Nicholas Kristof: Massacre of innocents has returned to Sudan

Twenty years ago protests and action stopped a genocide. The latest killings are barely registering.

By Nicholas Kristof / The New York Times

First they killed the adults.

“Then they piled up the children and shot them,” a witness told Human Rights Watch. “They threw their bodies into the river.”

That’s a scene from a humanitarian crisis happening now in Sudan that has been overshadowed by the Gaza Strip and Ukraine and may be about to get far worse. It’s a conflict, by some accounts a genocide, unfolding particularly in the Darfur region there.

You may remember Darfur: It was the site of a genocide two decades ago. Those atrocities galvanized a vast response, led by protesters across the United States. Barack Obama and Joe Biden, then senators, were among those who called for action, and they were joined by tens of thousands of high school and college students, plus activists from churches, synagogues and mosques working together.

While hundreds of thousands were slaughtered in Darfur at that time, the campaign also probably saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of others. Other countries imposed sanctions and an arms embargo, peacekeeping forces were established by the African Union and the United Nations, and the Sudanese leader who commanded the genocide was eventually ousted.

Yet today the slaughter in Darfur is resuming; and the international response is not. Most Western nations and African ones alike have been fairly indifferent.

“The inaction pales in comparison to the situation 20 years ago, when global leaders felt morally and legally obliged to act on Darfur,” Human Rights Watch noted in a new 228-page report.

Some of the same Arab forces responsible for the genocide in the 2000s are picking up where they left off. They are massacring, torturing, raping and mutilating members of non-Arab ethnic groups — the same victims as before — while burning or bulldozing their villages, survivors say.

There’s a racist element: Arab militias mock their victims as “slaves” and taunt them with racial epithets; the non-Arabs are often darker skinned. The militias seem to be trying to systematically eliminate non-Arab tribes from the area.

The Rapid Support Forces, an Arab militia associated with the worst atrocities, is on the edge of the city of El Fasher, with some 800,000 inhabitants, and may be about to sack it. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, warns that El Fasher is “on the precipice of a large-scale massacre.”

In addition, food is running out in Sudan, and gunmen have blocked aid groups from delivering food. The U.N. World Food Program reports that with 28 million Sudanese facing acute hunger, people are resorting to eating grass and peanut shells.

Cindy McCain, the leader of the World Food Program, warned that Sudan may soon constitute the world’s worst hunger crisis, risking millions of lives. “Today, the people of Sudan have been forgotten,” she added.

One gauge of the global indifference: Countries have offered only 8% of what the U.N. needs to support refugees who have poured out of Sudan; including almost 600,000 who have reached Chad in the last year, 88% of whom are women or children.

The latest crisis in Sudan is the result of a civil war that began a year ago between the army and the Rapid Support Forces, both Arab dominated. The attacks on civilians like the non-Arab tribes, amounting to collateral damage in the civil war, have been particularly vicious in Darfur.

When the non-Arab governor of West Darfur protested what he called an “ongoing genocide,” he was detained by the Rapid Support Forces and executed. Videos circulated that showed his corpse stripped and mutilated.

The Rapid Support Forces have been killing boys and men and raping women and girls, according to accounts from human rights monitors and survivors. In interviews with Reuters, more than 40 mothers described how their children, mostly sons, had been killed by Rapid Support Forces. One was a 2-year-old boy beaten to death in front of his mother, who was shot below the shoulder when she tried to intervene.

The Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights issued a report concluding that the atrocities meet the legal standard of genocide, adding that it is “a repeat genocide, and a repeat failure.”

“The international community has completely abandoned the non-Arab communities of Darfur facing an ongoing genocide,” said Yonah Diamond, senior legal counsel to the Wallenberg Center.

And the global response? The U.N. Security Council has passed a pair of pathetic resolutions calling for a cease-fire, most recently merely for the month of Ramadan. This week, the U.S. sanctioned two Rapid Support Forces commanders for their actions in Darfur, a move that is welcome but far from enough. It’s appalling that leading countries not only can’t muster significant action, they also can’t even manage a significant statement.

What we can do is push, as was done two decades ago, for a much greater effort to end the civil war in Sudan. That means an arms embargo and firm pressure on countries like the United Arab Emirates that (despite its denials) appear to be fueling the war with weapons shipments to the Rapid Support Forces. A U.N. report cites evidence of cargo flights several times each week carrying weapons from the UAE to the Rapid Support Forces via Chad.

Sports figures, business leaders and celebrities visiting the UAE should question why it chooses to provide weapons used for mass atrocities.

Leading countries can also impose sanctions on Sudanese figures and press the African Union and the African members of the Security Council to show leadership. A Security Council visit to the border with Chad would highlight the crisis, as would other high-level visits and statements.

“Darfur has been abandoned by everyone,” said Tirana Hassan, the executive director of Human Rights Watch.

So, in impoverished Darfur, the vow after every genocide of “never again” risks becoming “one more time.”

Contact Kristof at, or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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