Humanitarian disaster at Sudan border: are we turning a blind eye to ethnic cleansing? 18:18 in Abroad A personal look back by correspondent Elles van Gelder on her visit to a refugee camp across the border with Chad.

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Fight in Sudan
NOS News
  • Elles van Gelder

    Africa correspondent

  • Elles van Gelder

    Africa correspondent

Tea must be drunk on a straw mat in the refugee camp in Adré, 900 kilometers from the capital of Chad, because we are guests. It contains a lot of sugar, and it gives a little energy. We are in a refugee camp right next to the border crossing with Sudan, together with an activist, a civil servant, a court employee and an engineer from the Sudanese region of Darfur.

Unfortunately, it is not the first time that we have been in a refugee camp, full of people looking for safety. But what is striking about this place is that you do not have to look for victims of violence. Everyone you speak to randomly seems to have lost someone and many are eyewitnesses to executions. They want to talk, tell their story.

Nobody sees it

Because they are not heard enough. A disaster has been unfolding in Sudan for five months, and hardly anyone sees it. The world receives plenty of images and stories of the war in Ukraine, but Sudan has received little attention since all Westerners have been evacuated. This is partly due to the distance, physically and emotionally. Compared to the Netherlands it is 5000 kilometers as the crow flies, and the other is really different here.

As a journalist you always try to find common ground, which makes it easier for a Dutch reader, viewer or listener to identify you. That Sudanese in the camp is also a mother, a grandmother, a student. Just like you.

This time there is a major stumbling block in showing the human being. And that is that we cannot enter Sudan to bring the story closer. Journalists are not allowed inside. And without images it is difficult to reach many people.

400,000 refugees

It has been my biggest frustration with being a correspondent for years. Not being able to report from where it happens. I experienced the same thing with the war in the Ethiopian state of Tigray. At the beginning of the war we managed to enter once, but after that the region closed down. While according to research, Tigray, and not Ukraine, was the deadliest conflict of 2022. At least 100,000 people died there.

But few people will know where Tigray is. Darfur, that sounds somewhat familiar. Although perhaps only because of the Giro555 action in 2004, after Sudanese Arab militias killed part of the black population of Darfur.

In recent months we have heard of this happening again in the same region. With Sudan in lockdown, we decide to go to Chad to show something of the crisis. Nearly 400,000 refugees have already arrived in the neighboring country.

Alarm bells

I found more stories than I could digest. We hear of executions of men and boys in front of wives and mothers. We see physical evidence of bullets in the backs and feet of people shot while fleeing. A grandmother tells of children tied to their mothers’ backs and beaten with sticks by militia until they died.

My alarm bells are going off. I not only studied journalism but also genocide studies. Too much sounds familiar. Such as militias that explicitly ask which population group someone belongs to before they decide about life or death. And that they are the same perpetrators as then, who were never punished.

More than 400,000 people have now fled Darfur, and many have terrible stories.

Residents fled ethnic violence in Darfur: ‘These are systematic attacks’

Just like twenty years ago, it concerns Sudanese militias of Arab descent who target compatriots of African descent. It’s actually just a continuation, the men say over tea. Not that the courageous citizens of Sudan haven’t tried to change it. In recent years, they have risked their lives in endless protests demanding different leaders.

No international outrage

During the first Darfur crisis, we were massively upset and action was taken. This time there is no major international outrage. What makes it different now? Is there simply too much misery, with the war in Ukraine close by and a world shaking in Morocco and crying in Libya, to be able to absorb this?

Crises should not be compared, an experienced UN employee told me in the refugee camp. She has just returned from Ukraine and is now in the mud in Chad. Yet you cannot help but reflect on the difference in attention between one disaster and another, however understandable.

Who’s listening?

We once shouted: there must never be another genocide. Genocide is a loaded term with narrow definitions, but it is clear that things are going horribly wrong again in Sudan. More deaths occur every day. Not only because of ethnic violence by militias, but also because civilians are caught in the crossfire and hit by army bombardments.

We actually know nothing about the number of victims. But when I think about the size of the refugee camp and how many people cry for loss in those huts, I hardly dare to think about that.

The tea is gone. New ones are being installed. Here they ask for international help, an intervention. I pass it on in my stories. Giving people a voice is what I want and have to do as a correspondent. But this time I am left with a feeling of powerlessness. Because who really listens?

  • Scars of ethnic violence in Darfur torn open: ‘They are coming to finish the genocide’
  • UN: Millions of Sudanese are at risk of dying from hunger
  • Collection

    Fight in Sudan

  • Abroad

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