UCL Darfur Week: Does Darfur still matter?

1 December 2009

Peter Scolding, co-lead coordinator of UCL Darfur Week and fourth-year medical student, gives an insight into the devastated region and explains why action is overdue.



Darfur is important, right? We’ve all heard of Darfur, and have an inkling of what has been happening there from echoes resounding around the world. We also know that Darfur is just one region in the west of Sudan. Sudan is just one country in a huge, troubled African continent and Africa is just part of a big bad world, right? So is Darfur really important?

Let’s look at some numbers: 19,000 personnel from the joint United Nations and African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) are currently stationed there. Until March 2009, Darfur also hosted the largest humanitarian aid effort in the world with more than 13,000 staff working for over 100 agencies. Meanwhile, more than five million of Darfur’s natural inhabitants are at this moment dependent on such inputs.

What does the world think? Hollywood cares: George Clooney has visited Darfur five times, discussed the issue with Gordon Brown, addressed the UN Security Council and worked with his father on the documentary A Journey to Darfur.

Watch UCL Union’s Darfur Week promotional film by clicking on the player below

Gordon Brown cares: he made Darfur a “foreign policy priority”, making a joint call with Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 for “quick and decisive action from the international community”.

The UN Security Council has passed more than 20 resolutions on Darfur, mandating the enormous peacekeeping mission and eventually referring Darfur to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The ICC staked both its credibility and its conception of justice on the arrest warrant issued in March 2009 against Sudan’s ruling president, Omar Al-Bashir, on multiple instances of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

In 2009, from 30 November to 4 December, an ever-growing coalition of UCL Union student societies will stage ‘UCL Darfur Week’. So what has provoked such a huge and high-profile reaction?

In 2003, the tinderbox containing Darfur’s patchwork of ethnic tribal factions ignited. The slow-burning fuses of economic, geographical and political inter-group tensions were fanned by the inflammable breaths of political manipulation and community mobilisation. What has unfolded since has been a human catastrophe of horrific proportions.

In this first phase a brutal, highly mobile campaign of total war stretched right across Darfur, a region the size of France. Thousands of settlements were targeted by Janjawiid horsemen, supported by Sudanese Government bombers and troops. Myriad rebel factions attacked both government installations and civilian targets. The widespread, indiscriminate murder, rape and displacement of civilians, a horrifying and defining tactic, has not however been a constant or overarching strategy. These devastatingly violent waves peaked in 2003–4 and 2006. Military instability since then has often clustered around key political flashpoints; peace talks in 2006 and 2007, the submission of the case for prosecution by the ICC’s Chief Investigator Luis Moreno-Ocampo in 2008 and the verdict in 2009.

Mother and child in Darfur

Over the past six years the complexion of the conflict has fluctuated, with shifting military and political alliances, transient peace treaties and flickering international interventions. Over this time the loyalties, capabilities and composition of both rebel factions and Janjawiid militias have changed time and again. Instability within Darfur remains a key dynamic in late 2009 and this chaotic picture was described by the head of UNAMID in March 2009 as “a conflict of all against all”.

One constant amidst the shifting fog of war has been the devastating human impact of the conflict. An estimated 300,000 people have died in violence, equivalent to a whole generation. Out of Darfur’s population of 7.5 million, more than 3.5 million have had to flee their homes to seek refuge in larger towns, cities and camps, whilst over five million are now dependent on aid.

Humanitarian endeavour has had some successes, battling to provide just enough to sustain these vast numbers in life and health. However, in the hostile, obstructive environment of Darfur, such aid could never fulfil all the needs of those affected.

The daily struggle to survive, faced by so many, has only intensified in 2009. One hour after the ICC issued the arrest warrant for President Bashir in March, 13 aid agencies were expelled from Sudan. The huge shortfall created by their departure is yet to be resolved.

As for ‘justice’, this may remain a remote, even irrelevant concept for some time. President Bashir remains at liberty in Sudan, and the people of Darfur have gained no method of redressing the horrors they have faced, or of improving their immediate living conditions.

What has happened in Darfur cannot be understood in simplistic terms of genocide and genocidaires, of wrongs to be righted, or even of good versus evil. Yes, many innocent thousands have been murdered, and millions driven from their homes to live in insecure dependent camps where in 2009 they must struggle to stay alive. This is the core and still urgent human tragedy of Darfur, which must remain at the centre of our understanding and response to the situation.

But the bigger picture is fractured and harder to piece together. There are no winners in Darfur; all have lost something in the chaos of “a conflict of all against all”, and perhaps all must bear some responsibility both for what has happened and in efforts to redress underlying grievances and move towards peace.

So Darfur is important. What has taken place, and is happening to so many millions there, remains of paramount significance. This will be remembered as one of the defining issues of our era, one that, as yet, has no clear end in sight. Be part of Darfur Week and find out more.

Image: On the former market Shegeg Karo, located between picturesque orange sand dunes in North Darfur, Aziza Tahir Hassim (28) is still walking around the market dazed by incomprehension. In the last bombing which cost the lives of 12 people, half of them where children between five and 11 years old. More than 30 people were heavily injured © Jan-Joseph Stok/MSF


UCL context

This article was first published in the November 2009 issue of UCL student publication Pi Newspaper. Its sister publication, Pi Magazine, was named Runner-up in the Magazine of the Year category in the Guardian Student Media Awards 2009.

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