At the Aga Khan University’s Graduate School of Communication’s pavilion on Friday morning, Sudan national Nagla Ahmed sobbed and gnashed as a fellow countryman, Gouja Ahmed, made a passionate peace plea for his strife-stricken country.
Her facial tissues were all drenched when Moneim Adam, another fellow countryman, drew closer, and rubbed her back in comfort. But it was not enough to rub off the nightmares of the shelling in Khartoum which have been running in her head for weeks.
Adam, a programme director at Access to Justice in Sudan, rose to speak on the importance of accountability in the country. Judie Kaberia, Wayamo’s Coordinator for East Africa, stepped in to comfort Nagla, and hand her extra wipes. She could not be comforted.
A human rights lawyer, Nagla had escaped Sudan a few days earlier through Port Sudan, then Jeddah and to Nairobi. She’s was on her way to the UK and had stumbled on an international symposium focusing on transitional justice for her country, organised by Wayamo, a German foundation.
“Right now, we need to find how we can bury our loved ones. The bodies are all over the place, in the streets. There is no safe passage for anyone or to anywhere. It’s a miracle that I was able to get out, I cannot even explain it,” she told this writer, amid sobs.
At the coffee table where this conversation took place over tea break, raw anguish was palpable. She was not taking a sip or a bite of her breakfast. She was angry with her country of birth, her country of citizenship (Britain) and with her leaders in Sudan.
“They are shelling residential areas. Khartoum is like a scene from a horror movie. You see planes swooping down on the people, bombing innocent people. On the ground, the forces are committing untold atrocities on the people of the city, gang-raping women in front of their families,” she says.
At this point, she breaks down as she recalls the rape of three girls alongside their mother by the marauding forces. I am at a loss on how to comfort her, and I tactfully steer the conversation away from the horrors of the war.
She showed me her sister’s house in Al Amarat, a red-brick apartment covered in suit and partly shelled. Al Amarat is one of the most prestigious neighbourhoods of Khartoum but is now reeling in smoke and rubble.
Her family is still stuck in the city, and she’s counting on luck that they will be able to escape safely like she did.
“Nobody is safe there. The shelling and bombing is all day, all night long affair. People are dying in their houses, unable to obtain help or medication for their regular ailments. Of course, there is no electricity, no water, nothing,” she says.
The bridges connecting the various parts of the city are closed, the volunteers helping out are being arrested, and people are disappearing without a trace on a daily basis.
“What is required right now is the international community to exert more pressure on the warring parties to cease. What is happening there has got nothing to do with the people. It’s all about the people in power, and corruption, nothing to do with the people,” she said.
Back inside the pavilion, a rich constellation of the who is who in Africa world justice circles was there, to discuss Sudan. Justice Mohamed Chande Othman, a former Chief Justice of Tanzania was in the house as was Zainab Bangura, the Director-General of the United Nations Office in Nairobi.
Aichatou Mindaoudou, a former Niger foreign affairs minister who mediated the Darfur conflict was there. Catherine Marchi-Uhel, the head of the international, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) for Syriah too.
Other top legal brains in the room included Nema Milaninia, the Special Advisor to the US Ambassador-at-Large for global criminal justice, Tina Alai, the transitional justice advisor for Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, Betty Murungi, a respected international justice expert, Navi Pillay, a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Fatiha Serou, a former Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in Somalia and Serge Brammertz, prosecutor and Under-Secretary General, UN International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals.
They were near-unanimous that the failure to hold culprits to account for Sudan’s original sin- Darfur- is related to the present wave of deadly conflict which has engulfed the country, including Darfur.
“I was part of the mediation between government and militia. It took us three years and President Bashir agreed to implement the deal, and even appointed a Darfurian VP. I am saddened and devastated today to see that we have gone back to square one, yet we had left there with a lot of hope,” Mindaoudou said.
Gouja Ahmed, who works in Darfur, had told the participants that the ghosts of Darfur of 2003 are back in full, bloody rage with hundreds of people killed, schools, hospitals and homes destroyed and thousands displaced by marauding militias.
“Same events, same militia, same atrocities… it’s happening all over, again. People have to be held accountable otherwise impunity will become the order of the day, that’s why are they are repeating these things,” he said.
Zainab told human rights groups in Sudan to push hard the call for accountability and transitional justice in the country. She said they should not wait for the transitional justice agenda to be put on the table rather they should force it to be on the table through relentless, innovative advocacy.
Human rights advocates in the Sudan must be bold, aggressive and focused. They must not look left or right but straight ahead, she said.
“At the banquet table, there are no reserved seats. If you are not on the table, you are most likely to be in the menu. Nobody invites you, you have to invite yourself to the making of peace. Nobody loves the Sudan more than you do,” she advised.
Adam expressed helplessness of victims where peace is prioritised at the expense of justice, leaving long term grievances festering. He complained that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which silenced the guns in South Sudan, left many victims wounded and perpetrators of injustice scot free.
“Sudan will never move on until people confront each other in justice terms, and hold each other to account,” he said.
Chris Gitari, a senior advisor at the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission of South Sudan, talked of the scourge of intersectionality of victims of violence which, more often than not, is lost to the framers of transitional justice mechanisms.
“Someone is a black, widowed, is a woman, is raped, displaced, disabled and poor… the intersecting violations ought to be factored for any transitional justice mechanism to have a meaningful impact in that person's life,” he said.
Brammertz spoke of the need to integrate international justice mechanisms with local mechanisms to deal with mid-level perpetrators. He spoke of the UN’s experience in Rwanda were local courts processed thousands of cases with an emphasis towards reconciliation and forgiveness.
“You cannot achieve much if you focus on the big guys and forget the mid-level perpetrators,” he said.
Mikel Delagrange, an international criminal justice and victim’s expert with Wayamo, challenged framers of transitional justice mechanisms to look beyond retributive justice, and innovate around victim restitution or compensation.
He said often victims need support to pick up their lives after conflict. Sometimes its just about help to go back to school, start income generating activities, or get water nearby homes.
At the symposium, the importance of collecting evidence at the time of conflict, and preservation of the same was emphasised. Speakers also called upon states and international community to innovate around victim reparation.
The symposium was hosted by Wayamo in conjunction with Africa Group for Justice and Accountability.