By Ahmed H. Adam
For the escaped citizens of Darfur, there is no such thing as a “safe place.” On April 14 and 15, the city of Bentiu in South Sudan, home to many refugees who fled the conflict-ridden Darfur region of the Sudan, experienced a horrific massacre that killed hundreds.
The victims—Darfuri refugees—had sought refuge in South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, hoping for freedom and justice. They had been in South Sudan for years; they were married to South Sudanese women and worked at the same places. The young Darfuri small traders, who barely escaped the genocide in Darfur, did not expect to be buried by UN bulldozers in mass graves in the city of Bentiu.
The Bentiu mass-murder cannot be seen as an isolated event, separate from the violence that has plagued Sudan’s Darfur region. The world needs to see the attack for what it is, a targeted attack against an entire people, and act with the vigilance the situation demands.
Before I continue, I need to reinforce that I speak not as a part of any organization or movement, but as a human being deeply concerned with international law and justice. As global citizens, we must condemn any and all who perpetrate these crimes against humanity. They are crimes against every one of us.
Only a few weeks ago, the world commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, with many vowing “never again.” Meanwhile, President Omar al Bashir has unleashed this new wave of genocidal attacks against the people of Darfur. In the last three months alone, the so-called “Rapid Support Forces,” a rebranding of the notorious Janjaweed militias, joined with the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), killing hundreds, raping dozens of women, and displacing hundred of thousands of civilians. The Darfur genocide never stopped, it simply moved. Since 2003, an estimated 500,000 Darfurian civilians have been killed in Darfur, and over 3 million have been displaced.
There is a clear link between the massacre committed against innocent Darfuris in Bentiu this April and the genocide now occurring in Darfur. The massacre in the capital city of South Sudan’s Unity State was perpetrated by rebel forces under the leadership of Riek Machar, the former vice president of South Sudan. Another prime orchestrator is President Omar al Bashir in Sudan, and there is no secret that Bashir will support whoever kills Darfuris.
The Massacre of Bentiu should be remembered as one of the most horrific massacres of our time. This was unequivocally an act of genocide. According to the UN Genocide Convention of 1948, “genocide means many acts that committed with intent to destroy, in whole
or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, including killing or murder.”
According to reliable sources on the ground, the organized attack resulted in the killing of around 1,000 civilians, the rape of many women, and the abduction of hundreds. Eyewitnesses and survivors, as well as the UN, have confirmed that these civilians were targeted based on their nationalities and ethnicities.
With frightening echoes of Rwanda, the local radio station, operated by the rebels after they re-took Bentiu, was used to incite racial hatred and sexual violence, and to direct the killing of non-Nuer ethnic groups, including people of Darfuri and Dinka background.
The regime in Khartoum has unleashed propaganda against the Darfuris, claiming they are collaborating with the South Sudanese army. To date, Khartoum has failed to condemn the massacre of its own citizens residing across the border in Bentiu. Instead, Bashir’s regime attempted to falsely attribute the killings to Sudan’s Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF). Moreover, the regime in Khartoum has been actively propagandizing against the Darfuris in South Sudan, claiming they are fighting with President Salva Kiir. Al Entibaha newspaper, the Sudanese version of the genocide-inciting Kangura Paper of Rwanda, also disseminates hate speech against Darfuris in South Sudan.
When the militias entered Bentiu, people sought refuge in the Grand Mosque, the Catholic Church, and local hospitals. Yet even in these sanctuaries protected under international humanitarian law, the slaughter continued. The victims were unprotected civilians, with no means to resist. As the death squads hunted people on the streets, Bentiu city became a true mass-targeted killing theater.
The Bentiu Massacre also exposed the weakness of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Located only few miles from the city of Bentiu, UNMISS failed both to halt the violence, and to provide early warning to escape the slaughter. Peacekeepers only arrived after the massacre to evacuate the wounded. But survivors and eyewitnesses confirmed that Machar's forces again pursued the wounded victims whom were evacuated by UNMISS and finally killed them in a cold blood.
Along with Machar’s forces and Bashir’s proxies, the international and regional community share responsibility. The involvement of Sudan, Uganda, and other regional powers is rapidly transforming the conflict in South Sudan into a full-blown regional war. And Darfuris will continue to be not only collateral damage, but targets.
The danger is not only in Bentiu. Ethnic groups are at risk of genocidal violence all across South Sudan. Yet governments, human rights organizations and international bodies, including the UN’s Human Rights Council, have failed to name or condemn the perpetrators of the Bentiu Massacre.
While the recent Security Council action authorizing an investigation into the Bentiu Massacre is a good step, further measures must be pursued.
It is vital that the UN and other peace-loving governments evacuate at-risk civilians from the war zones. Safe corridors or protected camps should be explored and the UN should facilitate departures to sanctuaries. Darfuri traditional and other civic organizations, including sultans, youth and student groups are best placed to work with the UN, embassies, agencies and NGOs to protect threatened peoples. The bodies scattered outside Bentiu should be buried with respect. Outside forces, including regional state actors and non-state actors should not engage in South Sudan's conflict under any form or justification. The wounded victims of the massacre must receive medical treatment and global policymakers must draw international attention to the violence.
The international community must demand that all parties to conflict and their allies adhere to their obligations under international humanitarian law. After the Bentiu Massacre, after these new genocidal acts, the world must stand up again and say, “Never again.” And for once, let that be a promise kept. All civilians in South Sudan must be protected regardless of background.
Ahmed Hussain Adam is a Visiting Scholar and Co-Chair of the Two Sudans Project at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights in the New York. He is the author of the forthcoming book, titled: Darfur Betrayed: An Insider Perspective.