As One Sudanese Conflict Wanes, Another Flares Up

Ethnic Cleansing Grips Western Region of Darfur

KHARTOUM, Sudan, MAY 29, 2004 ( Hopes for peace in Sudan rose this week with the signing of an agreement between the government and southern rebels. On Thursday, Reuters reported that the accords could help end Africa’s longest-running civil war. The agreements settled the status of three disputed areas — the Nuba Mountains, Southern Blue Nile and Abyei — and set up postwar power-sharing arrangements.

Exact data on the war’s fallout are hard to obtain. Some estimates say the 21-year-old war between the Islamic government and the mainly Christian and animist rebels have left up to 2 million dead and forced another 4 million to flee their homes.

The agreements do not, however, resolve a conflict raging in the Darfur area, where concern is increasing over the west of Sudan. On Tuesday the U.N. Security Council called for the immediate deployment of international monitors in the Darfur region, the Associated Press reported the next day.

Aid efforts hampered

A U.N. press release published Wednesday highlighted the problems of providing aid to Darfur. The Sudanese government has lifted some restrictions on humanitarian visits to the refugees, but imposed other restraints which, along with insufficient external funding, effectively impede timely assistance, said Jan Egeland, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

On the day the new procedures were announced, the United Nations had 93 visas applications outstanding and several major nongovernmental organizations were still waiting for visas for more than 60 relief workers, explained Egeland.

Moreover, the U.N. Children’s Fund, UNICEF, was told recently that its exemption to import drugs could be revoked, making it liable to experience delays of several months while emergency medical supplies were tested in Sudanese laboratories, he said. Meanwhile, the rainy season was fast approaching, which could make roads impassable.

Fears of a new genocide

Firsthand information on the situation in western Sudan is scarce, owing to government restrictions on journalists and aid workers. Press reports in recent months speak of bloody attacks on villages, carried out by members of the Sudanese army and air force, as well as raids by an Khartoum-allied Arab militia known as the “Janjaweed.”

In a report on Sudan published May 23, the International Crisis Group (ICG) noted that it just a month ago that the international community marked the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide with promises of “never again.” The ICG warned that without decisive action an already “substantial ethnic cleansing” could turn into something just as deadly as Rwanda.

The report estimated the Darfur death toll at 30,000 since the conflict erupted in February 2003. The area now faces the danger of another 350,000 deaths due to starvation and disease, the report said.

According to the ICG, a cease-fire signed by the Sudan government and rebels in Darfur last April 8 is not working. Up to 1.2 million people have been forced from their homes and now live in poorly run government-controlled camps within Darfur, where they remain vulnerable to attack by the Janjaweed.

The report explained that the root causes behind the rebellion in Darfur include “economic and political marginalization, underdevelopment, and a long-standing government policy of arming and supporting militias from Darfur’s Arab nomadic tribes against the mainly African farming communities.”

The rebels had some success in the first months. But soon the government unleashed the Janjaweed militias, backed by its regular forces, on civilian populations thought to be supportive of the insurgency. The conflict differs from the rebellion in the south, which pits an Islamic government against Christians and animists. Darfur’s population is uniformly Muslim, but the government has manipulated ethnic divisions between the Arab and African communities.

“This has led to massive displacement, indiscriminate killings, looting and mass rape, all part of a deliberate effort to empty key parts of the region of those suspected of harboring rebel sympathies,” explained the ICG report.

Likewise, the group Human Rights Watch in a May 7 report accused Sudan’s government of removing by violence the Masalit and Fur populations from large parts of Darfur “in operations that amount to ethnic cleansing.”

The attacks were directed against civilians and included burning villages, mass killings, the forced displacement of populations, destruction of food stocks and the looting of livestock by government and militia forces. The methods amount to more than a normal counterinsurgency strategy, according to Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch called for more action by the international community to deal with the abuses in Darfur. The United Nations and European nations have condemned the human rights violations, but the watchdog group said that the approach so far has been too low-key. The United States has taken the strongest stance on the issue. But the report commented that U.S. and European policy-makers have not been unified in their approach to Darfur, allowing Sudan to play various governments against each other to its own advantage.

And the report accused African countries of “little or no public condemnation” of the abuses committed by Sudan. In fact, African members of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights helped to undermine a resolution proposed in April to appoint a special rapporteur and to condemn the Khartoum government’s abuses in Darfur.

Government’s role confirmed by U.N.

On May 7 the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report on the situation in Darfur. A U.N. team during a visit heard testimony from refugees on how their villages had suffered aerial bombardments as well as attacks by helicopter gunships. While the U.N. team did not see firsthand evidence of bombing, the report concluded that “the weight of witness testimony alleging the use of air attacks, often with much detail, raises considerable disquiet that the Government of the Sudan has, in certain locations, been using aircraft in indiscriminate attacks on population centers.”

Witnesses interviewed also confirmed the presence of government soldiers in the infantry attacks on villages, along with the presence of Janjaweed militia. The report also mentioned that those interviewed invariably described the Janjaweed as being exclusively “Arab,” as opposed to the victims who were described as “black” or “African.”

The U.N. report had no doubts in concluding that the Sudanese government is involved in the attacks. “While the Government of the Sudan maintained that it was making a concerted effort to re-establish law and order and effective accountability in the region but that it was being undermined in these efforts by the actions of the rebels, this was not, in the opinion of the mission, borne out by realities on the ground,” said the report.

The U.N. team also confirmed that the government was behind the militia activities. “Many with whom the mission spoke, including senior government officials, stated that the Government had recruited, uniformed, armed, supported and sponsored militias,” the report concluded.

The report concentrated on the government’s actions, noting that the U.N. officials were not allowed to visit rebel-controlled areas. The report did note, however, that rebel forces also appear to be guilty of human rights violations. Sudan’s 21 years of violence may not be over, after all.

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