By DONNA BRYSON, Associated Press Writer
CAIRO, Egypt, April 8, 2004 (AP) — Human rights activists are calling the world’s attention to bloodshed in western Sudan, where the government is accused of resorting to murder and rape of thousands of civilians in a campaign to put down a rebellion.
A decade ago elsewhere in Africa, international action came too late to prevent the deaths of some 500,000 Rwandans, most of them Tutsis killed by their Hutu neighbors in a 100-day genocidal spree.
Sudan’s western Darfur region is “another grave humanitarian crisis that took far too long for the world to react to,” David Mozersky, an Africa specialist with the International Crisis Group said Tuesday, the eve of the 10th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan massacres.
Sudan’s government has limited aid groups’ and journalists’ access to Darfur, where local tribes have been in revolt since early 2003. Much of the information on the violence comes from Sudanese refugees in neighboring Chad.
“The government strategy of closing this off and trying to make it invisible, so far, is working,” said Leslie Lefkow, who recently traveled to Chad to study the situation in Sudan for Human Rights Watch. “You don’t have the photographs of the dead children and women who have been gang raped. That I think would spur more attention.”
Jan Egeland, U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, has said Arab militia groups, reportedly with government backing, are engaged in “ethnic cleansing, but not genocide” against Africans in Darfur. Egeland called the situation “one of the most forgotten and neglected humanitarian crises.”
Sudanese government officials, Lefkow said in an interview, seem to think they can act with impunity in Darfur because the world’s attention is focused elsewhere, including an unrelated and longer-standing rebellion in southern Sudan.
“I hope that we can prove them wrong,” she said.
U.S. officials say lingering remorse over the American brushoff of the Rwanda genocide is influencing the U.S. response to the developing crisis in Darfur.
State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said Tuesday the United States has dispatched personnel to western Sudan to facilitate humanitarian aid deliveries and promote settlement discussions between the government and Sudanese rebels.
Sudan blames the rebels for the bloodshed in Darfur, an area the size of California that is home to a fifth of Sudan’s 30 million people.
A pro-government human rights activist dismissed a Human Rights Watch report last month that laid much of the blame on the government as “mere falsifications and lies compiled by intelligence hirelings.”
The Human Rights Watch report said indiscriminate bombing, raids by the independent ethnic Arab militia and the army against mainly African villages and denial of humanitarian aid amount to “a strategy of ethnic-based murder, rape and forcible displacement of civilians in Darfur.”
Lefkow, who helped prepare the report, says thousands have died. U.N. figures say 750,000 people have been displaced inside Sudan and tens of thousands have fled into Chad.
Human Rights Watch has urged America to maintain sanctions on Sudan unless the Darfur violence stops. Washington has said the crisis must be resolved before U.S.-Sudanese relations are normalized. But it also indicated sanctions keeping U.S. companies from doing business in Sudan could be eased with the resolution of a separate 21-year-old the civil war in the south, which has claimed more than 2 million lives.
The U.N. Office in Sudan reported that the Darfur situation “is not showing signs of improvement and conditions are deteriorating in some areas,” U.N. associate spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Tuesday in New York.
The U.N’s refugee agency has started a 10-day fact-finding mission, interviewing Darfur refugees in Chad before visiting Sudan.
Elizabeth Hodgkin, a Sudan expert for Amnesty International, said the world had been slow to respond to Darfur, but recent political pressure was having an effect.
Late last year, Sudan’s government let some international aid workers into Darfur and last month began indirect peace talks with Darfur rebels in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena.
“We hope that this period of the 10th anniversary of Rwanda will concentrate the minds of the people in N’Djamena,” Hodgkin said, pressing the world “not to make the mistake of not acting.”