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9 Jul, 2009 06:44

Is Darfur conflict a state-sponsored genocide?

Darfur has been plagued by an intense six-year-long ethnic conflict that has left hundreds of thousands dead and displaced two million from their homes, but does the West really know what's going on in Darfur?

The scene of the conflict has shocked the world since it first came to the public’s attention in early 2003.

Celebrities have flocked to Sudan to raise awareness and money for more than two million people who fled their homes to escape the violence.

According to Lord Nazir Ahmed, Britain’s first ever Muslim member of the House of Lords, who has been visiting Sudan since the mid-nineties, the true picture of what is really going on in Darfur is not getting the global community’s attention.

During his latest trip in May, he felt he was visiting a totally different region to that portrayed in the media.

“I’ve seen no evidence of state-sponsored genocide… There’s this struggle between tribes, and sometimes it’s African tribes fighting Africans, sometimes Arabs fighting Arabs, and sometimes Arabs fighting Africans. So it’s a very complicated situation in Darfur,” insists first British Muslim Peer Lord Nazir Ahmed.

Darfur Union’s spokesperson Ishag Mekki, whose sister was shot dead in May in a city Lord Ahmed visits regularly, says Arabs and black Africans have lived together in relative peace, until the government got involved.

“The issue of Arab and black Africans was there before the crisis, but that was under control before the government started taking part and changing the rules of the game by saying ‘these are now black Africans, we are all northerners, we are all Arabs, let’s clean them up and take the land.’ They’ve been distributing cars and guns, ammunition and training and money,” Ishag Mekki says.

“Samir”, who has asked not to be identified under his real name, was a member of the Sudanese army and says he was given direct orders by government ministers to cleanse villages of black Africans, leaving the land free for Arab Darfuri to move in.

“Bashir, the minister, said only kill black. The Arab people go into the village first, and if someone runs, you kill them; you set fire to the village, and kill all the men, women and children. If you didn’t do it, someone would shoot you,” claims former Darfuri soldier Samir.

The foreign community is divided as to whether Darfur is truly a case of genocide, which is defined as the systematic killing of a racial or cultural group.

The US says it is, but the United Nations does not. The International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant for Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir includes charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but not genocide.

Lord Ahmed is willing to accept the possibility that al-Bashir may be guilty as charged, but says the International Criminal Court is itself prejudiced and selective in whom it tries.

“I have no problem with prosecuting those who are responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity, whether it is President Bashir or George W. Bush,” claims British Muslim Peer Lord Nazir Ahmed. “But my point is that we have to make sure international law applies equally to the Israelis, to the Americans and to the Africans.”

Lord Ahmed says President al-Bashir has invited international observers to oversee a referendum in 2011 on whether Southern Sudan should divide from the North. Others say the government is already arming two different factions in the South, with the deliberate aim of seeing the region implode. That would leave Arab Northerners free to take over the land.

At the American embassy in London, there is no doubt that what has happened in Darfur does constitute genocide. Ultimately, debate surrounding the genocide issue may distract from what is really important – establishing peace in Sudan, and returning the two million Darfuri, currently living in refugee camps, back to their villages to lead free lives.