We Can't Say All That We See in Darfur

A former spokesperson reveals the web of lies, half-truths, and omissions that the United Nations has built in Darfur.

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.



NATO Expansion Didn't Set Off the Ukrainian Crisis

Russia hasn't been "encircled" by the West -- Vladimir Putin simply wants to be able to invade his neighbors at will.

Russia's invasion and annexation of Crimea has produced a great deal of handwringing in the West, with much of the ire directed at NATO. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's slow, 15-year process of expansion into the former Warsaw Pact nations, critics allege, sparked a tragic, three-stage process: It humiliated Russia, led to the country's encirclement, and provoked its aggressive behavior toward neighbors. NATO, they say, is a relic of the Cold War, serving no purpose other than to antagonize America's potential partners in the Kremlin.

Blaming NATO's enlargement for Russian belligerence has been a feature of European security debates since the end of the Cold War, and a reliable excuse for explaining away every disagreement between Moscow and the West. "Wasn't consolidating a democratic Russia more important than bringing the Czech Navy into NATO?" New York Times columnist Tom Friedman scoffed after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, in a column aptly entitled, "What did we expect?" Returning to this complaint after last month's invasion of Ukraine, Friedman declared that NATO expansion "remains one of the dumbest things we've ever done and, of course, laid the groundwork for Putin's rise." Fellow New York Times columnist Ross Douthat derided NATO expansion as a "neoconservative" project (pursued, oddly enough, by Bill Clinton) "to effectively encircle" Russia. And no less a figure than the late George F. Kennan concluded that "expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the post cold-war era."

Tempting as it may be to castigate NATO for the deterioration of relations with Russia, nothing could be further from the truth: It was, and remains, the Russian regime's ideology, rhetoric, and conduct that provided the impulse for NATO expansion, not the other way around. Far from representing a historic error, the enlargement of NATO into Central and Eastern Europe has been one of the few unmitigated success stories of American foreign policy, as it consolidated democracy and security on a continent once scarred by total war. Faulting NATO for Russia's bad behavior betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of post-Cold War European politics, misrepresents the organization's role as a defensive alliance, and confuses aggressor with victim.

First, a little history is in order. Russia's hostile actions towards neighbors hardly ended with the collapse of Soviet communism. On the contrary, Moscow continued to bully its former republics and satellites throughout the early and mid 1990s, even before the first round of NATO enlargement (to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland in 1999). In 1992 and 1993 -- after Russia formally recognized the independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania -- Moscow cut off energy supplies to these small, reborn democracies in an attempt to pressure them into keeping Russian military forces and intelligence officers on their sovereign territory. From 1997 to 2000, according to former U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania Keith C. Smith, Russia halted oil shipments to the country no less than nine times after it refused to sell refineries to a Russian state company. To this day, the Russian Foreign Ministry maintains that the Baltic republics -- which Russia militarily conquered, occupied, and subjugated for nearly five decades -- "voluntarily joined the Soviet Union in 1940." The Balts didn't become part of NATO until 2004. Given this history, is it any wonder why these countries -- or any other country victimized by Soviet-imposed tyranny -- would want to join the alliance? Is it NATO's fault for saying OK?

Critics of NATO expansion like to point out that, in exchange for earning Soviet acceptance of German unification, the United States and its allies promised not to expand the Atlantic alliance. This is a myth, stemming from a selective Russian interpretation of the diplomacy at the tail end of the Cold War. In February of 1990, with hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops still stationed in East Germany, then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, traveled to Moscow to meet with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. A day earlier, President George H.W. Bush had sent Kohl a letter suggesting that East German territory be given a "special military status" -- the specifics of which would be determined later -- within NATO, implying that the alliance would indeed continue to expand. Hoping to earn speedy Soviet authorization for the removal of their troops and the unification of Germany, however, Genscher told Gorbachev that, "NATO will not expand itself to the East."

But the Germans were not speaking for Washington, never mind the NATO alliance. Furthermore, as historian Mary Elise Sarotte has pointed out, Genscher's concession was never made in writing, and nor did Gorbachev "criticize Mr. Kohl publicly when he and Mr. Bush later agreed to offer only a special military status to the former East Germany instead of a pledge that NATO wouldn't expand." Ultimately, a legally binding agreement not to expand NATO beyond its pre-1990 borders never materialized, and Russia's latter-day claim that it was deceived by the West has no basis in fact.   

Russia's cries of Western betrayal are really just a smokescreen. Far from threatening Russia, NATO has repeatedly gone out of its way to be conciliatory. A 1997 agreement outlining relations between the two former adversaries stipulated that the NATO states had "no intention, no plan, and no reason" to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of its new members. These "three no's" were intended as an expression of goodwill and a reaffirmation of NATO's founding principle: that it is a defensive alliance with no designs on Russian territory. In the spirit of transparency, the organization founded the NATO-Russia Council in 2002 to facilitate cooperation between Moscow and member states.

Not only did Western leaders repeatedly and explicitly make clear that NATO posed no threat whatsoever to Russia's security, some even suggested that Russia ultimately join the very military alliance that had been established to contain it during the Cold War. "We need Russia for the resolution of European and global problems," Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said in 2009. "That is why I think it would be good for Russia to join NATO." This hardly constitutes "cram[ming] NATO expansion down the Russians' throats," as Friedman alleges. Regardless, Sikorski was rebuked immediately by then-Russian envoy to NATO and now Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who retorted that "Great powers don't join coalitions, they create coalitions. Russia considers itself a great power...For the moment, we don't see any real change in the organization, we only see the organization getting ready for the wars of past Europe."

With its invasion of Crimea, the first forcible annexation of European territory since World War II, it is Russia, and not NATO, that has returned the continent to "the wars of past Europe." More significant, however, was what this terse exchange revealed about the debate over NATO expansion: It has never really been about the enlargement of a defensive military alliance, but rather the nature of the Russian regime itself. If Russia had followed a democratic path (like the former communist states which joined NATO) and ceased posing a threat to its neighbors, there would have been nothing preventing it from becoming a suitable candidate for membership. After all, if the foreign minister of Poland, a nation historically terrorized by Russia and which is once again rearming itself in light of Crimea, proposed that Russia join NATO, who could possibly oppose it? As Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt aptly pointed out on Twitter recently, it was the "historic failure of Russia that a quarter of a century after fall of Soviet Union the new generations in its neighbors see it as an enemy," while, in contrast, "A generation or two after 1945 Germany is surrounded by countries that, after all the horrible pain and suffering, see it as a friend."

Russia's hostility to NATO enlargement stems from the same root as all of its conflicts with the West: the zero-sum worldview and neo-imperialist agenda of President Vladimir Putin. In 2005, he declared the breakup of the Soviet Union to be "a major geopolitical disaster of the 20th century." And if there was any remaining doubt that he intends to reconstitute the empire, Putin erased it with his furious March 18 speech to Russia's Federation Council in which he essentially reserved the right to invade and annex any territory where ethnic Russians claim to feel oppressed. To say that NATO expansion "laid the groundwork for Putin's rise," as Friedman does, gets the situation exactly backwards. Putin's ascent was almost entirely the product of domestic factors, namely, the economic chaos of the 1990s and the popular desire for a firm response to the insurgency in Chechnya. NATO expansion barely registered on the minds of ordinary Russians.

With Russia amassing tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine's eastern border and stoking ethnic conflict in the hopes of providing a pretext for gobbling up even more territory, lending credence to Moscow's complaints about NATO expansion is intellectually irresponsible and geopolitically dangerous. In the midst of negotiations to deescalate the crisis, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has demanded that Ukraine essentially dismember itself into autonomous regions (the easier for Russia to meddle in the country's eastern provinces, which are heavily populated with ethnic Russians) and "firm guarantees" forswearing NATO and EU membership. Given that Russia has already invaded and annexed Ukrainian territory, and that it has shown no sign of discontinuing its aggressive behavior on the country's borders, these ultimatums constitute nothing less than a threat to use additional force if its demands are not met. Rather than firmly rebut these outrageous attempts to violate the sovereignty of an independent country, Secretary of State John Kerry has stated that Russia has "legitimate concerns" in Ukraine. This despite the fact that according to a new poll, 66 percent of ethnic Russian citizens there feel no pressure or threat from the new government in Kiev, a direct refutation of Moscow's relentless propaganda to the contrary.

The assertion by Russia (and its Western apologists) that NATO constitutes a threat has always been a ruse. As was the case during the Cold War, it is Russia that threatens its neighbors today, not vice-versa. Russia's real reason for opposing NATO expansion, as one Ukrainian Foreign Ministry official told me in Kiev last month, is that the alliance's collective security provision would prevent Moscow from invading its neighbors, something that Russia has done twice in the last six years. It is for this reason that NATO -- and its expansion -- remains vital for European security and stability.

To appreciate the hypocrisy of faulting NATO enlargement for the present predicament, one need only consider the claim that the military alliance has "encircled" Russia. There is only one country in Europe being encircled right now -- and it isn't Russia.

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