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War Crimes Charges reignite Darfur Genocide Debate

Allegations by the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) that Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir is guilty of war crimes, including genocide, continue to spark speculation around the world. One of the questions is whether or not there's enough evidence to charge him with mass murder. The United Nations says at least three hundred thousand people have died in Darfur so far and two and a half million have been displaced. According to ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Mr. al-Bashir orchestrated a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the black people of the area. But the president's defenders insist that it's not fair to label what's happened in Darfur as "genocide." VOA's Darren Taylor reports.

Darfurian human rights activist Omer Ismail says the death toll in the crisis in his homeland, which began in earnest in 2003 when rebels rose in revolt against the Sudan government, has long been a point of contention.

"The government always says we are exaggerating the numbers of people killed and displaced in order to gain international sympathy, whereas we feel the state is lying about the actual numbers of people harmed by the conflict in order to divert attention from themselves," says Ismail, a policy advisor at the Enough Project.

He says Moreno-Ocampo's recent action has given new impetus to arguments among activists, Sudan government members and analysts about whether or not genocide has actually occurred in Darfur.

"Let us be clear that we are not saying what has happened is exactly the same as what happened in Rwanda. They are different conflicts. Different situations. But they are the same in that murder on a mass scale has happened in both locations," says Ismail.

The question of exactly how many people have been killed and displaced in Darfur is extremely important, he emphasizes, because of the "great implications" it holds for the international response to the events unfolding in the region.

A spokesman for the Sudan embassy in Washington, D.C., Seif Yasin, puts it this way: "The more people that are said to have died, the more evil the Sudan government, right? The more international opposition to the evil people in Khartoum, right?"

But Ismail says, "Countries, activists, regional blocs, the United Nations, the African Union – all base their response to the tragedy on the numbers of people that have died. The death toll has consequences for everything – whether numbers of peacekeepers sent to the area, funds donated, or whatever."

The activist says he has "no reason" to disagree with official UN estimates that 300,000 people have so far lost their lives, and about two and a half million have been displaced, as a result of the conflict in Darfur.

'There is no body count in Darfur….'

Dr. Eltigani Salah Fidail, Sudan's minister of international cooperation, agrees with the UN estimate on the number of people forced from their homes as a result of the violence.

"Those who are in (refugee) camps are about 625,000," he states. "But there are (also) those who are affected by the war, who are not in the camps. The total of the displaced and the affected goes up to (about) two million."

But El-Tahir El-Faki, a senior official of the Joint Equality Movement (JEM), one of the main rebel groups fighting Khartoum's forces in Darfur, says these figures are too low. "It's three and a half million Darfurians who have been displaced. And the number of refugees in Chad is half a million. This is a catastrophe beyond imagination."

When Fidail is asked how many people have died in Darfur, he comments: "There is no body count (possible) in Darfur; nobody can say exactly what is the number…."

To this, Dr. Gerard Prunier, an internationally respected political consultant on East African affairs based in Addis Ababa who has done extensive research on Sudan, responds, "The Sudan government doesn't want a mortality study on Darfur, for obvious reasons. It's still pretending there were only 10,000 (people killed in Darfur)."

In a statement made earlier this year, President al-Bashir reiterated that international estimates of people killed in Darfur were "exaggerated" and that only 10,000 had died.

El-Faki says his movement's estimate is that the UN is "more or less correct" that 300,000 people have lost their lives as a result of the conflict in Darfur. But he adds, "Even if what al-Bashir has said, that only 10,000 have been killed, is true…. For a president of a state to come out like that and say 10,000 people killed. My God. The West would have gone to a war if only one person has been inadvertently killed."

El-Faki says according to international law, even the killing of a "few hundred" members of a particular ethnic group can be defined as genocide, and that it's therefore "fair" for Mr. al-Bashir to eventually appear in the dock before the ICC judges in The Hague.

Prunier, though, says most estimates of a death toll in Darfur are unreliable.

"The last serious study that was done was in October 2004. So we can only work with the crude mortality rates (available) from the refugee camps…."

Prunier estimates that based on this and additional information available to him, "around half a million people died so far. I would say out of this half million, probably no more than 80,000 were killed (at the direct hands of government troops, militia or rebels). The rest died (as a result of consequences of the violence, such as disease or hunger). But if you are made to die, you are killed. (It may be) without a bullet or a knife, but that's how it happens."

The analyst explains, "Most of the people who've died in Darfur were not killed. They died. That is a typical thing of all African wars…. If you look at the (Democratic Republic of the) Congo – the most devastating conflict in the whole world since World War Two – you probably had four and a half million people who died in the Congo, between 1998 and 2003. Out of these, less than 250,000 were killed. The proportion in Darfur is probably in the same (category)."

But Fidail scoffs at Prunier's estimation that 500,000 people have died thus far in Darfur. He insists, "No one is in a position to put an exact number on it. We cannot say 2,000, 11,000 or 15,000 – nobody can say what exactly is the number. On what basis can they give that number?"

Dr. Bakri Osman Saeed, a senior member of Sudan's ruling National Congress Party, reiterates that activists and certain governments, such as that of the United States, have exaggerated the scale of the disaster in Darfur to serve their own interests.

"There are little things happening here and there (in Darfur and Sudan) and they are always overblown because whatever is related to Darfur now has a tendency for being amplified," he says.

'We are for integration, not ethnic cleansing….'

Saeed says rather than targeting black Sudanese for ethnic cleansing, the authorities in Khartoum are actually dedicated towards their "full integration" into Sudanese society. He points out that his compatriots of all ethnic origins and religions are present in all areas of the country. But, while Prunier agrees that black Sudanese reside across the country, he says it is "nonsense" that this offers proof that they're accepted by and integrated into Sudanese society.

"Those Darfurians that you find in Khartoum…. are exactly like the (black) people of the east you find in Port Sudan, or the Nuba (black ethnic group). There's such a large Nuba group in Port Sudan. Do you think they are there by choice, because they like it or because they're happy? No. They are there because they are dirt poor at home…. So I wouldn't call that integration at all."

Prunier says black Sudanese gravitate towards cities such as Khartoum and Port Sudan not because the urban areas offer any social acceptance, but simply because they're "economic magnets," where the poor "stand at least a small chance of putting food on the table," in contrast to the impoverished deserts of Sudan.

'Not a single mass grave….'

Dr. Mudawi El-Turabi, the chairman of Sudan's Parliamentary Defense and Security Subcommittee, points out that the only government in the world to have labeled what's happened in Darfur "genocide" is the administration of President George W. Bush.

According to El-Turabi, a number of factors need to be taken into account when considering "how Darfur came to the attention of the world" and the reasons behind the war crimes charges against Mr. al-Bashir.

He says the start of "heavy conflict" in Darfur in 2005 "coincided with the (10-year commemoration) of the genocide in Rwanda." This important event, El-Turabi maintains, "primed" the world to focus on Darfur, and an international campaign began against the "so-called genocidal" authorities in Khartoum.

The Sudanese official also attaches significance to the fact that "three of the top leaders in the world" at the time that the spotlight began to be trained brightly on Darfur were "of African origin," namely then-UN secretary general Kofi Annan, then-US secretary of state Colin Powell, and then-US presidential security advisor and current secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. These individuals, he says, were "under a very heavy and deep pressure from the black caucuses" in the US to take firm action on Darfur. This, El-Turabi says, resulted in Washington branding the situation "genocide" and is partly responsible for the war crimes charges against President al-Bashir.

Yet, he maintains, there's no evidence that mass, state-sponsored murder has indeed occurred in the region.

"The United Nations have sent, twice, fact-finding missions to the country and not one of them at all managed to determine that what is going on in Sudan is an ethnic cleansing or a genocide."

El-Turabi adds that despite the presence of thousands of refugees, peacekeepers and aid workers on the ground in Darfur, "not a single mass grave (has) been found in the country to determine this is a genocide, or an ethnic cleansing. It is a conflict; there's people dying; yes of course. And the government of Sudan is doing its best to negotiate and we will continue negotiating with any armed groups."

Alex De Waal, an academic at Harvard University and a highly respected authority on Sudan who's written extensively on the situation there, is a former member of the African Union's mediation team for Darfur. He says, "The findings of an International Commission of Inquiry…. (used) these words (when referring to the atrocities in the area): 'crimes no less heinous than genocide'. And I don't think that any government should seek to hide behind that as exoneration. I don't think that really stands up."

Similarly, the activist Omer Ismail says the "international conversation" about the charges against the Sudanese leader and the humanitarian tragedy in Darfur "should not be about semantics or body counts."

The fact is, he emphasizes, that "many, many people" have died. "And precious little has been done to stop the killings. If we want to debate, that is what we should be debating."