Last Tuesday, Elfadel Arbab was at work in Portland, Maine, as the trial of Ali Kushayb opened at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. It was a moment 19 years in the making.
“You just take a deep breath. You want to see exactly what he has to say,” Arbab said. “We want to see, as victims, that he will plead guilty.”
In his Washington, D.C., apartment, Guy Josif Adam could barely bring himself to watch. He was too nervous.
“Even though there is overwhelming evidence, there is always that fear that you will never know what the outcome of the ruling will look like,” Adam said.
Arbab and Adam are survivors of the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region that broke out in 2003, where they say they witnessed atrocities and human rights violations committed by a Sudanese government-backed militia known as the Janjaweed.
More than 2.7 million people have been displaced since the war began. In September 2004, the United States concluded that a genocide had taken place in Darfur. The United Nations estimates that hundreds of thousands of people have died in connection with the conflict.
Ali Kushayb has denied all allegations. He told the court he is a victim of mistaken identity.
Ali Kushayb, born Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman, is accused by prosecutors of being the leader of the Janjaweed in the Wadi Saleh area of Darfur. His trial is the first time anyone has been held accountable for human rights violations committed in Darfur.
The court in The Hague will hear evidence of crimes committed between 2003 and 2004 in Kodoom, Bindisi, Mukjar, and Deleig villages in western Darfur. Kushayb has denied all accusations and says it is a case of mistaken identity, a statement that is disputed by Niemat Ahmadi, a survivor and founder of Darfur Women Action Group.
“He was a part of the community, people know him very well,” she said. “There is enough evidence, and there are enough witnesses to prove he is the right man who is in custody right now going through trial.”
Kushayb faces 31 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in what Human Rights Watch declared a landmark case for the international body.
“This trial is really an incredible moment for the people of Darfur,” said Elise Keppler, an associate director at the Human Rights Watch. “And for the effort to see justice when the worst crimes are committed.”
Adam still doesn’t know what happened to his parents
When Arbab was 12 years old, he woke up to find his village near Zalingei in western Darfur surrounded by the Janjaweed. They were on horseback and camels and shot anyone who tried to escape, he remembers. Soon after, aerial bombardments began. Arbab managed to get away but was separated from his family during the chaos. It was years before he was reunited with them in an internally displaced people camp set up by the United Nations.
Guy Josif Adam was not so lucky. He says the Janjaweed attacked his western Darfur village on a warm evening in April 2003. He remembers them going on a rampage, burning homes, looting and indiscriminately killing people. He panicked and ran.
“I didn’t know where I was going, but I just needed to find safety,” Adam said. “I started running and then I left everyone behind.” To this day, he does not know what happened to his parents.
According to Amnesty International, the Janjaweed were responsible for massive human rights violations including extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, abduction, looting and destruction of villages. A 2011 report by the rights group found that the Janjaweed worked in tandem with Sudanese soldiers and the air force “with total impunity” targeting the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups.
Adam, who is ethnically Fur, said he is sure the soldiers who destroyed his village were part of the Janjaweed. Similar claims have been echoed by human rights groups and independent observers.
Human Rights Watch has described the events in Darfur as a “systematic campaign” of “ethnic cleansing.”
“And there is no question that the lack of accountability for these types of crimes in Darfur, but also in other abuses in Sudan, has fueled further abuse, which has continued for many years,” Keppler said.
Kushayb is the first person to face charges for atrocities committed in Darfur but there are others who bear responsibility, Ahmadi said. She said prosecutors should start at the top and go after former President Omar al-Bashir, who has an arrest warrant from the ICC.
“Because he is the mastermind behind the Darfur genocide,” Ahmadi said.
Ahmadi believes Bashir “orchestrated” mass atrocities and directed officials to do the same. “So we are hoping to see a more proactive approach toward bringing the other ICC indictees,” she said.
The trauma is still too heavy for Adam. He was shocked when Kushayb pleaded not guilty, but he is confident in the legal procedures.
“I never thought that laws or legal procedures could have reached to this extent, but today we are in a place where we have a voice and we are able to hold those perpetrators accountable for the crime,” he said.
The trial continues, but for Ahmadi, it is only the start of a long road toward justice.
“Justice is about the dignity of the victims and your sense of community,” she said. “Justice will happen when people can restore their dignity.”