This article was originally published in the International Herald Tribune. Kelly Askin is senior legal officer for the International Justice Program of the Open Society Justice Initiative.
N'DJAMENA, Chad—As Bill Frist, the majority leader of the U.S. Senate, was interviewing Darfurian refugees in Chad earlier this month, the Sudanese government and Arab Janjaweed forces attacked a number of black Darfurian villages just a few miles away, over the Sudanese border. Frist was in Chad because Sudan had refused to grant him a visa, even though Khartoum had done so on earlier occasions. The timing and location of the attacks demonstrated the Sudanese government's confidence that it could act with impunity.
I was in Chad at the same time to provide parallel assistance to a U.S.-government-funded mission led by the Coalition for International Justice, to interview refugees about why they fled Darfur, and to participate in documenting and assessing the crimes they endured or witnessed before leaving. According to witnesses I interviewed, since its independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956, Sudan has systematically discriminated against its black citizens, amounting to the crimes against humanity of persecution and apartheid. It has now reached the scale of genocide—executed through violence, starvation, and other means of destroying the black Africans in the Darfur region.
After interviewing five boys aged 10 to 18 who had escaped from their capture and torture by Janjaweed or Sudanese government forces, I spoke with a Sudanese refugee-camp leader who had just received information that several Darfurian villages were being attacked by government and Janjaweed troops. Traveling to the border the next morning, I met dozens of men, women, and children who had managed to escape the ambush and were now trickling into Chad.
I met with survivors from nine different villages that had been attacked, although exactly how many villages were involved is unclear. I spoke with one survivor after another who told a strikingly similar story of the most recent attacks: Government planes flew overhead to view the villages, and then government vehicles attacked from the hillsides while thousands of Janjaweed simultaneously set in on horseback. Most of the villages had been attacked before, and survivors had sought safety in the nearby mountains. But Sudanese policemen had gone to the mountains and used microphones to lure the civilians back to the villages, saying it was safe and offering protection.
While on the border we could hear planes and bombing just to our north. Survivors told us that a UN camp for internally displaced persons had also been attacked that Saturday and, ominously, that UN staff members had been evacuated from the camp on July 29, a week and a half before the attack. There were also reports that some 20,000 men, women, and children were trapped in the Jabal Moon mountains near Chad. Soldiers had sealed off the area to prevent their escape and to stop aid from getting through in what was apparently an attempt to starve them to death.
The definition of genocide is not limited to mass killing, although that is the means that generates the most attention and outrage. The Genocide Convention of the United Nations also requires states to prevent and punish other acts committed with an intent to destroy, even partially, a racial, ethnic, national or religious group. The most common form of genocide committed in Darfur is the infliction of "slow death" through starvation and disease—an act covered under Subarticle C of the Genocide Convention, which prohibits inflicting on a group "conditions of life" calculated to result in its demise.
The government of Sudan, far from being a helpless bystander, is a leading participant in these crimes, and its soldiers and its air force are openly working hand in hand with the Janjaweed. The slaughter, rape, and massive destruction over the past several months were preceded by decades of systematic discrimination by Khartoum in all areas of life against black Darfurians. The government cannot be trusted to protect the civilians, much less assist them. The African Union, with the logistical and, if necessary, military support of Western democracies, must act before tens of thousands more innocent lives are lost. And justice must be pursued in order for Sudan to have any chance for a real and lasting peace.