Dr. Lako Tongun may not know his exact age, but he knows firsthand the conflicts happening in Sudan.
Tongun, who was born and raised in the southern part of that African nation, is now an associate professor at Pitzer College in California. He was invited by the University of Texas-Pan American to speak at this year’s Festival of International Books and Arts (FESTIBA) on the topic of world revolutions. The weeklong event completed its fifth year last week, aiming to improve literacy in South Texas and raise awareness of important issues around the world.
Tongun, whose area of expertise is in African and Third World politics and economy, gave a lecture March 23 titled Darfur: Crisis and Genocide. He focused on the mass killings happening in the western region of Sudan known as Darfur.
“More than 300,000 people have been killed since February 2003,” he said. “There are more than 250,000 refugees, and 2.5 million more are internally displaced.”
According to the United Nations, internally displaced persons are people on the run in their own country. Unlike refugees, they remain within the boundaries of their government, even though that government might be the cause of flight.
Tongun, who was given his name and an approximate age by the UN after becoming a Sudanese refugee in 1962, says this is the case in Darfur.
He explained that there is an identity crisis happening in Sudan, where the government is composed of military regimes that identify with the Arab world, while 60 percent of the population sees itself as African. Tongun went on to say that the main conflict in Darfur is between two groups of people - a nomadic Arab group and African farmers.
“They used to have good relations in the past,” he said. “But it changed after the governemnt tried to step in and regulate the land.”
He says Sudanese officials used the nomadic Arab group to form a militia called the Janjaweed, which in translation from Arab means Devil on Horseback, specifically to attack civillians, in this case African farmers.
“The purpose for the government in doing that, is they want room for deniability,” he said. “They want to claim ‘it’s not us doing that, it’s the militia.’”
Tongun said one of the reasons the government has been able to facilitate the attacks is due to the lack of media coverage - an issue of recent local import in the form of self-censorpship by Mexican reporters who are in fear of retribution from narco traffickers such as the Zetas.
“The government did not allow the world press in to the country,” he said. “Instead, reporters were rerouted to Chad, a neighboring country. There, they were able to speak to some refugees and evetually get some information on the situation.”
In 2005, the UN set up a commission to investigate allegations of genocide in Sudan. Representatives from five countries were sent to investigate, but Tongun says they were not allowed to move freeily within the region. Their conclusion was detailed in a 176-page report staying that acts of genocide were committed, but noting lack of enough evidence to conclude that the government had pursued a policy of genocide.
The commission also found that “government forces and militias conducted indiscriminate attacks, including killing of civilians, torture, enforced disappearances, destruction of villages, rape and other forms of sexual violence, pillaging and forced displacement, throughout Darfur.”
On March 4, 2009 the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity, but again ruled that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him for genocide. Because the ICC does not have a police force, Al-Bashir remains a fugitive. As long as he remains in Sudan or in countries that are not obliged by the ICC to arrest him, he is free. In fact, he is running for re-election in April.
UTPA History Professor Dr. Tamer Balci personally invited Tongun to the university. Balci was once Tongun’s student in graduate school, and says that it is important for students to learn about ongoing troubles around the globe.
“We learn lessons from every conflict,” he said, added that residents in the Valley have one brewing next door.