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Few slogans are as powerful as "Never Again," the rallying cry of Nazi Holocaust survivors against genocide. But today, half a century later, the world community remains reluctant to intervene in the face of systematic slaughter within another country's borders. The United Nations (U.N.) passed the Genocide Convention in 1948, declaring acts committed "with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such" to be crimes against humanity, punishable under international law. Yet again and again, bloodshed, torture, and suffering continue on a vast scale while the world sits idly by. Witness Cambodia. The former Yugoslavia. Rwanda.

According to many human rights experts, including those at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), yet another epic tragedy is unfolding in the arid Western region of Sudan known as Darfur. Since the spring of 2003, they say, as many as 2,000 tribal villages have been torched, thousands of women have been raped, and tens of thousands of men have been murdered by marauding men on horseback known locally as janjaweed ("evil horsemen"). These Arab militias are proxies of the Sudanese government, experts say, and their backing by air forces and artillery suggests an orchestrated ethnic cleansing campaign.

Yet the U.N., in the absence of official records, death logs, and other supporting evidence, has declined to apply the genocide label. That's because a narrow interpretation of the Genocide Convention would, as a prerequisite, insist upon clear proof that a government is acting with express intent. And the devastation in Darfur is difficult to trace directly to leaders in Khartoum, the nation's capital.

The situation is made murkier still by the fact that disease, starvation, and deprivation have plagued Darfur since widespread droughts began in the 1980s. Notes Jennifer Leaning, an emergency medicine physician who directs the Program on Humanitarian Crises and Human Rights at HSPH's François-Xavier Bagnoud Center: "The way most Darfurians are dying in this scenario now ultimately looks like the way everybody in Sudan dies during natural disasters, such as a famine or drought. It's a very good screen behind which the government can hide."

Under the auspices of the Cambridge-based organization Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), Leaning and colleague Michael VanRooyen have traveled with PHR's John Heffernan to Darfur and neighboring Chad to interview refugees and document clear patterns of destruction. On a field investigation in May 2004, Leaning looked at mass rape and the destruction of life and livelihood as evidence of genocidal intent. In January 2005, VanRooyen evaluated in detail the obliteration of "livelihood indicators," or means of survival -- homes, wells, livestock -- and the taking of land.

All of these tactics can effectively exterminate a people, in ways that leave few fingerprints. Says VanRooyen: "We're documenting genocide not only in terms of loss of life, but also through the eradication of culture."

Arab or African?

Darfur, an area about the size of France punctuated by mountain ranges, is home to at least 90 tribes comprising five to seven million people. While to outsiders the tribes may appear indistinguishable -- all are Muslims, and intermarriage has continued throughout history -- cultural differences persist. Most tribes make their living by farming, but a minority are nomadic herders. In this semi-autonomous region, intertribal disputes have long been resolved without interference from Khartoum.

But as a 20-year-long drought settled upon more and more pasture and arable land, relations between herders and farmers grew hostile, and disputes over resources took on an ugly ethnic cast. The herding tribes began self-identifying as "Arabs," claiming ethnic and cultural ties with Khartoum. Disparaging farming tribes as "African," the herders now often speak of their enemies as "slaves," employing the Arabic word zurga ("black") as an epithet.

In early 2003, aggrieved "Africans" appealed to the central government to mediate disputes with "Arabs" over water, land, and grazing rights. When Khartoum failed to respond, the farmers organized a rebel force known as the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA).

At first, Sudanese leaders dismissed the rebels as a nuisance. But after the SLA staged a series of embarrassingly successful operations against government military sites, the military retaliated with a stratagem on which they had relied during a 20-year-old civil war in Southern Sudan that pitted pro-government Muslims against a Christian minority. The government enlisted the region's janjaweed.

Janjaweed were seen as better suited for the government's anti-insurgency campaign against Darfur's "African" tribes than Sudanese soldiers, many of whom come from these very same tribes. So Khartoum unleashed Darfurian janjaweed on "African" villages, meanwhile supplying equipment, air support, and surveillance, human rights experts say. According to reports by PHR and other groups, government tanks have been known to surround villages while janjaweed rampage within.

In October 2004, with assistance from PHR, Leaning and HSPH colleague Tara Gingerich compiled a report on mass rape in Darfur for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), drawing on the horrifying testimony of women and girls. Noting eerie similarities, the researchers argued that violent rapes were being committed with an explicit genocidal aim, "to destroy the non-Arab Darfurian society as a separate ethnic entity."

"Reports of rapes are replete with statements made by the janjaweed perpetrators suggesting their intent to make a ‘free baby' (implying that the non-Arabs are slaves) and to ‘pollute' the tribal bloodline, which is patrilineal in the Darfurian tribes," the authors wrote.

"In Darfur," Leaning says, "the shame of rape is intense, leading husbands to shun their wives and destroying the bonds that rape survivors once had with their families and communities. The harshness of life in Darfur is eased by relationships with others -- and when a woman is forced to fend on her own, her circumstances become desperate."

For his part, VanRooyen traveled to Darfur and Chad with PHR and Michael Wadleigh, a photographer and filmmaker acclaimed for Woodstock, a documentary on the 1970 music festival in New York State. The team conducted interviews and took 9,000 photographs documenting the razing of homes, polluting of wells, and wanton killing of animals.

VanRooyen measured material things. But the remarkable resilience he witnessed among the refugees was rooted in something less tangible -- what remained of their sense of community. "The climate is so harsh and unforgiving, and it's so difficult to eke out an existence, that the only way people can do it is through community," VanRooyen explains. "What's most devastating for them isn't the loss of possessions, but the destruction of their social fabric."

A Wary World

So far, as many as two million Darfurian "Africans" -- primarily the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masaaleit -- have been forced from their lands. Experts estimate that 300,000 people have died, 1.5 to 2 million have been displaced within Darfur, and another 200,000 have fled into Chad. Deprivation and disease stalk the camps and settlements. Experts predict that many thousands more people face imminent risk of death if the conflict is not brought to an end, and supplies are not permitted to reach those in need.

In September 2004, former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell declared the Sudanese government guilty of genocide. It was the first time the U.S. had made the charge in the course of an ongoing war.

But the European Union has stopped short of taking the same stand. In January 2005, the U.N. Security Council also demurred. While acknowledging that grave war crimes had taken place and even that some unnamed individuals may have acted "with genocidal intent," the U.N. found the overall evidence insufficient to support the genocide charge. So far, the international community's only concrete response has been to deploy roughly 2,000 peacekeepers sponsored by the 52-nation African Union, out of 3,300 authorized so far.
Reflecting on the worldwide outpouring of aid following the South Asian tsunami (see "In Disaster's Wake"), VanRooyen says of Darfur: "It's an ongoing humanitarian crisis that foreign governments and the U.N. Security Council have been unable to mitigate. Yet the magnitude is potentially equal to any war-related disaster we have seen in recent memory."

Toward Accountability

For now, the Sudanese leaders have tried to pin the blame on the janjaweed, despite the use of government planes to attack Darfurian villagers. Leaning calls this use of the janjaweed a "deniability factor."

"Without a formal chain of command, there's no paper trail linking the government to the atrocities," she explains. Displacement of thousands of Darfurians by the janjaweed also muddies the waters of accountability, she says, enabling government perpetrators to avoid prosecution. "The relative number of outright military or grotesque atrocity killings is far smaller than the number of deaths from environmental exposure, starvation, and disease among people driven from the land."

Still, field investigations like VanRooyen's and Leaning's compel world leaders to pay attention. Susannah Sirkin, PHR's deputy director, describes their collaboration with PHR as synergistic: "PHR is an investigation and advocacy group that mobilizes a health professional constituency. Harvard has contributed scientific research methods, and brings additional clout and credibility to the findings."

Leaning and VanRooyen hope their reports will provide information and analysis to bolster the U.S. stance with the U.N., the Government of Sudan, and key European governments. More direct support is needed, they say, to augment the African Union forces in Darfur and put heavier economic and political pressure on Sudanese leaders.

Given the U.N.'s current stance, a decisive response from the world community seems unlikely anytime soon. Any proposed U.N. Security Council action would be vetoed by China and Russia, both of which enjoy cordial relations with Khartoum. China and France also have a stake in Sudan's largely untapped oil reserves. Moreover, many world leaders are now reluctant to cause a stir over Darfur, having recently succeeded in pressuring the Sudanese government to broker an end to the civil war involving rebels in the south.

Should the world ever muster the will, Leaning says, there will be opportunities to mobilize action through regional groups, or even the Security Council. Such action might in fact be more "muscular," she says, and would not require a finding of genocide. A roadblock in the U.N. over Kosovo was eventually circumvented by appeals to NATO, for example. And the U.S. launched Operation Desert Storm in accordance with Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, which sanctions multinational action in sovereign nations "to maintain or restore international peace and security."

For now, Leaning notes, the PHR/HSPH investigations are laying a foundation for the eventual prosecution of the Sudanese leadership. "What's crucial now is continuing to document how the Sudanese government and their janjaweed agents are pursuing an ugly and widespread war against the civilian population of Darfur. Through our efforts, we hope to apply pressure at the international political level, to bring these terrible acts to a halt."

Pete Farley is a freelance journalist who writes about science, medicine, and public health.

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