The story of one of Al-Bashir's many, many victims

Andrew Donaldson says the numbers killed in Dafur are so great and impersonal, they mean almost nothing

MUCH has been written about our government’s shameful role in the continuing liberty of the Sudanese sickbag, Omar al-Bashir. Unlike many commentators, however, I have actually met a couple of his victims. 

It was not a big thing. Al-Bashir has, if I may, many, many victims. It sort of comes with the territory with genocide. By most accounts, his militia, the Janjaweed, were responsible for the murder of 300 000 people in Darfur, a bit of scrub in the western part of Sudan all but meaningless in the geopolitical scheme of things save for its natural resources. (The Chinese got the concessions, apparently.) A further two-and-a-half million people were uprooted and displaced in what has tidily been referred to as “ethnic strife” in the region. 

The numbers are so impersonal, they mean almost nothing. That’s also part and parcel of the modern genocide “package”. We’re no longer affected by such things. Put it down to atrocity fatigue. Kill three people and you’re a mass murderer. Kill 30, well, you still need locking up — but this time as a mental patient. Kill 300 000, on the other hand, and you get to park your private jet at Waterkloof as the 21st century Kurtz whispers, “What horror, what horror?” 

It would be a completely different story, of course, if you took a stroll in your neighbourhood, and you turned a corner, and there, on the pavement, right in front of you, in her ragged purple robes, was one of al-Shabir’s victims, a wailing and sobbing woman so wracked with grief that she was clawing at her face and tearing out her hair.

That was how I found Hamat Kadamala Hassan one afternoon in early January 2008. I was living in the previously advantaged suburb of Melville, Johannesburg, and there she was, a Masalit woman many thousands of kilometres from her home, screaming in the street. I could not understand a word she was saying, and she couldn’t understand me.

After a great deal of assistance from the then local DA city councillor who managed to find an Arabic translator — Sharon Sabbagh, wherever you are, take a bow — Hassan’s story slowly emerged. And quite a tale it was, too.

Some months previously, in 2007, the Janjaweed slaughtered everyone in Hassan’s village. Fortunately for her, she was out in the fields with a granddaughter when they came and could hide. There was only one other survivor — her grandson, 13-year-old Rachid Dahiye. 

He had been caught by the raiders and thrown into a burning hut. Somehow — and this is the part that I find most extraordinary — the boy forced himself to stay put inside that burning pyre until the raiders had left and it was safe to emerge.

His injuries were terrible. Badly disfigured, he and his grandmother and sister walked for days to a refugee camp across the border in Chad. Doctors there were not able to provide Dahiye with the treatment he needed, so an international appeal was launched to raise funds for the boy.

Children of Fire, a Johannesburg-based organisation that helps kids burnt in shack fires and other disasters, agreed to pay for Dahiye’s flight to South Africa and cover the costs of his skin graft operations here.

Dahiye and his grandmother arrived on December 26, 2007. A week later, on January 3, Hassan was told by Children of Fire that she had to return to Chad. She flatly refused, stating that she wished to remain with her grandson for the duration of his stay in South Africa. 

It was an understandable position, but Children of Fire thought otherwise. On January 10, when Dahiye underwent his first operation, the organisation tried to force Hassan on the next flight to Chad. Again, she refused to budge. This time she was thrown out on the streets and left to fend for herself — alone, terrified, unable to communicate with anyone, a stranger in a strange city.

To cut to the chase, the matter eventually wound up before the Pretoria High Court, which appointed advocate Jacob van Garderen, then national director of the Refugee and Migrant Rights Project at Lawyers for Human Rights, as the curator for Dahiye. Hassan was allowed to stay.

In May 2008, Dahiye and his grandmother left South Africa for Tunisia, where he continued to receive treatment for his burns. Hopefully, he has fully recovered and, nothwithstanding the awful scars he will bear for the rest of his days, enjoys a full and happy life today. 

But I wonder what he thinks of the way we helped al-Bashir evade justice, and hope that he doesn’t judge us too harshly.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.