Home | Comment & Analysis    Saturday 3 July 2004

Darfur’s killing fields


Leader, The Guardian

July 3, 2004 — The shell game that the Sudanese government played with the UN secretary general and the US secretary of state earlier this week when they went to Darfur was outrageous. Colin Powell was taken to what aid workers say is patently a show settlement for refugees, while the first, and more typical, camp that Kofi Annan tried to visit had been "re-located" overnight and was empty when he arrived. While the two visitors tried as best they could to evaluate the situation on the ground for themselves, Sudanese helicopter gunships and militia units attacked Darfur villages not all that far from their travel routes, according to reliable sources. This was in spite of a supposed ceasefire between government forces and the relatively small numbers of still active rebels, and is one reason why rebel negotiators did not turn up for planned peace talks in N’Djamena, the Chad capital, yesterday.
But the visits are at least an indication that the Darfur crisis is being taken seriously at the international level, and not left to a handful of aid workers who can, at best, only ameliorate its effects. Some will is finally being summoned, and possible courses of action are being discussed. It will be difficult to halt and harder still to reverse the process of what is at least a brutal ethnic demolition and which may deserve, as facts are established, an even worse description.

In the first place, the causes are complex. The most fundamental may be the desertification which, as resources of pasture, arable land and water dwindle, is undermining co-existence between human groups across a swath of sub-Saharan Africa, fuelling a chain of conflicts. The more immediate cause was the effort by some leaders of marginalised peoples in the west of Sudan to gain by revolt some of the advantages that the longer established southern rebels seemed on the point of acquiring in a peace settlement. But instead of something like the southern deal, their action led to a campaign by government forces that has killed many of their people (320,000 this year alone, according to the United States Agency for International Development) and swept huge numbers into external and internal exile.

The government has employed both regular forces and militias, mainly from the north and east of Darfur, whose peoples are slightly more "Arab" in their ethnicity, for a campaign that has focused on this project of depopulation rather than on the military defeat of armed rebels. Khartoum’s rationale was presumably that it was not going to allow a western rebellion to take hold in the way that the southern one had done, and that the way to prevent this was to move the people who might give it support.

Although the vicious depopulation goes on, an equally bad problem is the condition of rural refugees packed into settlements outside the bigger towns. There they are policed, oppressed and exploited by the very militias who destroyed their villages. More aid should be sent, but aid alone is not the answer. Much of the aid going in now is stolen, and some of what the refugees receive they sell in order to pay protection money to the militias. What is needed is a large body of monitors on the ground, to shine a hard light on both the continuing attacks and on the mistreatment of the displaced, and to provide evidence that will put pressure on Khartoum to rein in the militias. Khartoum must understand that a southern peace settlement will not unlock the door to the normalisation of political and trade relations unless accompanied by a convincing effort at peace in Darfur.

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