The Sudanese government agreed Tuesday to halt military flights over the Darfur region, and it signed a separate agreement to allow access to aid for the nearly two million people displaced by the continuing violence.
The conflict in Darfur, in western Sudan, is often cast in terms of Arabs v. black Africans, but many analysts say that is an oversimplification. Nearly everyone in the region is Muslim, and the real distinction between the two groups resides mainly with their occupation. That is, the farmers in the south are generally non-Arab and are ethnic Africans. And the nomadic herders, who live in the north, are largely of Arab descent. According to Talal al-Haj, U.S. bureau chief for al-Arabiya, their grievances have less to do with race than with disputes over land and water rights.
“When I was there with Kofi Annan in July, I met these people and I went to two camps, one in Chad and one in Sudan, and I spent some time with the refugees. Some of them actually said, 'We are Arab,' although they are classified as more African than Arab. But they are all a mixture. The problem is water rights on grazing land, and this is a tribal war that has been used by the government. There are two rebel movements in Darfur, and they were attacking police stations, the government institutions. So the government - as the rebels claim - financed and armed the northern tribal peoples, and they are called janjaweed by the Darfurians.
“The attacks were coordinated between the government and the janjaweed forces, the so-called Arabs, to chase the rebels. But the janjaweed went too far, and civilians were killed, women were raped, children were killed, and hundreds of villages were burned. I spoke to these refugees, and they said all the attacks were helicopters or Russian-made aircraft bombing from the sky and the janjaweed on horses coming on land to finish the job.”
At peace talks this week in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, the Sudanese government agreed to disarm the janjaweed. Both sides also agreed to reveal the location of their forces to African Union cease-fire monitors in a war the United Nations calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
Relations between Sudan and the United States have become strained in recent months. The Sudanese government is said to resent U.S. efforts to call the long-running conflict in Darfur genocide. Talal al-Haj explains why that label is controversial: “Look, it's no secret that there is no love lost between the two countries. Sudan is on the list of countries that support terrorism. The thing is that Sudan claims they are protecting their land and these rebel movements are attacking police headquarters. And it's true, they did. But the government reaction with the janjaweed went over the top. And thousands and thousands of people were affected.”
But Adel el-Baz, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Al-Sahafa in Khartoum, sees the conflict from a different perspective. Contrary to what Washington claims, Sudanese journalist Adel el-Baz says, the situation in Darfar is not a genocide at all. He acknowledges that the Khartoum government has armed several thousand Arab tribesmen to fight the rebels, but he says that calling them janjaweed is a fallacy. He says the people of Darfur and of southern Sudan share a common set of political and economic concerns, and their respective peoples are demanding justice and economic development.
“The problem is that both regions have problems of injustice, wealth distribution, and authority. Those two regions are undeveloped, says Mr. Adel el-Baz.
After months of delaying, the Khartoum government has agreed to allow 3,000 African Union troops to enter Darfur to monitor a shaky cease-fire. However, Talal al-Haj of al-Arabiya says only about 700 have actually arrived, mostly from Rwanda and Nigeria:
“These forces are now expected not only to monitor but also to play a proactive role in conflict resolution between the factions. And now the Security Council will meet on November 18 and 19 in Nairobi to discuss the South-North agreement. We're going there to see what can be done to uphold the April agreement between the government of Khartoum and the two rebel movements and also to reach a political solution.
Adel el-Baz says the African Union forces already in Darfur face many problems - with logistics, aircraft, and above all, salaries: “They are always crying they have no money to do anything. It's not a problem of the soldiers. It's a problem of who is going to finance these military operations.”
But critics say Khartoum's real intent was to stall the Darfur peace process until the government could reach a power and wealth-sharing arrangement with the southern rebels, the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, led by John Garang. Those talks were adjourned last month for the beginning of Ramadan.
“I think there is an understanding now within Sudan and also outside Sudan that the Darfur problem cannot be solved unless the South-North [problem] is also solved,” says Talal al-Haj. “One of the reasons is that John Garang said he would not have anything to do with a government that is doing in western Sudan what it has done for years in southern Sudan.”
With U-S troops tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is considered unlikely that the American government will intervene militarily in Sudan. Talal al-Haj says the United States is definitely not thinking about any military action in Sudan: “ They made it very clear that they want the African Union to be at the helm of this operation. They might help in logistics and planes and transportation. But they have to be seen to act. Thousands of people are dying and they will die in that desert, if the international community does not move.”
While regional specialists regard establishing a no-fly zone for Darfur as a positive step toward peace in Sudan, they also say that Khartoum has not always lived up to its agreements. A spokesman for the Sudanese government on Tuesday called it a landmark agreement, but it remains to be seen whether it will hold.