Who Cries for the Masalit?

Matthew Vitelli ’24 argues that the widespread media ignorance of the ethnic cleansing of the Masalit people in Sudan demonstrates our devaluing of Black and POC lives.

“Dar Masalit” is what the Masalit have long called their homeland in western Sudan. Roughly translating to “homeland of the Masalit,” this name has in the past year become more of an aspirational goal than a reflection of reality on the ground. As hundreds of thousands flee across the border to overcrowded refugee camps in Chad, the residences and workplaces they left behind burned to the ground, home seems far away for many. This destruction and alienation, however, is not the end of their misery. The misfortunes befalling the Masalit are twofold: their murder, assault, and forced displacement at the hands of the genocidal Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and allied Arab tribes rampaging across Darfur, and the pitiful media coverage this crisis has received in the West. The reason that the Masalit are suffering these twin tragedies, however, is sadly the same across both cases: the color of their skin.

The Masalit are an ethnic group from the eastern regions of Chad and the West Darfur state in Sudan. The modern era of their persecution began with the War in Darfur in the early 2000s. During this period, the Masalit and other African ethnic groups were targeted by roving bands of Arab militia known as the Janjaweed. These paramilitaries exacted terrible cruelty upon those they perceived as Black. The International Criminal Court (ICC) report on the War in Darfur notes the explicit targeting of ethnic Masalit, Fur, and Zaghawa by the Janjaweed on account of their race, with victims recalling being called “slaves” and the slur “nuba” while their entire population was threatened with elimination by their attackers. Over the course of the conflict, around 300,000 people would die, mainly civilians, and 2 million would be displaced from their homes. Many more were sexually assaulted, tortured, had their property and homes destroyed, or suffered wartime violence in other forms. These events were so horrendous that the ICC issued an arrest warrant for the President of Sudan at the time, Omar Al-Bashir, for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide due to his role in overseeing and encouraging these abuses.

While the level of violence slowly diminished from its peak between 2003 and 2009, ethnically-motivated violence continued to plague the region throughout the next decade. In 2019, however, hopes for a comprehensive peace appeared for the first time in years. With the overthrow of Omar Al-Bashir following months of civilian protests and a military coup, hopes were high that the conflict could be put to an end, and some semblance of justice brought against the perpetrators. Omar Al-Bashir was placed under arrest, and the new government reached a peace agreement with the main rebel alliance in Aug.2020, bringing 17 years of war to a close.

This peace was not to last. Following an uneasy period of power-sharing between the civilian government and the military leaders of Sudan, in October 2021 the military initiated another coup, seizing complete power in the country. The new leaders of Sudan were General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the Sudanese armed forces, and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, popularly known as “Hemedti,” the head of the Rapid Support Forces, a reorganization of the Janjaweed militia that had brutalized the Masalit during the War in Darfur. Together, they ruled Sudan, violently quashing pro-democracy protests.

Their dual rule was similarly short-lived. In April 2023, as a deadline for the RSF to be integrated into the military under General Burhan approached, Hemedti and his RSF revolted, plunging Sudan into what has now been eight months of civil war. At least 10,000 people have died so far, and 5.6 million have been displaced.

The effects of this conflict, horrendous for the entirety of the Sudanese civilian population, have been particularly disastrous for the long-persecuted Masalit. Three recent reports by Reuters journalists Maggie Michael and Ryan McNeill have documented the horrors that the Masalit community has been facing. The first, from Sept. 2023, records eyewitness accounts and satellite imagery proving the existence of a mass grave built for 1,000 Masalit civilians slaughtered by the RSF and Janajaweed in the city of El Geneina, a campaign of ethnic cleansing that led to 290,000 people fleeing the city for neighboring Chad. The perpetrators of these attacks used the anti-Masalit slur “anbai,” or slave, as they committed their atrocities, and intentionally targeted men and boys to leave the Masalit population defenseless.

The second report records the return of the RSF and Janjaweed to the same city months later. In this attack, Masalit men were gathered together and executed en masse, with either gunshots, axes, or machetes. Masalit homes were looted. Those suspected of being former soldiers were tortured.

The third report focuses on the sexual violence exacted upon Masalit women and girls by the RSF and Janjaweed. Yet again, the violence was clearly motivated by a genocidal desire to eliminate the Masalit, with attackers boasting about how the Masalit would bear their children during attacks, according to victims. The details of the sexual violence reported by victims and witnesses are too gruesome for me to relay here — I encourage everyone, when ready, to read the report. I could not possibly do justice to the first-hand accounts of the victims with my own words.

Rarely in a modern conflict has the intent and evidence for a genocide been so methodically, systematically, and verifiably recorded. No doubt remains that in West Darfur, there has been a coordinated and calculated campaign of murder, torture, assault, sexual violence, and forced displacement designed to bring about the destruction of the Sudanese Masalit population by Arab militias and the forces of the RSF. The question that does remain, however, is why has this crime against humanity received so little attention in the West? Why, in all likelihood, is this the first time you are hearing about this?

The outbreak of the conflict in Sudan did grab Western media attention for a brief period of time. During the month of April, as Western countries scrambled to evacuate their citizens caught up in the fighting in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, news coverage of the conflict became fairly widespread. But as soon as Americans and Europeans had left the country, coverage of the War in Sudan dropped off the radar of most Western publications, appearing buried beneath stories about conflict in Ukraine, domestic troubles, and human interest stories, if at all. A simple viewing of the New York Times home page as I write proves this point. Out of the 176 stories on the home page, not a single one is related to the ongoing conflict in Sudan or the genocide of the Masalit.

Unfortunately, this state of affairs is hardly surprising. The War in Tigray, which lasted for two years from Nov. 2020 to Nov. 2022 and killed around 600,000 people, rarely appeared in Western news either, despite being the deadliest conflict of the 21st century. Even less widely reported have been conflicts in Mozambique, battles between government forces and rebel groups in the Amhara and Oromia regions of Ethiopia, ongoing violence in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, or rebel activity in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Conflicts in Africa rarely elicit the attention of Western news outlets, and when they do, are often portrayed as the normal state of affairs for the region — violence that, while sad, is considered the continent’s inevitable reality. Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Jeffrey Gettleman captured this perspective in his 2010 article on “Africa’s Forever Wars,” in which he wrote that wars in Africa have devolved from anti-colonial struggles into “circles of violence in the bush, with no end in sight,” wars that “aren't really wars” but instead “ceaseless conflicts” driven by “predators” devoid of any ideological convictions.

I deeply appreciate Gettleman’s journalism. He has devoted much of his career to covering Africa in a way that shines a direct and compassionate light on many of these oft-ignored conflicts. However, I can’t help but lament that his perspective —  that conflicts in Africa of the 21st century are more difficult to solve than those of the 20th due to the increasingly resource-based motives of the combatants — has been internalized by many in the West as a reason to give up on trying to solve them, or to ignore these cycles of violence entirely. African people across the continent have been reduced in the Western imagination to hapless victims of intractable violence, doomed to suffer endlessly due to the continent of their birth.

It is impossible to ignore the racism bound up in this perspective. I find it hard to believe that if a majority white country such as the United Kingdom or France suffered a war that killed more than half a million, that the media would chalk it up to tragic but expected violence, and let the war slip from the headlines. The factor that unites all African conflicts ignored by the Western media is the color of the victims’ skin. While a terrorist attack killing 13 at a Christmas market in Berlin in 2016 received front-page coverage and hour-by-hour updates (as it should have), another terrorist attack that year in Nigeria killing at least 65 and as many as 100 received barely any attention at all. This has been a common trend for years — while violent incidents in Western (and predominantly white) countries routinely capture global attention, tragedies with equal if not greater human tolls in the Global South, and particularly Africa, are relegated to the back of newspapers, the bottom of search results, or the cut-for-time segments of news broadcasts, if they are not ignored entirely. Not only do Africans like the Masalit get targeted by violence due to the color of their skin at home, they suffer the double indignity of being ignored by the Western media for the same reason.

A recent video published from El Geneina, the cultural and population center of the Masalit in Sudan, shows an Arab militiaman proclaiming that “there will be no Dar Masalit again, only Dar Arab.” As time goes on with no action taken to stop the carnage in Darfur, this genocidal proclamation is increasingly becoming a reality. Getting the international community to work together to stop a genocide has proven difficult in the past. States and NGOs have different ideas as to how best to approach these horrendous crimes, given complex geopolitical concerns and cynical self-interest. However, one course of action should be extremely easy and overwhelmingly obvious: We need to start paying attention. Widely covering the atrocities in Darfur is the bare minimum that we can do for the Masalit and other victims of ethnically-motivated violence. For far too long, we in the West have cared little about what happens to our fellow humans on the African continent due to their skin color. News organizations have a moral duty to correct this pattern, regardless of ratings or bottom lines. As you read this article, hundreds of thousands of human beings across the ocean are being murdered, tortured, and expelled from their homes on account of their race. We should not use the same reasoning as their attackers to wipe their stories from the front page.