8 Jul 2012

A peculiarly Sudanese sense of deja vu

It’s exactly eight years since I reported from Nyala on the scorched-earth tactics of Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, writes Jonathan Miller.

I’m cruising at 38,000 feet in a Kenya Airways Boeing. The map on the little screen in front of me places us over Darfur, Sudan, heading northwest, towards Europe. Nyala, the capital of South Darfur is a short distance to the west. In fact, I think I can almost make it out. From my window, the earth below looks khaki-pink and scorched.

It’s exactly eight years since I reported from Nyala on the scorched-earth tactics of  Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir (watch video below). He armed and funded Arab horsemen, known as the Janjawid, to terrorise, burn and kill and rape. My experiences of talking to the victims of this terror are seared into my memory as among the most gruesome and traumatic I’ve ever been exposed to.

A lot has changed since then, although sadly not in Darfur, where hundreds of thousands of black African tribes people remain displaced in sprawling camps. For one, Omar al-Bashir has become the only serving head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

More from Jonathan Miller in 2009: Sudan’s Bashir travels defying ICC

But those indictments do not appear to have made the slightest bit of difference, because the other thing that’s changed is that the misery inflicted by Bashir and his henchmen is no longer confined to Darfur – itself a territory larger than France. Over the past year or more, the Sudanese Armed Forces – and other proxy militia, who, like the Janjawid, are backed by Bashir’s Arab-led Khartoum regime – have extended their rein of terror, attacking African tribes in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states too.

These attacks are linked to the break-up of what was Africa’s biggest country into two, exactly a year ago, owing to irreconcilable differences. North and South had fought a bitter 22-year-long civil war in which, incredibly, two-million people died. The people of South Kordofan and Blue Nile states ended up in the north. Even though they’re Muslim, their political allegiances lie with the predominantly Christian and animist South. And this is their punishment.

Over the past week, I have listened to the blood-curdling accounts of Blue Nile refugees who have fled into South Sudan, just like the testimony I recorded from those who’d fled the Janjawid, eight years ago. I was overtaken by a heavy and depressing sense of déjà vu and wondered whether I’ve just been doing what I do too long. Sometimes it seems that nothing actually ever changes.

In a grim refugee camp at a place called Jamam, in South Sudan, I sat and talked to the Nassir, or tribal leader, of the Ingesenna people, who come from a mountainous region of Blue Nile State. These mountain people were now living in a malarial swamp on a flood-plain between two rivers, where it floods when it rains – which is often.

Nassir Efendi Badi el-Tom placed the blame for his people’s plight squarely on the shoulders of the man he just called “Omar” – although he fairly spat the name out. He told me of the bombing and the ground attacks, the murder, rape and the torching of the Ingessena people’s homes.  He spoke of the killing of livestock, the burning of foodcrops and the poisoning of water supplies.  There’s no way to verify whether any of this is true, but it fits a well-documented pattern and every one of more than 200,000 refugees from South Kordofan and Blue Nile state will tell you the same story.

“He [Bashir] said that he does not need the dark skinned people of Blue Nile state. And he called us “insects,” the Nassir said, waving his hand dismissively, to emphasise this insult.  “Omar said he does not want black people. And that is why he attacked us and drove us out. And he said that he will kill all the civilians in Blue Nile and he will not spare even one. Now the Ingessena people have scattered in all directions.

“He made a problem with the people of Darfur,” the Nassir continued. “He killed people – old men, women and children – in South Kordofan.  And now, in Blue Nile state, many are dying because of the war he has brought to us. This man alone is making all these problems. He has to be taken to The Hague.”

The Nassir clasped the insides of his wrists together, as if cuffed, and lifted them in front of me. “If Omar is not arrested,” he said, with an air of finality, “there will be no solution.”   I nodded.  He was right.  I was impressed by the Nassir’s knowledge of the charges levelled against his president at the International Criminal Court. Many of the refugees I spoke to knew as well.

Last Monday afternoon, I was standing bargaining for jerrycans of diesel in Jamam market when someone’s mobile phone started ringing. The ring tone was a news report, in English, from the BBC World Service from the day the indictment against Omar al-Bashir was first announced, in 2008. The phone’s owner offered me a toothy grin when he saw me spin around.

Eight years ago in Darfur, I’d headed off into the bush in a knackered Landcruiser towards a town called Mouhajariyah, where the rebel army held sway. We had to cross the front line, which in the event, proved rather less dramatic than it sounds, although I remember feeling anxious.   When we got to Mouhajariyah, we happened across an outpost of Medicins Sans Frontieres, treating war wounded and injured civilians and children with malaria (watch report below).

Last week, in South Sudan, on the remote border with Blue Nile state, I sat and talked to Matt Arnold, MSF Holland’s hydro-geologist, who’s patiently drilling for water up there, although it seems there’s not much to be found.

Turned out Matt had been in Mouhajariyah too, all those years ago, although we hadn’t bumped into each other back then, even though we’d been there at the same time. Others on the staff at MSF Jamam had been in Darfur too.  Some had had years of experience in eastern Congo, Liberia or Sierra Leone. It struck me that they too must often get crushed by a cyclical sense of déjà vu.

This group of humanitarian relief workers were an inspiring bunch; I hadn’t realised how many people it took to make it possible for a handful of doctors and surgeons and nurses to work in a place like Jamam, but over several days there, I met most of the 43 staff based there. Faced with the looming spectre of a health disaster in that grim refugee camp, they are battling overwhelming odds.

If any of them were struck by a feeling of powerlessness emanating from that sense of déjà vu that haunted me, it was not at all apparent.  They just keep on doing what they do, clearing up the humanitarian detritus left in the wake of Omar’s crimes against humanity, giving bruised and battered, grieving, hungry and exhausted people dignity and bandages and tablets, hugs and smiles and soap and plastic sheets and biscuits. And then each night, they collapse into their tents, right in the middle of Jamam’s malarial swamp, only to get up and do it all again, the next day.  Sometimes they even have to put up with visiting journalists as well.

I’ve been sitting writing for too long now. I’ll soon be flying over Lindsey Hilsum down there in the Libya.  How’s it going, Lindsey?  Déjà vu?

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