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Sudan's Silent Suffering Is Getting Worse

More than 2.5 million people have died as a result of Sudan's two decades of conflict — and the situation there is more dire than ever.
Photo by Matt Brown/Enough

Under the cover of darkness, in a world whose attention is diverted by more camera-accessible crises in Ukraine, Syria, and the Central African Republic (CAR), the Sudan government has revived and intensified its genocidal strategy in the main war zones of Sudan. No media is allowed. The few aid organizations still permitted to operate there are under strict agreement to do so quietly. And the United Nations mission in Darfur has recently been implicated in a broad institutional cover-up of both the scale of devastation, and of the Sudan government’s direct role in creating the crisis.


Sudan may be the world’s most murderous conflict. But the suffering of its people has been obscured, redacted, made silent.

A term like genocide is incendiary and fraught with baggage. Genocide is defined in international law as killing “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.” Regardless of what nomenclature you accept, specific ethnic groups are today being targeted in spectacularly destructive ways in three war-torn regions of Sudan: South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and once again, Darfur. We’ve often heard harrowing testimony from survivors in our travels there.

More than 2.5 million people have already perished in various conflicts in Sudan over the last two decades. It is almost unfathomable that things could get worse, yet today the scale of violence is rising to unprecedented levels, a fact demonstrated by Ben Anderson’s upcoming segment on this Friday’s episode of VICE on HBO.

The architect of these atrocities, the Sudan government, is reincarnating an old villain to carry out the most vicious elements of its campaign. The Janjaweed militias attained international notoriety at the height of the Darfur genocide a decade ago. In recent years, however, these roving bands of killers drifted off the international radar screen. Now, as our colleague Akshaya Kumar documents in a forthcoming report by the Satellite Sentinel Project and the Enough Project, the Janjaweed are back with a vengeance under the banner of the regime’s newly launched Rapid Support Forces. These forces are better equipped, centrally commanded, and fully integrated into the state’s security apparatus, with legal immunity from prosecution. This time, Sudan's regime isn't even bothering to pretend the Janjaweed 2.0 is not their responsibility.


For the people of Sudan, the terror that the Janjaweed inspire on the ground is matched only by the terror from the air. Sudan’s Air Force has acquired more accurate bomber planes and more destructive bombs to intensify its aerial assault against civilian targets in the war zones, in total defiance of feckless UN Security Council resolutions. Our Satellite Sentinel Project captures frequent satellite imagery of communities leveled by bombing raids. So far, that evidence has been ignored.

A series of satellite images from 2011 showed evidence of a mass grave in Sudan, which corroborated local reports. Image via Enough Project

Let’s also remember that the government in Khartoum is the same one behind an array of crimes and atrocities. The regime provides sanctuary to Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army in a South Darfur enclave, sponsors Janjaweed elements to fight on behalf of the Séléka militias committing gross human rights violations in the CAR, provides support to rebel groups that have destabilized neighboring South Sudan, facilitates poaching and gold-smuggling networks that are decimating elephant herds, and has displaced tens of thousands of indigenous residents in areas where gold has been discovered.

Why is the regime doing all this? Very simply, to maintain power and acquire wealth by any means necessary. Their counter-insurgency strategy — drain the water to catch the fish — is the oldest in the book; killing and displacing civilians in rebel zones makes it easier to find the rebels. It is demographic re-engineering, with millions of people being forced out of their arable and mineral-rich lands to go starve in the desert. There, as the Sahara encroaches and climate change presents grave challenges to survival, a new form of genocide by attrition could unfold as the government blocks humanitarian aid.


In the meantime, wresting control of productive land, stealing the livestock that represents the life savings of most of the people, and consolidating gold and oil production means that the wealth of the country is transferred to top-level regime officials. That stolen wealth then funds the Janjaweed, the internal security organs, and the Air Force, and ensures that those brutal instruments of control are held by a small circle of ruling party officials. Our Satellite Sentinel Project intends to pursue a forensic investigation and expose the financing mechanisms of this nexus of destruction.

The situation may sound hopeless — but that is not the case. This is a crisis America can help resolve. On a number of past occasions, the US has used its influence to bring about positive outcomes in Sudan. The Clinton administration led efforts to impose UN Security Council sanctions on Sudan in 1995 for its role in international terrorism, which resulted in the expulsion of Osama bin Laden from the country and the termination of other unsavory relationships. The Bush administration helped negotiate an end to the deadly North-South war in Sudan in 2005. And the Obama administration led international efforts in 2010 to pressure the Sudan government to allow a peaceful referendum for the independence of South Sudan. When the US acts in a bipartisan manner and builds international coalitions, change is possible in Sudan.


It's unrealistic to think that the public’s attention can remain focused for so many years on a place thousands of miles away with little to connect them to it. The fact that Darfur held the public’s imagination for a few years was the anomaly; what was predictable was that people eventually stopped paying attention. The spotlight is fickle — we're already seeing that with Syria. To regain the light, new information and ideas are needed regarding crises that may seem like old news. Telling people they should care because they cared 10 years ago doesn't work.

But there are reasons for Americans to care now about Sudan’s unparalleled violence, because it relates to US national interests. First, if you care about terrorism, Sudan formerly provided sanctuary to bin Laden and has recently deepened its links to the regime in Iran. If you care about China-US relations, Sudan provides a huge opportunity for Sino-American cooperation on peace efforts there, given China’s $10 billion investment in Sudan’s oil industry. If you care about religious persecution, Sudan is attacking Muslims who are not aligned with the ruling party’s vision of Islam, and the regime is repressing Christians in Khartoum. And if you care about basic human rights, famine threatens parts of Sudan because the regime is blocking humanitarian aid.

The US doesn’t need to intervene militarily in Sudan. No budget-busting aid operation is required. Instead, America can make a real difference in Sudan in two other ways.

First, the US needs to intensify diplomatic efforts to help create a single, unified, broadly inclusive peace process across all Sudan that can address root causes and lead to real democratic transformation. Join us in pressing for the deployment of a senior US official to work full-time on Sudan’s peace process with a small team of experts and diplomats to support African and UN mediators.

Second, the US needs to rebuild its influence in Khartoum, and the best way to do that is through the regime’s wallet. The US government must give the Treasury Department the resources it needs to follow the money enabling mass atrocities, and enforce sanctions against complicit actors. Short of military intervention, which is off the table, going after the stolen wealth of the regime’s elite will grab their attention like no other action.

Over the last decade, US taxpayers have contributed billions of dollars to Sudan for humanitarian Band-Aids and for peacekeepers in a land where there is no peace. A small investment in preventive diplomacy and forensic investigations could yield massive savings and help cool the deadliest fire in the world, a fire only those caught in the flames knew was still burning.

George Clooney co-founded the Satellite Sentinel Project with John Prendergast, who also founded the Enough Project.