The Darfur Atrocities Documentation Project

By Totten, Samuel | Social Education, November-December 2004 | Go to article overview

The Darfur Atrocities Documentation Project


Totten, Samuel, Social Education


I was deeply honored when, a few months ago, officials from the Coalition for International Justice (CIJ) asked me to join the U.S. State Department's Darfur Atrocities Documentation Team. The team was being sent to Chad to conduct interviews with Sudanese refugees. It is one thing to spend one's life engaged in scholarship about genocide, and quite another to go into the field to ascertain whether a genocide is being perpetrated.

Over the past year and a half there has been ever-increasing concern over the violent conflict in Sudan. Deciding that more than monitoring was needed, the Darfur Documentation Interview Project (more recently referred to by the U.S. State Department as the Atrocities Documentation Team) was established as a joint effort of the State Department, CIJ, and the American Bar Association (ABA). More specifically, the Darfur project sent two teams of twelve investigators each to various points along the Chad/Sudan border in late July and early August of 2004 to conduct randomly selected interviews with Sudanese refugees from the Darfur conflict, where ethnic cleansing, rape, and targeted killing of tribal groups (primarily, the Masaleit, Fur, and Zaghawa) has resulted in an estimated 1.5 million people being driven from their homes and more than 50,000 dead, thus far. The United Nations also fears that over a million refugees are in danger of starving to death in the near future. Most of the victims are Muslims, as are their attackers.

One of the many important aspects of the Darfur Atrocities Documentation Project was that it set a precedent for what the U.S. and/or other nations can, and should do, when future cases of potential genocide arise. Far too often in the recent past, the international community (the United Nations, individual governments, many nongovernmental agencies, and the general public) has relied on journalistic accounts to gain a sense of whether genocide was being carried out in a particular region of the world. However, the latter reports were often sporadic and contradictory.

In late June 2004, CIJ began soliciting the names of potential volunteer interviewers, and within a two-week period it had received more than 400 responses. By July 15th, days before it sent its first team of twelve interviewers to Chad, CIJ had more than 600 responses from individuals willing to travel to Chad to take part in the project. Ultimately, CIJ selected twenty-four "investigators" to carry out the interviews. In selecting the investigators, CIJ was intent on putting together teams based on the investigators' backgrounds, expertise, and experience. The first team, of which I was a member, was comprised, in part, of the following individuals: four former field investigators with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY); two genocide scholars (Eric Markusen and myself); a prosecutor with the United States Department of Justice, who had previously served as a prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda; a specialist in humanitarian emergencies who had served in Iraq, Niger, Bosnia, Rwanda and Congo; and a law student specializing in human rights.

After flying from their respective homes to Paris, the members of the first team flew to N'Djamena, Chad, and from there were flown east across Chad to the isolated desert town of Abeche on small planes (ranging in size from five seaters to twenty seaters) where they received a half-day briefing by, among others, CIJ staff, members of the U.S. State Department, and specialists in interviewing procedures.

Each team was assigned to a refugee camp along the Chad/Sudan border--one in the north, one centrally located, and one in the south. The next day, my two-person team was flown south in a five-seat bush plane to Goz Beida, a tiny village that was obviously a skeleton of its former self when it had served as a French outpost. Immediately, a series of morning meetings were held with the sultan of Goz Beida, the two unduns (head chiefs) of the refugee camp, and a series of sheikhs who were responsible for separate blocks within the 13,500-person camp. …

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