Events in Israel tend to mobilise otherwise dormant keyboard warriors. This week, social media has heaved with indignation at the plight of Palestinian protesters. Yet, the same critics of the State of Israel are strangely silent about the slaughter of far greater numbers of people in places like Sudan. Could it be that the Darfuris are the wrong type of Muslims? Or, like European Jewry in the 1930s, is the Sudanese cause simply less fashionable than the Palestinian one?
When I give talks about our work with Sudanese refugees, someone invariably asks what I’m doing about “all the dead Palestinian children.” The fact that a far higher proportion of children have been killed by the Khartoum regime is an inconvenient detail. And when I post a blog about the brave democracy campaigners (Muslims, by the way) who have fled the brutal Sudanese security services, it arouses no interest from those now claiming that Gaza is the worst place in earth.
Darfuris, and the Christians in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains, self-identify as African, whereas the Khartoum regime wants to ignore centuries of intermingling, thereby reframing the country as Muslim and Arab. Hence the systematic ethnic cleansing, which continues to this day in a media vacuum. For years, Human Rights Watch has reported on the bombardment of black African villages, which leave adjacent Arab ones untouched. Amnesty has compiled hundreds of testimonies from Darfuri women gang raped by Sudanese soldiers. When I was in Darfur in 2004, I interviewed women who had been branded as if they were slaves; by impregnating them, the soldiers said they would dilute their African blood.
In 2004, the USA determined that genocide was occurring in Darfur, and President Bashir was subsequently inducted for genocide by the International Criminal Court. Sudan experts estimate at least 400,000 civilians have been killed since 2003. This represents a significant proportion of the six million people in Darfur.
Moreover, almost three million, or half the population, remain in refugee camps in next door Chad, or in squalid internally displaced persons camps, constantly vulnerable to attack by the regime’s militia proxies. Add to this the two million black Africans whom the UN estimates were killed by the regime in what was the southern third of Sudan until 2005 (now independent South Sudan).
Evidently it is not mass casualties per se that offend the selective public conscience. When Pol Pot was killing an estimated 24% of Cambodians, where was the Socialist Worker rent-a-mob who routinely protest about the Palestinians? Or when the Hutu regime killed two thirds of Rwandan Tutsis? Indonesia claims the dubious distinction of murdering the highest proportion of its own people (33%), in East Timor, but this catastrophe proved to be just as unfashionable as the current horrors being perpetrated upon the Rohingya people of Myanmar/Burma.
This is not to argue that the human rights of Palestinians do not matter. However, for the people of the DR Congo (five million killed since 1994) or Ethiopia (four million) or Bosnia, it must be bewildering, if not galling, that their misery does not attract the same revulsion as the suffering of Palestinians does.
It is significant that every moment of the conflict at the Gaza border is broadcast, whereas the Khartoum regime shrewdly sealed off Darfur and the Nuba Mountains at the beginning of its campaign of killing. Perhaps Sudan’s rulers knew enough about the Holocaust, and the years of denial and disbelief while it was happening, to understand that our selective outrage requires video footage. Whatever the truth, the suffering of the Sudanese continues in relative silence.