In early 2005, Human Rights Watch investigators traveled to camps along Chad-Sudan border housing refugee men, women and children from Darfur. The purpose of the investigation was to examine the consequences of sexual violence on refugees as part of the conflict. During interviews with these refugees, Human Rights Watch investigators gave children paper and crayons to keep them occupied while they gathered testimony from the children’s parents and caregivers.
The first child Human Rights Watch encountered, an eight-year-old named Mohammed, had never held a crayon or pencil before. So Mohammed gave the paper to his brothers. They drew—without any instruction—pictures of Janjaweed on horseback and camel shooting civilians, Antonovs dropping bombs on civilians and houses, an army tank firing on fleeing villagers.
Over the following weeks of the investigation, these violent scenes were repeated in hundreds of drawings given to Human Rights Watch, depicting the attacks by ground and by air. Children drew the Janjaweed over-running and burning their villages and Sudanese forces attacking with Antonovs, military helicopters, MiG planes and tanks. With great detail, children drew the artillery and guns they had seen used, including Kalashnikovs, machine guns, bombs, and rockets. They also drew the attacks as they had seen them in action: huts and villages burning, the shooting of men, women and children, and the rape of women and girls.
Human Rights Watch had been documenting these crimes against humanity since the conflict began in 2003. On multiple missions to Darfur and Chad, investigators spoke with hundreds of victims, and documented these crimes of war. But there were rarely eyewitnesses other than the villagers who were attacked. This “ethnic cleansing” was always meant to be out of the public view. There are virtually no publicly available photographs and little footage of Janjaweed militias or Sudanese soldiers attacking villages.
However, because of these drawings by the children of Darfur, we now have graphic representations of the atrocities. The drawings corroborate unerringly what we know of the crimes. From the point of view of humanitarian law, the drawings illustrate a compelling case against the government of Sudan as the architects of this man-made crisis in Darfur. Moreover, these drawings are not confined to a few children, but were drawn and given to Human Rights Watch by children who had fled from many villages and areas across Darfur. Many children shared drawings they had done in their school notebooks, often alongside their lessons in Arabic or math. School children from seven refugee camps and the border town of Tine offered Human Rights Watch hundreds of drawings in the hope that the rest of the world would see their stories as illustrated in their own visual vocabulary of war.