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Ethnic Cleansing in Darfur Sparks Humanitarian Crisis

by Wynde Priddy

Just weeks ago, US officials were optimistic about brokering a peace agreement in Sudan, with both the government and the main rebel group agreeing in principle to a deal in which the oil-rich south would have regional autonomy. Oil proceeds would be split 50-50 between disarmed rebel organizations and the national government in Khartoum, the capital. Talks are still ongoing in Kenya between the Khartoum government and the key southern rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). Anticipating an end to the war--and hoping to lure further multinational investment--Sudan's Energy and Mines Ministry pledged to boost oil production in 2005 to 500,000 barrels per day from the current 312,000.

But just as the peace deal was nearing, another conflict exploded between the government and two smaller rebel groups in the west of the country, leading to a grave refugee crisis and reports of massacres and aerial bombardment of civilian populations.

Intensifying the already bleak situation is another year of poor rainfall, which has dangerously compromised the food security in Sudan, and the entire Greater Horn region of Africa. The Nairobi-based East African weekly reports that lack of rainfall has brought the total of people facing food shortages in the region to an estimated 13 million. Thousands of the internally displaced persons in Sudan, as well as Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia, are increasing the demand for humanitarian assistance in the region. It is against this backdrop that fighting erupted again in western Sudan, despite an official cease-fire signed in December 2003--escalating the displacements as well as disrupting local markets and humanitarian activities.

The United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) reported Feb. 11 that thousands of Sudanese are relocating to Chad, fleeing from militias and aerial bombardments in the western region of Darfur--despite claims by the government that the war is over. Thousands of refugees are already encamped around the border town of Tine Chad. Refugees interviewed by the IRIN at the end of January said they had fled from government aircraft which were indiscriminately bombing villages in Darfur. They said they were also fleeing government-aligned Arab militias, known as the Janjawid, described as an armed cavalry force. In a matter of a few days in January, about 8,000 people arrived in Junaynah, a town near the border with Chad, from villages to the south, bringing the total number of displaced in the town to between 35,000 and 45,000. There is not enough food and water in the region hosting the displaced, and the influx of people is generating a humanitarian crisis.

Khartoum has declared a general amnesty for Darfur, asking rebels to hand over their weapons, and stating that the government has now "entered the political phase of the conflict" as Foreign Minister Mustafa Uthman Isma'il put it. Both of Darfur's rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) have rejected this stance on the grounds that the government armed forces are heavily involved in attacks on civilian villages. The distrust for the Khartoum regime is palpable as JEM leader Abu Bakr Hamid al-Nur stated on "We will not attend any meeting in Sudan. We do not trust the government." Referring to the proposed national reconciliation conference to be held in Sudan, he added: "It has to be outside. If they want to solve the problem, let them call a conference in any other country with the presence of the international community there, and we will come and talk."

But the stance of the rebel groups leaves the areas they control with no access to humanitarian aid from the government. And the UN supports the government's decision to demand disarmament of rebel groups, saying that up to now it had been "prevented" from providing aid in the region. VOA News reported that the JEM denies the government's claim of control over Darfur. As a result, the Khartoum government refused to attend talks in February with rebel leaders in Geneva to discuss opening a humanitarian corridor through Darfur.

Sudan, the largest country in Africa by area and the first to achieve independence, is often regarded as a microcosm of the entire continent due to the polarized division between the Arabic-speaking north and the sub-Saharan south. The situation has been especially grievous since 1989, when a group of army officers led by Gen. Omar al-Bashir seized power, ending three brief years of democracy. Bashir was backed by the Islamic Liberation Front, which hoped to impose rigid Islamic fundamentalism--and insure the hegemony of the Arabic-speaking north throughout the country. While previous governments had enforced sharia, or Islamic law, and pursued the civil war, Bashir's new government imposed the fundamentalist agenda with frightening conviction, arresting and torturing leaders of the opposition, effectively banning alcohol and mixed social gatherings--and recruiting Islamic militias to fight in the south.

While the war in Sudan is frequently portrayed as a conflict between the Islamic government in the north and Christian and traditional African peoples in the south, in Darfur both sides in the war are Muslim. But demands for regional autonomy and the conflict between indigenous ethnic groups and Arabic-speaking regional elites supported by the government are elements common to both the war in the south and that in Darfur.

The SLA took up arms in February 2003, accusing the government of keeping Darfur under-developed and marginalized, and failing to protect farmers against attacks. In the past year, dozens of civilians have been killed in attacks by cattle and camel herders against farming communities comprised largely of the Fur and Zaghawa ethnic groups. The government, in turn, accused the SPLA of inciting the SLA to take up arms to gain more leverage at the Kenya peace talks. The Darfur conflict escalated dramatically in December, after peace talks, mediated by neighboring Chad, broke down. JEM says it wants a peaceful resolution to the conflict, but it will never accept the deal proposed by Bashir and his government.

Sudan's natural resources are a goad in the conflict--particularly oil. BP-Amoco has been named as complicit with government-sponsored genocide and slavery in Sudan's oil-rich south. Human rights groups reported for years that the tribal peoples of these lands were being forcibly removed by the Sudanese military, and sold into slavery to local warlords and landowners loyal to the government. Lands were in this way pacified for the operations of the Chinese oil company PetroChina, and its US partner Amoco (now BP-Amoco). (See WW3 Report #2) [top]

The East African, Feb. 9

UN Integrated Regional Information Network, Feb. 11

Voice of America News, Feb. 10

Sudan's Obscure Revolution, Out There News

Darfur Information Center

Reprinting permissible with attribution.