Tuesday 20 January 2004

Don't Breathe a Sigh of Relief for Sudan Just Yet

Worried the international community was turning its back on a humanitarian crisis and possibly genocide in Darfur, my then-colleague at Crisis Group, John Prendergast, and I published this in The Observer on 21 January 2004.


Imminent peace in Sudan is supposed to be one of the few positive stories in international affairs in recent months. Indeed, the strong multi-national effort supporting talks between the Sudanese government and the insurgent Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) was one of last year's more noteworthy successes for the international community. The 20-year civil war between the government and the SPLA is now closer to its conclusion than ever before, having claimed over two million lives. The two parties have signed a series of protocols that will form the basis of a comprehensive peace agreement, expected soon. A few difficult issues remain, but progress has been remarkable.

But before everyone breathes a sigh of relief and turns away, let's not overlook the other war in Sudan: the ongoing conflict in the western region of Darfur, where an alarming deterioration in the humanitarian and human rights situation continues regardless of the ongoing peace process.

In February 2003, two Darfurian rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), launched their first attacks on government garrisons in the region. In response to the rebel attacks, the Sudanese government has mobilised and armed Arab militias (janjaweed) to strike back against the Fur, Zaghawa and Massalit peoples, who are collectively accused of supporting the rebellion.

Janjaweed soldiers' salary comes from what they can grab and the promise of land cleared of those now living on it: in other words, the booty captured in raids on villages. The government has thus handed the janjaweed a license to terrorise the population of Darfur and given them the means to do so.

Recent attacks have occurred deep inside the Fur tribal area, against unprotected rural communities with no link to the rebels other than their ethnic profile. Janjaweed atrocities have included indiscriminate killings and mutilation, the burning alive of victims, and the looting and destruction of food reserves and other property. Observers have reported large numbers of janjaweed on camels and horses driving villagers off their land and pushing them towards urban centres.

The government has also conducted indiscriminate aerial bombings against villages suspected of harbouring rebels and their sympathisers.

Combined with the bombing, the government-sponsored janjaweed campaign has so far led to the killing of an estimated 3000 unarmed civilians and the displacement of at least 600,000 people. This is on top of the 200,000 people internally displaced by the war in the south and now living in Darfur.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) now says more than 95,000 of those displaced by the Darfur conflict have fled across the border into Chad.

Local officials in areas devastated by the janjaweed raids have spoken out publicly against this unacceptable human toll, and at least one Sudanese member of parliament has warned of a "genocide" in Darfur.

The commissioner of Zaleinge province in south Darfur, said in November that the government had armed the janjaweed to fight the rebellion, but they instead had opted for an ethnic agenda, attacking Fur tribal areas. Listing a number of recent atrocities in his province, he admitted the janjaweed had burned 25 villages, scorched over 33,000 acres of agricultural land, killed 88 villagers and forced 60,000 to flee.

The problem was, he admitted, bigger than his province or even the three Darfur states could handle on their own.

Unfortunately, talks between the government and the SLA have gone nowhere. Despite a ceasefire agreement between the two parties signed on 3 September 2003 and renewed on 4 November, janjaweed raids continued and even intensified. The Chad-mediated talks broke down on 16 December.

UN envoy Tom Eric Vraalsen, who spent the first week of January 2004 visiting crude refugee settlements in eastern Chad, said the refugee situation there was growing more and more serious. The UNHCR has already started an emergency project to transfer the refugees from the insecure border areas to sites deeper within eastern Chad, and on 13 January, the UN World Food Program launched an urgent appeal to cover the food needs of the most vulnerable Sudanese refugees settled in Chadian camps.

Vraalsen also called upon the government of Sudan to open up access to Darfur itself for humanitarian organisations, requesting a ceasefire so aid workers could reach the affected people there.

Despite the ongoing crisis, however, one hears little, if anything, about Darfur from those focusing on the success of the peace talks between the government and SPLA.

It is true the internationally sponsored IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development) process looks to be successful in bringing about an end to the main conflict in Sudan. But while the government of Sudan is feted by the international community for its newfound role as peacemaker through IGAD, it continues to carry out a bloody campaign by proxy against the people of Darfur.

The successful peace process will not solve the Darfur conflict; if anything, the Darfurian rebels feel threatened by the new détente between the government and the SPLA, reasoning that the government will use this agreement to regroup and redouble its efforts in the west. Given the brutality of the government-sponsored campaign in recent months, those fears seem well-grounded.

The multi-national efforts to help bring the twenty-year civil war between the government and the SPLA closer to an end represent a success story for the international community. But Sudan is not in the clear yet. All parties, including international sponsors of the peace process, need to take a broader look at the prospects for peace in Sudan overall. That means as soon as the deal is finalised between the government and SPLA, a major effort must be mounted to resolve the conflict in Darfur.

Otherwise, the end of one tragic civil war in Sudan will simply intensify another.

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