Path of human destruction

For the past 19 months, ways of life in Sudan have been ruined in minutes as the government fights rebels, Arabs fight non-ARabs and Muslims fight Muslims

Tragedy In Sudan

September 26, 2004|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MAJAMARY, SUDAN — TRAGEDY IN SUDAN MAJAMARY, Sudan - Before dawn one day in early January, the crackle of gunfire stirred Faloud Suleiman awake in his village in far western Sudan.

Members of the Masaaleit tribe, Suleiman and his fellow villagers in Sudan's Darfur region were living in more or less the same way their ancestors had for generations, planting millet and corn in the powdery soil of the African Sahel, fetching water from hand-dug wells and praying in reed-wall mosques.

But stumbling to the door of his thatch hut, Suleiman, the village headman, looked out into the twilight and saw how within a matter of minutes his village's way of life could be destroyed.

Dozens of armed men - some on horseback, others in trucks - stormed into the village from the east, he says, picking off waking villagers fleeing their homes. Snipers hid in the tall elephant grass. A Sudanese military plane circled menacingly overhead.

The attack, which Suleiman says was led by Sudanese government forces and Arab militias, was as methodical as it was deadly. First, the invaders shot villagers randomly. Among their 40 victims, villagers say, were a 60-year-old Islamic teacher, a father and his two sons, and Suleiman's cousin and uncle. Then, without delay, the gunmen rounded up the village's cattle, horses and goats before setting village huts, a school and a mosque alight.

Scrambling into the hillsides with his two wives and children, Suleiman turned back once to see what had become of his home.

"From far away, I could see it was on fire," he says.

For the past 19 months, a tragedy has been unfolding here, in one of the remotest, least developed corners of the world, leaving a path of destruction to rival the world's worst natural disasters.

Hundreds of black African villages like Suleiman's have been burned and pillaged by government-backed militias. They have marauded through the countryside to quell a rebellion by insurgents clamoring for greater political attention because of years of neglect for Darfur. Having armed the Arab militias - known as the janjaweed - the government unleashed a wave of attacks across a region as large as France, killing and raping villagers, torching homes and looting livestock.

More than 1.5 million people have been driven from their homes, and perhaps as many as 50,000 are dead - some from violence but many more from disease and malnutrition suffered in the filthy, overcrowded camps where they have fled seeking safety.

Unlike a hurricane, earthquake or flood, the crisis unfolding here is the handiwork of humans. It is a complex conflict that pits the Sudanese government against rebels, Arabs against non-Arabs, Muslims against Muslims, pastoralists against farmers, and now Sudan and much of the Islamic world against the United States and other Western nations trying to bring an end to the fighting.

Complicated disaster

"This is one of the most complicated and chaotic humanitarian disasters," says Andrew Natsios, administrator of USAID, the United States' main foreign aid agency, and who completed this month his third visit to Sudan this year.

Many questions, however, remain about exactly what happened in Darfur or how to describe it.

The United Nations has called the government's campaign ethnic cleansing and the world's worst humanitarian disaster. The United States calls it genocide. For its part, the Sudanese government says it was merely putting down a rebellion and that the death statistics are being inflated by Western governments as part of an elaborate plot to grab Sudan's oil riches.

What is undeniable is that what happened in Darfur has so terrified people like Suleiman that they are afraid to go home. That has burdened the international aid community with the need to supply them with the food, water, medicine and shelter they will need for the months, or years, to come.

Just as worrying is that the Darfur crisis threatens to devastate a country already laden with problems.

In the country's south, it could unravel a landmark peace agreement that, if signed, would end a bloody war between Khartoum and rebels that has dragged on for the better part of 50 years, killing 2 million people and displacing 4 million more.

In the east, insurgents threaten to take a cue from Darfur by launching their own war. In the west, growing numbers of locusts may create the most severe plague in two decades. Fears of a drought are spreading in other regions.

Breakdown of trust

But the most pressing problem facing Sudan is not the lack food or water, or locusts or drought, but the complete breakdown of trust between millions of displaced people like Suleiman and their government, renewing the destructive cycle of government oppression and rebellion that has defined Sudan since independence in the 1950s.

"We are afraid of the government, Suleiman says, vowing not to return to his village until his confidence is restored.

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