For yet another year, Sudan’s Darfur region has been in the news repeatedly, with media reports using language such as genocide, atrocities, rape and pillaging. Despite a peace deal signed last May between the government and rebels, many observers say Darfur has sunk deeper into violence and despair. And the conflict is now spreading across the border into Chad. Despite those conditions, many humanitarian workers continue to risk their lives to help the hundreds of thousands who’ve been displaced. One of them gave his reflections on Sudan.
Simon Roughneen has spent a lot of time in Darfur as a humanitarian worker for the Irish aid agency Goal.
“You have a situation where four million people are dependent on humanitarian aid of some description. More than two million of those are displaced into camps. And an unknown number – between 200,000 and 400,000 – have been killed by the violence in the region since 2003,” he says.
He says it’s incredible to witness what’s happening in Darfur in this day and age.
“In the 1990’s, we had what happened in Bosnia. Then we had what happened in Rwanda. In the Rwandan case, classed as genocide in the aftermath. And the word genocide has been used a couple of times to describe what’s happening in Darfur. I mean whether or not it meets the legal criteria that that word entails I’m not too sure. But in any case, the level of displacement and death and human destruction that’s taken place in Darfur since 2003 certainly merits a much stronger international response than has been the case so far,” he says.
In the midst of tragedy, he says he formed strong relationships with some of the people in Darfur.
“Working for the aid agency I was with, Goal, we have a large number of local staff – doctors, nurses, teachers who can no longer access their schools – were working for us in an administrative capacity. These are fine people,” he says.
Roughneen says he has – what he calls – an “abiding memory” of one incident in Darfur. And it’s actually a pleasant memory.
He says, “Last June, I was over in Darfur for the duration of the World Cup. And some innovative locals had managed to acquire themselves a satellite dish. I think the local sultan in Darfur, or he’s the equivalent of the sultan now, got the satellite network rejigged so people could watch the World Cup. We would all sit down in the evening and watch whatever games were happening. We really got to bond over something like that. But even on a day-to-day level you were dealing with people that might have lost family members. They certainly would have lost property, would have lost their livelihoods in the countryside if they were farmers.”
While much of the world’s attention is focusing on Darfur, Roughneen says south Sudan could again become a trouble spot. A 2005 peace deal ended 20 years of civil war.
“It’s one of the poorest, most deprived areas anywhere on earth. During the course of the 20-year war there, since 1093, basically any infrastructure that existed in the region, which is the size of Germany, was destroyed. There are hardly any schools. There are no roads, no doctors. I think even as recently as last year, there were about 100 lawyers in the whole region. And most of those were working as ex-pats (ex-patriots) either in Nairobi or in Europe or in the US,” he says.
He questions whether Sudan’s oil revenues will be evenly distributed to stave off a collapse of the peace deal and end violence in other areas, as well.
“Sudan is now becoming sort of a medium size oil producer. China is buying most of Sudan’s oil and there is a very noticeable economic boom, especially in the northern part in Khartoum, where the so-called governing elites live. But it’s not benefiting the people at large. And because of socio-economic inequalities across the country going back throughout Sudan’s history, they have been the reasons why conflict has erupted,” he says.
Simon Roughneen says since Sudan gained its independence in 1956, all but about 11 years have been marked by conflict in some area.
Roughneen is contributing to a two-volume series being written entitled Beyond Settlement. It examines the building of political institutions and security in many of the world’s conflict zones.