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Sudan's trail of tears

By David Whitehouse | July 23, 2004 | Page 12

AS GOVERNMENT-backed assaults in western Sudan escalated last week, two rebel groups opposing the attacks broke off negotiations before even meeting with the regime. The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) said that an April "ceasefire" had provided no protection from a campaign of rape and murder against Black Africans of the Western province of Darfur.

The central government, which is dominated by Arabs, denies any connection to the attacks. But during 18 months of assaults that have driven almost all of western Darfur's Africans out of their villages, the predominantly Arab "janjaweed" militias have used government arms and air support.

To pay the janjaweed, the government allows the raiders to sell the Africans' livestock--the region's most important form of wealth--in government-controlled areas. "The janjaweed burn our homes, steal our cattle and kill anyone whose skin is Black," one refuge told the Associated Press. "Those of us who weren't killed on the spot just ran."

One million refugees are now crowded into more than 130 makeshift refugee camps in Darfur. At least 170,000 more have fled into neighboring Chad.

In early July, daytime temperatures in the camps reached 120 degrees. Seasonal rains have broken some of the heat, but rain makes many of the camps inaccessible to aid organizations--and increases the risk of diseases like cholera. With their livestock gone and no crops planted, some 800,000 people are already facing malnutrition, according to UNICEF.

But the central government has repeatedly blocked relief shipments--and Sudan's foreign minister told the Guardian newspaper last month: "In Darfur, there is no hunger, no malnutrition, no epidemic diseases." Estimates of the dead already range as high as 100,000, and the U.S. Agency for International Development predicts that as many as 1 million more could die in the next eight months.

Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Darfur at the end of June--for three hours, on a Sudanese government-arranged visit to one of the best-supplied refugee camps. Both Powell and United Nations (UN) Secretary General Kofi Annan, who arrived in Darfur the next day, refused to use the word "genocide" to describe the situation, since this would trigger treaty obligations to intervene. "We can find the right label for it later," Powell said.

Since Powell's visit, the U.S. has pressed for UN sanctions to ban international travel and arms purchases by the janjaweed. But such measures are meaningless for militias that have little connection to the outside world.

The U.S. has endorsed a token force of 300 African Union soldiers to protect 60 unarmed monitors in Darfur--while the janjaweed number about 20,000. The U.S. measures are so weak because Washington backed the Sudanese government in settling the regional insurgency that it cares about--in the country's oil-rich south.

President Umar al-Bashir concluded a shaky peace agreement May 26 with the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), based in the south--which fought an 18-year war for autonomy and a share of oil revenues. To push al-Bashir into a settlement that could stabilize the region for Western oil companies, the U.S. offered to take Sudan off the list of countries that aren't cooperating with the "war on terror."

As the janjaweed rampaged in western Sudan, U.S. officials even promised a review of Sudan's status as a "state that sponsors terror." China, another member of the UN Security Council that has pressed for "constructive engagement" with the Sudanese government has its own oil investments in the country. With ten years of stability, Sudan could produce half as much oil as Kuwait.

In Darfur, the SLA and JEM are demanding autonomy and a share in the revenue from the region's mineral wealth, which include copper and uranium. In other words, they want a settlement modeled on the deal that the SPLA got. But in supporting the janjaweed, the government is pursuing its own "southern model."

In the late 1990s, the government waged a terror campaign to drive Africans out of the southern oilfields. In the 1980s, they even backed slave raiding--just when American oil giant Chevron was setting up shop.

Even without government manipulation, Darfur would be facing a crisis. As the Sahara desert has crept southward since 1970 at an annual rate of three miles, it has gobbled up more than 1,000 square miles of Darfur's usable land each year. The Arabic-speaking nomads who tend livestock at the fringe of the desert have migrated south--coming into sharper and sharper conflicts over land and water with farm villages in western Darfur.

The farmers consider themselves African, even though the two populations have mixed a lot over the centuries. The ecological crisis makes the province ripe for conflict. But the government promoted the division along racial lines--to head off any united challenge to plans to loot the region.

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