Upfront Home
In This Issue
News and Trends
Times Past
The Ethicist
Teen Voices
Upfront Topics
Magazine Info
The Charge: Genocide

Years after the violence began in Darfur, Sudan's leader may face arrest

By Lydia Polgreen in Khartoum, Sudan

Enlarge Map
One day this past March, a frail great- grandmother sat amid the charred ruins of her home in Abu Sorouj, a town in Darfur. With her bare, gnarled hands, she dug holes in the sand to construct the frame of a makeshift dwelling out of branches. "Everything is gone," she said. "I have nothing."

A few weeks earlier—before it was attacked by Arab militias known as janjaweed—Abu Sorouj had been a bustling town with hundreds of thatched mud-brick huts, a school, and a clinic. Now it consists mostly of ashes; nearly all the surviving villagers have fled.

Since 2003, the United Nations estimates that at least 300,000 civilians have been killed in Darfur—a vast arid region of Sudan, the largest country in Africa. More than 2.7 million of Darfur's 6 million people have been displaced and live in refugee camps, mostly in neighboring Chad. Even 11,500 U.N. and African Union peacekeepers have been unable to stop the violence.

The U.N. has called it "the world's worst humanitarian crisis." Many in the international community, including President Bush, have long denounced the slaughter as genocide.

Now, five years after the violence began, Sudan's President, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, could face arrest on charges of genocide—the systematic destruction of a racial or cultural group—as well as war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Darfur: In July, the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.), based in The Hague, the Netherlands, formally requested an arrest warrant for Bashir.

Muslim vs. Muslim

Some diplomats worry that the prosecutor's action will undermine efforts to negotiate peace and provide aid to the millions of displaced refugees. Others applaud the move to arrest Bashir, saying it puts additional pressure on him to end the conflict in Darfur.

This conflict pits black Africans against Arab Africans. (Both groups are Muslim.) It began five years ago, when rebels demanded greater political and economic rights for black Darfurians from the Arab-dominated Sudanese government in Khartoum. The government responded by turning loose the janjaweed. On horses and camels, they have stormed black villages, setting fire to huts, stealing cattle, and raping and killing villagers. Janjaweed attacks have often been accompanied by Sudanese bombers and ground troops.

The I.C.C. prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo of Argentina, charges that Bashir has "masterminded and implemented" a plan to destroy the people of Darfur. "Al-Bashir organized the destitution, insecurity, and harassment of the survivors," he contends. "He did not need bullets. He used other weapons: rapes, hunger, and fear."

Moreno-Ocampo has handed his evidence to three judges who will decide whether to issue the arrest warrant, with a decision expected sometime this fall.

Peace or Justice?

Bashir has scoffed at arrest warrants the court has already issued for two other Sudanese officials, and thousands of Sudanese have staged massive demonstrations in Khartoum on Bashir's behalf.

One question is whether the U.N. Security Council, where China and Russia are permanent members, will intervene on behalf of the Sudanese government to suspend the prosecution: China is Sudan's biggest oil customer, and both Russia and China are major weapons suppliers to Sudan.

Moreno-Ocampo realizes that some diplomats wanted him to delay his investigation and take a risk that peace could be achieved, even if it turns out to be at the expense of justice.

"Some people have said that for me to intervene at this point is shocking," he says. "I say what is going on now is shocking. Genocide is going on now, and it is endangering the lives of many more people."

In explaining to the Security Council his effort to have Bashir arrested, Moreno-Ocampo said that it takes a lot of planning and organization to commit massive crimes like those that have taken place in Darfur.

"But mostly," he said, "it requires that the rest of the world look away and do nothing."