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One Million People Flee Fighting in Darfur Region of Western Sudan - 2004-04-27


More than one million Sudanese have been displaced and as many as one thousand people are dying each week in Darfur, where government-backed Arab-Muslim militias are fighting non-Arab Muslim farmers and villagers. Although the U.N. Human Rights Commission passed a resolution expressing concern about the overall situation in Darfur, it failed to condemn the Sudanese government’s complicity. As the world commemorates the 10th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, VOA’s Serena Parker reports on this new threat of genocide in Africa.

The Sudanese government and rebels are in final negotiations for a peace accord that would put an end to a two-decade long civil war between the predominantly Muslim north and the animist and Christian south. Meanwhile, a separate conflict in the Darfur region of Western Sudan has claimed thousands of lives and displaced as many as one million people out of a population of seven million.

Open warfare erupted in Darfur in April 2003 when two rebel groups attacked government military installations. Since then, the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum has armed nomadic Arab-Muslim herdsmen, or Janjaweed, against rival African-Muslim farmers and villagers. The government is using gunships to attack villages and terrorize civilians into flight, while denying humanitarian access to those trapped in Darfur.

The only relief group on the ground is Doctors Without Borders or Medecins Sans Frontieres, the French humanitarian medical aid agency. Jean Sebastien Matte, a Canadian volunteer with MSF, spent three months in the village of Mornay in Darfur. He says that before fighting broke out, Mornay was a small town of 3,000 people.

“When we got to Mornay in the middle of west Darfur, there were 20,000 displaced people at that moment,” he says. “One month later there were 60,000 displaced people. I would say 85% are women and children. What happened to the men? That’s the question we don’t have the answer for so far because we don’t have access to all of Darfur. So we don’t know really what’s going on. Did they join the rebellion? Are they hiding in the mountains? We don’t have the answer for this so far.”

For years, Darfur’s African and Arab Muslims coexisted in a delicate balance. According to Jerry Fowler, director of the Committee on Conscience at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the government in Khartoum is fueling ethnic and racial hatred.

“They are encouraging it,” he says. “And one of the fundamental responsibilities of a government is to protect its citizens and help reduce conflict. Conflicts will exist in all societies. And one thing this Khartoum government has done consistently is pit ethnic groups against each other and the consequences for civilians have been enormous.”

The Sudanese government denies lending support to the Janjaweed. However, in an unreleased report that the news agency Reuters obtained, the United Nations says that Khartoum’s military and the Janjaweed have launched a reign of terror against black Africans in Darfur. According to the report, there is “compelling evidence of human rights abuses, war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

The report was based on a 10-day assessment along Sudan’s border with Chad. The United Nations decided to suppress the findings in order to gain access to Darfur, which Khartoum had previously declared off limits. A five-member team is currently in the war-torn region and will issue a full report after their visit. Adotei Akwei, Africa Director for Amnesty International U.S.A., says the release of the report might be enough for the international community to take action.

“With more access and possibly with the full release of this report, the evidence is going to force the hand of governments and of the Security Council to actually do something,” he says. “So it’s quite possible that may be where you get the kind of resolution that really calls for action and has some real weight behind it. The disappointing thing is that it has to go to the Security Council and that it has to go over the objections of the Sudanese government.”

Mr. Akwei says equally disappointing has been the role of the African Union. The group has a policy of not voting to support U.N. resolutions that criticize other African countries. “The legitimacy of the African Union and its commitment to human rights is equally under threat,” he says. “If they do keep their ‘unified block approach,’ the blood of the people in Darfur is going to be on their hands.”

Mr. Akwei says Amnesty International is urging the United States, the European Union and the United Nations to continue to pressure the Sudanese government to allow unrestricted humanitarian access, in addition to calling on Khartoum to rein in its military and the Janjaweed militias. After all, he says, nobody wants a repeat of the Rwanda tragedy in 1994 when 800,000 people were killed in about a hundred days.

“We’ve just spent the last two weeks all chastising ourselves, correctly, for our failure to intervene and stop the genocide in Rwanda 10 years ago,” he says. “And here we are now, ten years later, something is going on in Darfur that is terrible and yet we have U.N. reports that are being suppressed. We have U.N. missions that are being denied access and we have a general humanitarian crisis that is not being addressed. Now is not the time to compromise. Now is the time to try and save people’s lives.”

According to Eric Reeves, professor of English at Smith College in Massachusetts, the explosiveness of the violence in Rwanda makes that genocide different than the one occurring in Darfur. “It is as though history gave us another chance to redeem ourselves for our failure in Rwanda and gave us more time and more opportunity and we are squandering that opportunity. We are failing yet again,” he says.

Over the past five years Eric Reeves has researched and written extensively on Sudan’s north-south conflict and more recently on the Darfur atrocities. He says the 1948 U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as acts that “deliberately inflict on groups conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” According to Mr. Reeves, that’s precisely what is happening in Darfur.

“For example, the systematic destruction of water wells and water irrigation systems in this very arid region, and the destruction of seeds and agricultural implements,” he says. “These are precisely calculated to inflict on the African tribal groups of Darfur primarily the Fur, the Zaghaw, and the Masaalit conditions of life calculated to bring about their destruction. Why is this not genocidal?”

According to Eric Reeves, there are reports that Arabs are moving in and taking over prime farmland vacated by black Muslims fleeing the violence. If the displaced farmers cannot return to their land in the next week or ten days, Mr. Reeves says they will be unable to plant their crops before the rainy season begins in May.

“I myself, on the basis of all the evidence I see, believe it’s virtually impossible for there to be a significant harvest next September or October,” he says. “And in fact, the U.S. Agency for International Development is now predicting a famine for November/December of 2004. Indeed, USAID is predicting that 30% of the affected population, well over a million people, I believe the number they presently are using is 1.2 million, that a third of those people will be destroyed.”

In early April President Bush condemned the atrocities in Sudan and urged the Khartoum government to “immediately stop local militias from committing atrocities against the local population” and to “provide unrestricted access to humanitarian aid agencies.” A few days later, the Sudanese government announced a 45-day cease-fire. Human rights groups say in order to prevent a genocide in Darfur, the U.S. government must keep up the pressure on Khartoum to control its militias and end the atrocities.

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