A former spokesperson reveals the web of lies, half-truths, and omissions that the United Nations has built in Darfur.
- By Aicha ElbasriAicha Elbasri was the spokesperson for UNAMID between August 2012 and April 2013.
Nearly five years ago, Rodolphe Adada, the first chief of the African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur, known as UNAMID, misled the world by declaring that the devastating war in the western region of Sudan was over. Many people objected to his claim. I did not. Back then I was one of the people who had thrown dust in their own eyes so as to see no evil in Darfur beyond an age-old conflict between farmers and nomads.
In this state of denial, I went on with my U.N. career until I took on the post of the UNAMID spokesperson in Darfur in 2012. My early exposure to the horrors occurring under Darfur’s harsh sun made me feel as if I were walking out of Plato’s cave. I struggled against my own denial, and over time I was compelled to see the truth that a horrible war on civilians was being hidden from the world.
It was on Aug. 25, only nine days after I set foot in Darfur, that I received a call from a journalist from the Washington-based Radio Afia Darfur inquiring about reports of clashes in the Tawila area of North Darfur. My subsequent request for information from UNAMID officials received the reply, “According to team sites commanders (military and police), the situation in Tawila locality is calm. Yesterday they observed SAF [Sudanese Armed Forces] and Arab militias moving toward the south.” I went back to the journalist with the “situation is calm” line; it would prove to be a lie I unwittingly conveyed.
Soon thereafter, UNAMID deployed a verification mission to Tawila. It established beyond doubt that during Aug. 24-27, Sudanese government forces aboard more than 150 military vehicles attacked four villages mainly inhabited by Zaghawa and Fur ethnic groups on the suspicion that they supported Darfur’s insurgents. The soldiers raped several women, assaulted men and children, looted, and destroyed many farms.
The local population alerted UNAMID on Aug. 26 to the attack, which was forcing thousands of civilians to flee their homes. But the peacekeepers didn’t rush to protect them. They waited four days to leave their base to patrol the villages, which were only about 12 miles away.
Tawila was the first of the many systematic U.N. failures I managed to document. It exemplifies how UNAMID lied to the media and failed to protect, or in some cases even make an effort to protect civilians in the region.
As I was trying to make sense of what had happened in Tawila, I asked the deputy force commander of UNAMID, General Kisamba Wynjones, why the peacekeepers did not report and closely monitor the government forces’ joint movement with the “Arab militias” — which in the U.N.’s jargon means the infamous Janjaweed. He answered, “Sometimes we have to behave like diplomats. We can’t say all [of] what we see in Darfur.”
Kisamba stopped there, giving no further explanation as to the reasons for his position.
His statement shook me to the core — and I repeated it in a meeting of senior advisors that Kisamba himself attended. I recall the awkward silence that filled the room and the absence of any debate on Kisamba’s words, or even any comment.
Four months later, as I continued to raise questions about the mission’s flawed reporting, Aichatou Mindadou, the acting chief of UNAMID at the time, confided to me in writing that the mission had been “hijacked by 2 or 3 people…. A lot of games are being played and people have different agenda[s]” that were “not every time in line neither with the mission’s mandate nor with the sake of the Darfuris.” She also revealed that all the information coming from the mission was “manipulated,” something she didn’t agree to and was doing her best to address, she said.
Over time, it would become clear that the lies, omissions, half-truths, and disinformation about Darfur weren’t limited to UNAMID. They certainly extended to the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, some U.N. agencies, and all the way up to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Ban’s report on Darfur covering the July-September 2012 period (S/2012/771) kept quiet about the Tawila attack. It also stopped short of alerting the U.N. Security Council to the Sudanese government’s intensifying bombing campaign that was killing great numbers of civilians in Darfur, including over 100 in the Hashaba area alone.
Even more disturbing in this report is Ban’s attributing the killing of one civilian and the wounding of eight others on Sept. 5 near the town of Kutum to “the crossfire of a firefight between armed Arab militia and Government regular forces.” The truth is that there was no crossfire and no firefight, only defenseless civilians peacefully traveling to Kutum in a truck who were stopped and shot in cold blood in front of UNAMID peacekeepers by “Arab militia.” The peacekeepers looked on and took photos of the assault.
The web of lies that various parts of the United Nations has woven about Darfur is vast.Orwellian doublespeak deliberately disguises reality and distorts words. U.N. reports on the region, for instance, typically and euphemistically use “air strikes” for indiscriminate bombing of civilians, “sporadic clashes” for continuous war, and “sexual and gender-based violence” for systematic rape. As for their references to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s “regular forces,” I often wondered how there could be anything “regular” about the hordes of fighters who operate lawlessly and jointly with the Janjaweed death squads. They make no distinction between civilians and combatants, bomb children and terrorize adults, rape women, and loot and burn everything they find to the ground.
In the same vein, perhaps most egregious is the U.N.’s removal of the word Janjaweed from its vocabulary. In July 2004, facing international pressure, the Security Council gave Khartoum 30 days to disarm the Janjaweed and bring their leaders to justice, or face “further actions.” But far from disarming the Janjaweed, al-Bashir brazenly integrated an unknown number of them into Sudan’s armed auxiliary forces. (Others continued to fight on camels and horseback, in fatigues or civilian clothing.) The U.N. panel of experts’ report of from Jan. 30, 2006 (S/2006/65) warned the Security Council of this ruse:
It appears that the Security Council’s intent to deny arms to the so-called Janjaweed militia, through the adoption of resolution 1556 (2004), was circumvented by the fact that many of the militias were already formally part of the Government security organs or were incorporated into those organs, especially the Popular Defence Force (PDF), the border intelligence guard, the central reserve police, the popular police and the nomadic police, after the adoption of the resolution.
Yet the United Nations failed to tell the people of Darfur and the world this story. While Khartoum claimed that the Janjaweed no longer existed in Darfur, U.N. diplomats pretended they did not see them either. Speaking to Reuters in October 2008, then-U.N. Sudan envoy Jan Eliasson said that “the Janjaweed were no longer a discernible group.” The mission and the United Nations also purged public reports and statements of any mention of the Janjaweed. Since the deployment of UNAMID in 2008, only one mention of the word Janjaweed has appeared in the more than 30 reports Ban has issued on Darfur, undoubtedly by mistake (S/2008/400).
Instead, the United Nations has used a plethora of deceptive labels: “Arab militia,” “pro-government militia,” “government-allied militia,” “Arab tribal militia,” “tribal militia,” and “armed groups.” In so doing, the United Nations has espoused the Sudanese government’s official line that blames all the atrocities on inter-tribal conflicts and out-of-control “militias.” Nothing could make al-Bashir and his government happier. The United Nations has offered them the perfect pretext to claim they are innocent of the crimes committed by their own forces, while also claiming that they have, indeed, disbanded the Janjaweed.
It took me months to understand the intricacies of this war and what all the labels meant. However, my biggest struggle was offering honest and timely answers to the increasing questions from journalists who were desperate to hear the truth about the crimes being committed in Darfur and the identity of the perpetrators. Not a week went by without media queries going deliberately unanswered or inadequately answered by UNAMID. Many senior advisors would either keep quiet or give vague replies. In most cases, reporters would give up after they missed deadlines, and their questions would die a quiet death. I, too, was exhausted by my constant struggle to get credible and timely answers to the media.
On April 4, 2013, nearly eight months into my post, I resigned. I had discovered that UNAMID troops — contrary to their claims — did not make any effort to stop hostile and armed insurgents from abducting 31 displaced people who were traveling to a refugee conference under their escort on March 24. I could no longer speak on behalf of a U.N. mission that is incapable of protecting defenseless civilians and can’t stop lying about it.
As I was preparing to depart a few weeks later, the mystery behind another favorite verbal distortion of the United Nations — the use of the phrase “unidentified assailants” to describe people who attack UNAMID troops — began to unravel. On the night of April 18-19, UNAMID troops were attacked twice within four hours in Muhajeria (in east Darfur) by Sudanese government forces. The long firefight resulted in the death of one peacekeeper and one Sudanese officer. Subsequently, in the following early morning, Sudanese Lieutenant Ibrahim Abu-Bakr Abdallah, accompanied by hostile soldiers, bullied his way into the UNAMID compound and threatened to launch another attack if the mission failed to pay blood money for killing his officer.
Under the advice of Karen Tchalian, the mission’s chief of staff, and supported by the head of the Communications and Public Information Department, Michael Meyer, the new UNAMID chief, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, opted to distort these facts. He issued a statement that mentioned only the second of the two attacks, turned the government perpetrators into “unidentified assailants,” and suppressed all facts attesting to the government soldiers’ responsibility for the attack — this despite my having voiced concern about such incomplete and inaccurate public reporting, which could very well constitute a violation of the U.N.’s public information policy.
On this final, disturbing note, I left Darfur. On May 11, 2013, I wrote my end-of-mission report, detailing the reasons for my resignation and asking the Department of Peacekeeping Operations to look into UNAMID’s breaches of the U.N.’s pubic information policy. My appeal was ignored, so on Aug. 30, I formally requested the U.N. Office for Internal Oversight Services to open an investigation into the many lies and the disinformation I had documented.
The United Nations has answered my requests with deafening silence. Having failed to get the United Nations to investigate the situation, I have decided to put the matter in the hands of the public by sharing documents that show what the United Nations has done and how it has lied. Since the United Nations may never investigate its own wrongdoing, and the African Union is more concerned with shielding war criminals than protecting the people of Darfur, I hope the media and the general public will take up the challenge and call the United Nations, as well as the African Union, to account.
My intent is not to lash out at the United Nations, which I diligently served for years. I simply wish to provide testimony on how the organization has been covering up grave crimes against civilians and its own peacekeepers, and to bring Darfur back into the media spotlight. My hope is that, soon, the international community will stop the carnage and broker a genuine, comprehensive peace for all of Sudan.
As an Arab-African Muslim, I refuse to remain silent while innocent civilians are being killed in my name. I chose to end my U.N. career to regain my freedom to speak out. I have only lost a job; countless Darfuris are still losing their lives.