After 10 years, corpses have a dull smell of damp and rot. A fortnight ago, I wandered through one of Rwanda's killing fields - a swish technical college where Tutsis were told to hide, not realising they were simply waiting for the machete - and breathed in this guilty scent. The rotting bodies are laid out in neat piles at the back of the school, in huts designed to be college accommodation. Hair is falling off in clumps from one woman. There are dozens of tiny skulls with big holes bashed in them. Later a friend finds a child's hip-bone in the mud. "We keep them because we want people to remember," the guide in Murambi told me. "So it does not happen again."
But for two years, it has been happening again, barely a country away. In the Sudanese province of Darfur, a slow-burn genocide has seen an Arab supremacist militia called the Janjaweed hack to death or starve more than 300,000 people simply for being black-skinned Africans. Some 90 percent of the black African villages have been burned or beaten into the earth.
The New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof has provided us with the best word-pictures of the Darfur holocaust. Here are some of the tragedies he plucked from among hundreds of thousands wandering lost through Darfur. Haroun Ismael is a young man whose baby was snatched from his arms and shot in front of him for being a black boy. Saida Abdukarim is a heavily pregnant teenager who was gang-raped as she tended her vegetable patch, while her rapists yelled, "You are black, so we can rape you."
Idris Ismael is a 32 year-old man driven out of his village with his eight-month pregnant wife and four children hobbling behind, only to see them captured. He stared back at his village, now surrounded by the Janjaweed, and said, "They will rape and kill my family. And there's nothing I can do."
But now, it is about to end. At least, that is what we are supposed to hope, and to dream. Over the past week, both the Sudanese government and the largest rebel faction, the Sudan Liberation Movement, signed up to a peace deal in Abuja, Nigeria. (Two smaller rebel groups are still holding out.) The conditions are straightforward. The Janjaweed will be disarmed. Villagers who were driven from their homes will receive compensation. The Darfurian people will be given a vote on whether they want a regional government - the issue that triggered the rebellion in the first place, and prompted the crazed genocidal response from the government in Khartoum - and they will be given their own presidential advisor.
So is this another genocide stopped too late, but at last? On close analysis, it is not even that. Professor Eric Reeves, an expert on Sudan, warns, "The Abuja agreement is little more than another request to trust a regime that has never abided by any agreement with any Sudanese party - not one, ever. In essence, the victims of genocide are being asked to trust that the perpetrators of genocide will disarm and restrain themselves."
General Romeo Dallaire - the Canadian general who fought so hard to get troops into Rwanda to stop the genocide - says 44,000 UN troops are needed to guarantee peace. It seems unlikely there will even be one. Osama bin Laden has popped up to pledge that any UN peacekeepers will be hunted down and killed as "crusaders".
There has been a shift in the American position, with George Bush now calling for a "substantial" UN force in Darfur to uphold the peace agreement. It would be nice to think this is motivated by humanitarianism, but the reality is more sordid. After an initial burst of moral condemnation back in 2004, the Bush administration actually began to coddle the Sudanese génocidaires. They sent a jet to Khartoum to fly Salah Abdullah Gosh - the man overseeing the holocaust - to friendly White House talks. (Not long after, Gosh was admitted to Britain to receive medical treatment.)
When the Darfur Accountability Act was passed with a whopping majority through the Senate, pledging a no-fly zone over Darfur and a freeze on the accounts of officials involved in the holocaust, the Bush administrating quietly stripped these provisions out.
So what changed? Simple. The conflict was spreading across the border into Chad - and threatening one of the region's most reliable sources of oil. The Janjaweed militias were hacking and slashing across the border to "finish off" the tribes they had already butchered in Darfur. They were so successful that they actually reached the capital. President Idriss Deby threatened in desperation to suspend oil exports - and suddenly the US State Department had a Damascene conversion and promised to send a senior official to act as an "honest broker" to resolve the conflict.
Although the Americans have come to call for a UN peace-keeping force for the ugliest of reasons, at least they're finally on the right page - more than can be said for the Chinese and Russians. But if the UN force is not hefty, and with a clear mandate to protect civilian life, it will be little use.
I recently saw in the Democratic Republic of Congo what a UN peace-keeping mission can do - and how it can be hobbled by paltry numbers. While I was in Bukavu, a shack-city in South Kivu, there were a string of massacres across the city. It began when some starving soldiers from the new and barely formed national army shot a man in a failed robbery, and the local people carried his corpse to the army headquarters demanding justice. If it had not been for the UN peacekeepers, poised with white tanks and a polyglot mixture of soldiers from Pakistan and India across the town, most local people believed the town would have been turned into a human abbatoir once again.
Yet there are so few peacekeepers - just 17,000 in a country the size of Western Europe - that they privately admit, "We can't do anything about the mass rapes. We discovered a huge mass grave yesterday and we don't even have anyone guarding it. Whole parts of the country are totally unprotected." Will Darfur be offered (at best) another measly force like this?
It is a sign of how low we have sunk that we now have to look to Hollywood celebrities for moral guidance. George Clooney was speaking at a Save Darfur rally last weekend (where are the British equivalents, by the way?). He said, "If we turn our heads, look away, and hope that it will all disappear, then they will - all of them, a whole generation of people. And we will only have history left to judge us." I don't want to visit a Darfurian mass grave in 10 years' time, stumble across a child's hip bone, and wonder why we ignored those words.Reuse content