countries he travels to have not arrested him, and on Friday, was forced to suspend its investigation into war crimes in Darfur because of a lack of “concrete solutions” by the Security Council).
Ban turned down El Basri’s request, instead launching an internal investigation. So far, only an executive summary of the findings of that report have been released.
“The Review Team did not find any evidence to support [El Basri’s] allegations,” a statement on the report reads. “However, it did find a tendency to under-report unless absolutely certain of the facts. [...] The Secretary-General will take all necessary steps to ensure full and accurate reporting by UNAMID.”
El Basri describes the report as “another whitewash”.
“They cooked the books,” she said. “They wanted to say the situation had improved and now they could leave [the region].” In response, El Basri leaked hundreds of documents to Foreign Policy magazine which disclosed the mission’s duplicity in reporting on the conflict.
“I had no other option than to expose the whole cover-up to the international community,” she said.
Janjaweed militia still killing
El Basri says that the conflict, which began between sedentary, dissident non-Arabs and nomadic, pro-government Arabs, has grown into a multifarious entanglement of bloodshed, for which the government in Khartoum, loaded with arsenal from its allies in Moscow and Beijing, is directly to blame.
“We used to talk about war between Arab and non-Arab tribes. But now the Sudanese government has extended that war so that non-Arab tribes are fighting each other and inter-Arab tribes, too. It basically pitted every tribe against each other in Darfur,” she said.
A dogged legacy of the first years of war in Darfur is the Janjaweed militia, an ethnic Arab army which was conceived by the late Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. The militia was heavily armed by Khartoum in the initial stages of the conflict, which has killed up to 400,000 people and displaced millions more.
Mukesh Kapila, the former UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan who lost his job when he became a whistleblower in 2004, described the actions of the Janjaweed in an interview with FRANCE 24 as part of “a longstanding project of the Khartoum regime led by Omar al-Bashir to basically create an ethnically pure state in Sudan”.
Kapila described the process of “frightening away or killing off” black Africans from villages and “replacing them” with Arab tribes as “highly effective”.
In 2004, the UN Security Council ordered that the Janjaweed militia be disarmed. But El Basri says that they are still active today, despite no mention of them by the UN. “They just call them something else,” she said, “they never mention the word Janjaweed, because they can’t admit they’re still around, and still armed, and still killing.”
El Basri says that she witnessed a Janjaweed attack just metres from the UNAMID base near Kutum, north Darfur, shortly after arriving in the region in September 2012. She described the incident, in which three men were killed and six others were injured, as “a deadly attack by the Janjaweed on defenceless citizens”. But according to a UNAMID report on the incident, the men were killed in “the crossfire of a firefight between armed Arab militia and government regular forces”.
When questioned by FRANCE 24 on Monday, UN peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous took a similar stance. “There are militia of course,” he said, though blamed the current violence largely on “fighting between tribes, between communities”.
Asked about a potential UN withdrawal from the region when violence is clearly ongoing, the under-secretary-general said that “the question is whether that mission is really achieving what it was intended to”.
El Basri says that a UNAMID withdrawal would be the “worst possible scenario” for Darfurians. “UNAMID is bad because they lied, but the alternative is even worse,” she said. “Millions of civilians are living under extremely tough conditions: atrocities are ongoing by the day. They would be totally abandoned,” she said.
‘The Syria that came before’
As with the world’s fresher major conflicts, in Syria and Ukraine, hopes for Darfur are hindered by the same crippling divide at the UN that prevents the Security Council from forming a unanimous front in tackling violence elsewhere.
“Darfur is just one of those situations, like Syria and Ukraine, when you have one or two permanent members of the Security Council’s interests protected while the others are left incapable of doing something to make a difference on the ground,” El Basri said.
The former UNAMID spokesperson was referring to Russia and China, both of which have been rebuked for selling arms to the Sudanese government in breach of a 2005 UN embargo. Both countries have voiced support for Khartoum’s call for UNAMID to withdraw.
“Like in Syria, the Russians are stepping in to defend a criminal government while the international community does nothing. Russia has the upper hand, while the US, UK and France are all extremely weak,” El Basri said.
Whistleblower Kapila described the problem as “a nexus of interest” but didn’t go as far as blaming Russia directly.
“Whether it’s military, industrial trading or oil related, it is paralysing the international community,” he said. “And somebody is arming [Khartoum].”
When questioned by FRANCE 24, ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda agreed that the comparison between Darfur and Syria was “fair” in terms of the situation on the ground. “When you look at the number of crimes committed and the nature of the crimes committed, I think it could be a fair comparison to say that Darfur could be the Syria that came before,” she said on Tuesday.
But El Basri believes that the parallels reflect a wider crisis: a dangerous shift in power which will foretell future, and current, conflicts.
“Russia has become a factor of insecurity and instability of the region,” she said. “It’s taking too much strength, stepping in too publicly and defiantly in supporting the worst dictators in the Arab and Muslim region.
“In the long-run, the regime in Syria will definitely show the same defiance as Khartoum because they have major backing from one, if not two, members of the Security Council.
“If you want to know what Syria will look like in several years, start by looking at Darfur.”
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