About a month ago, approximately 150 innocent people were murdered in the city of El Geneina in West Darfur, Sudan. This massacre came just weeks after United Nations peacekeepers left the region, despite clear signs that increased violence would be the inevitable result of the withdrawal.
Now, I feel compelled to speak out and remind the United Nations, the newly installed Biden administration, and other international actors that the removal of UN troops is not an inconsequential part of ongoing negotiations with Sudan’s “new” government, but a misstep with real, human implications.
My life has been forever changed by the removal of UN forces in Darfur, because one of the victims of the massacre that followed the retreat was Sayid Baraka – a citizen of the United States and my brother. To prevent further senseless murders, the UN must reinstate their peacekeeping mission in Darfur, and the Biden administration must hold Sudan’s government accountable for the violence.
Sadly, Sayid’s murder was just the latest in a long series of tragedies to befall my family and our people. My first taste of warfare came in 2003, during Omar al-Bashir’s 14th year of ruling Sudan as an iron-fisted dictator, when the government-backed Janjaweed militia arrived in our village. My mother and sisters and I initially hid in our hut, but managed to escape after the militants set it on fire as they prepared to move on to the next stop in their rampage. My father and oldest brother attempted to fight the Janjaweed. As my mother and sisters and I fled our burning home, we came face to face with their blood-soaked, lifeless bodies.
After a journey that included a three-day trek through the jungle, we arrived in El Geneina, the nearest city, and sought out my brother Sayid, who was a student there. Sayid joined our family and after living together first in a displaced persons camp and then a refugee camp, we embarked on different paths. In 2007, he was resettled as a refugee in Atlanta, Georgia; he became a U.S. citizen in 2015. I made my way to Israel, where the nonfunctional system has rendered me an eternal asylum seeker as the state has refused to grant me formal refugee status.
In the early 2000s, the horrors in Darfur garnered international attention. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell declared in 2004 that the crimes committed in Sudan constituted genocide, and five years later the International Criminal Court filed numerous charges against Omar al-Bashir. The United States also provided over $4 billion in humanitarian and other aid to the country. All the while, Bashir continued to rule, and my brother pursued the American dream in his new home in Atlanta.
While Sayid rented an apartment, became fluent in English and opened his own business, he fell in love with a woman from back home who survived the genocide, but never had the good fortune to gain refugee status. They began a long-distance relationship, legally marrying without even meeting in person. Once he received his U.S. citizenship, Sayid traveled to Sudan as frequently as possible, started a family with his wife and worked to find a way for the family to join him permanently in America.
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In February 2019, their second child was born, and just two short months later Bashir was ousted following months of peaceful civilian protest. While there was then much excitement in Sudan and within diaspora communities such as mine in Israel, the prospect of peace turned out to be an illusion.
While Bashir no longer rules as Sudan’s dictator, he has been succeeded by the very deputies and former generals who planned and carried out the original genocide. These generals run the country every bit as brutally as he did. Under their leadership, hundreds were killed in Darfur and other regions of Sudan throughout 2020, and the country remains too dangerous for the hundreds of thousands of refugees worldwide who want to return there.
Despite this reality, in October 2020, three of Sudan’s five major rebel groups met with government representatives in Juba to sign a peace agreement. One of the elements of the agreement was to withdraw the UN’s peacekeeping forces from Sudan. Signatories to the deal either mistakenly or maliciously claimed that significant progress had been made toward ensuring safety in Darfur, and that UN peacekeepers were no longer necessary.
My brother entered Sudan on his U.S. passport in December 2020, on a trip to meet the latest addition to his family – a daughter born a few months before. Upon entering the country, he was harshly questioned by security services. Although they released him, he was followed for weeks thereafter by government agents. On January 1, 2021, just weeks after Sayid arrived in Sudan, UN peacekeepers retreated from Darfur.
By January 15, war had broken out – or, to put it more accurately, government-backed forces had begun massacring indigenous Darfuris and burning down entire villages and neighborhoods. The next morning, there was a forceful knock at the door. When my brother opened it, he was shot multiple times in front of his wife and three young children, presumably by members of the same government agency who had been following him. He died within moments.
My brother thought his U.S. citizenship would protect him, but it turns out that government-backed militants don’t check passports before firing guns.
I received the call informing me of my brother’s murder around noon Israel time on January 16. Minutes later, I received a photo of his body, confirming his death. By the time I was able to think straight, sometime the next day, an additional 120 to 180 people had been murdered by the same government-backed militias who slaughtered my father and oldest brother 18 years ago, and my brother Sayid just the day before.
Massacres have been carried out regularly in my region of West Darfur since 2003. The supposed change of government in Sudan has done nothing to stop these horrors; Darfuris like me, as well as Nubians and people from the Blue Nile, are in as much danger today as we ever were. While government-backed forces continue to massacre us in our own homes – literally, in my brother’s case – the UN accepts the empty promises of a government whose leaders show zero commitment to assisting the people they helped decimate 18 years ago.
The removal of the UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur is a travesty, leaving innocents unprotected and allowing terrorists masquerading as democratic leaders to escalate their murderous tactics. It is no coincidence that my brother’s murder occurred immediately after UN troops began to leave, nor that it took the murder of U.S. citizen to call attention to the ongoing horrors in Darfur. If my brother’s senseless murder is to have any meaning, let it be the catalyst for true international attention and intervention.
UN peacekeeping forces must be restored to the region, and the United States must hold the Sudanese government accountable for the violence happening on its watch. Only these steps will finally offer genuine relief to the people of Darfur, the Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains.
Usumain Baraka is one of the leaders of Darfurian asylum seekers' community in Israel. Emily Zoffer is an activist working on behalf of asylum seekers and refugees in Israel.