Killings and hunger stalk western Sudan

Armed attacks on villagers set off a major humanitarian crisis
From Africa Renewal: 
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Refugees from Darfur at a camp in Chad. A total of 2 million people in western Sudan need relief aid. Photo: AFP/Getty Images/Marco Longari

Since late last year, the greater Darfur region of western Sudan has been plunged into one of the worst emergencies in the world today. Many thousands of villagers have been killed as the Sudanese armed forces and a government-backed militia seek to crush local insurgents. Some 2 million people, many of them driven from their homes by the conflict, need "acute assistance," according to UN estimates. Another 130,000 have fled across the border into neighbouring Chad.

Darfur, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland told the UN Security Council in late May, threatens to become "the biggest humanitarian drama of our time." The UN has appealed for $236 mn in emergency relief for Darfur, and a donors' meeting on 3 June received pledges for more than half that amount.

Ethnic attacks

While Sudan often has been hit by drought, the origins of this crisis are primarily political. "Scorched-earth tactics are being employed throughout Darfur, including the deliberate destruction of schools, wells, seeds and food supplies," Mr. Egeland said in early April. "I consider this to be ethnic cleansing. I can't find any other word for it because these attacks primarily target the Fur, Zaghawa, Masaalit and certain other communities of black African origin."

Given the urgency of the situation, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan wrote to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in mid-May, urging his government to disarm the militia forces and improve access by humanitarian workers. He also asked the president to maintain a humanitarian cease-fire to permit the distribution of food and other assistance and to facilitate the deployment of observers from the African Union.

"Scorched-earth tactics are being employed throughout Darfur, including the deliberate destruction of schools, wells, seeds and food supplies. I consider this to be ethnic cleansing."
-- Jan Egeland, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs

In its sharpest statement on Darfur so far, the Security Council said on 25 May that it "strongly condemns" any action that threatens a peaceful resolution to the conflict. It also expressed deep concern over reports of large-scale violations of human rights and international law, "especially those with an ethnic dimension."

Local disputes

There have been armed clashes in Darfur since the late 1980s, stemming in part from conflicts between livestock herders and settled farmers over access to land. In 2003, these escalated sharply as two rebel movements emerged. The rebels draw their support mainly from Fur and Masaalit farming communities and from Zaghawa pastoralists. They accuse the central government in Khartoum not only of marginalizing Darfur, but also of supporting nomadic Arab pastoralists in their disputes with other groups.

In response, the regular Sudanese armed forces have carried out extensive military operations. In addition, an irregular Arab militia force, known as the Janjaweed, was formed. According to a report issued on 7 May by the UN high commissioner for human rights, many of the attacks against civilians were carried out by mounted Janjaweed fighters, who often rode into villages to kill residents, seize their crops and burn down their homes. Reports of rape have been widespread.

Although the government has maintained that the Janjaweed are an autonomous force, the UN report cited evidence that many militia fighters have been paid and armed by the government. The attacks on villagers, moreover, have included assaults by helicopter gunships and aerial bombardment of homes, markets and shops. The field missions of the UN high commissioner also gathered information that the rebels themselves have carried out rights violations, including kidnapping some children to serve with their forces.

The UN report found "disturbing patterns of massive human rights violations" by both the regular armed forces and the Janjaweed. "It is clear that there is a reign of terror in Darfur." Since the victims have been overwhelmingly from certain ethnic groups - which identify themselves as "black," in distinction from those of Arab background - it also noted that the conflict has "worrying ethnic, if not racial dimensions." Many of the actions of the army and militia "may constitute war crimes and/or crimes against humanity."

Peace in south?

The crisis in Darfur comes at a time when Sudan's other major conflict, in the south, appears to be moving towards a comprehensive settlement. On 26 May the Sudanese government and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement signed the final three protocols of a peace agreement. They provide for a power-sharing arrangement and division of oil revenues for an interim period of six and a half years, after which southern Sudanese will decide in a referendum whether they wish to remain part of Sudan or form a separate state.

The agreement promises to end more than two decades of a war that has claimed 1.5 million lives and displaced about 4 million more in southern Sudan. The insurgents have been resisting government efforts to impose Islamic Sharia law on a region where Christianity and indigenous religions predominate.

Although the conflict in Darfur does not have the same religious dimensions as in the south (because almost all participants, on both sides, are Muslims), there still are fears that an escalation could impede the southern peace process.

But if peace takes root in southern Sudan, that could in turn help calm tensions elsewhere in the country. The day the protocols were signed, Secretary-General Annan called on all sides in Darfur "to seize the momentum" created by the southern peace process to reach a political resolution there as well.