While the world watches

July 01, 2004

NO LONGER is there any question that tens of thousands of people in Darfur in western Sudan will die, slaughtered in their homes or starved in refugee camps, within the coming days and weeks.

At issue is how many additional deaths can be prevented through quick and firm action by the international community.

Yesterday's visit to the region by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan offered high-powered testimony to the gravity of Darfur's plight: a million tribal villagers driven from their homes by Janjaweed militias, and a million more in desperate need of food and medical aid that can't reach them because of militias or the arrival of torrential rains.

But the reaction of the Islamic Sudanese leaders, who are widely believed to be backing the Janjaweed extermination tactics against the black Muslims in Darfur, suggests far more pressure must be brought to bear.

With Secretary Powell at his side, Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail told reporters in Khartoum on Tuesday that "there is no famine, no malnutrition and no disease" in Darfur. He made this claim even though Mr. Powell had come armed with satellite photos of villages burned out and with statistics revealing that most large refugee camps lack adequate food and water.

Until the international community makes clear it will not tolerate this campaign to destroy the tribes of Darfur, Sudanese leaders will bide their time until the world once again turns its attention away.

In some ways, the 16-month assault on Darfur by the militia and Sudanese soldiers is a replay of an ancient conflict in a nation long riven by ethnic strife. The Arab Janjaweed are nomadic herdsmen; the black African villagers are farmers. The Khartoum government has set one group against the other to put down a rebellion by the villagers. As part of their vile campaign, the militia marauders murder men and children but rape Darfur women to humiliate them and destroy their genetic line.

Mr. Powell saw little hint of that during his stage-managed visit yesterday to a tidy refugee camp near Al-Fasher, where he got a raucous welcome from thousands of displaced Darfur refugees. But he told reporters he had anticipated the Sudanese authorities would try to mask the severity of what the United Nations has called the world's gravest humanitarian crisis.

The long history of the Khartoum regime suggests nothing can be taken on faith, including Foreign Minister Ismail's assurance yesterday that he will try to work out a political settlement between the rival factions.

Adoption of a U.N. resolution calling on the Sudanese government to cease all military attacks in Darfur and cooperate with humanitarian relief or face sanctions is a critical next step -- along with ramping up airlift operations to get the aid in place as soon as possible.

With each day that passes, fewer and fewer will survive long enough to be rescued.

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