Turmoil in Sudan's west hinders peace in south

Darfur crisis discourages refugees' return home

November 21, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BILAL, Sudan - Finally, after 21 years, there's a glimmer of hope that an end may be near to the war between Sudan's Islamic government and the Christian and animist rebels in the country's south.

But for thousands of southerners who have spent years as refugees, whether they can go home anytime soon depends on the resolution of Sudan's other conflict, the one still raging in Darfur in Sudan's west.

"If I head south, the Arabs will kill me," said Martin Atok, 37, referring to the pro-government Arab militias called the Janjaweed who have been targeting black African tribesmen in Darfur as part of a campaign the United States has labeled genocide. "The war has blocked our way home."

Last week, under pressure from the United Nations Security Council, Sudan's government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement promised to clinch by year's end a long-sought, U.S.-brokered deal to end the war in the south, which has killed 2.2 million people.

Most of the major differences have been ironed out, and there's currently a cease-fire in place. The agreement, molded over three years of talks in the Kenyan resort town of Naivasha, provides for sharing oil revenue and power and provides for a vote on self-determination.

But the accord has yet to be signed, in part out of suspicion that the rebels in the south might support rebels in Darfur and in part because the Bush administration this past year has been focused primarily on resolving the Darfur conflict, which has killed 70,000 and displaced 1.6 million.

And while the crisis in Darfur remains unsettled, Sudan's many conflicts fester.

In the east, insurgents partly inspired by Darfur's rebels are threatening to open a new front that could spawn more turmoil. In the capital Khartoum, the government has jailed opposition figures for allegedly backing Darfur's rebels. Other small, but thorny, insurgencies are also emerging with similar grievances.

U.S. efforts to prompt a settlement in Darfur by imposing U.N. sanctions on Sudan's government have had little success with Sudan's veto-carrying allies, namely China, vowing to block such action.

Nowhere is the impact of Darfur on Sudan's other conflict more apparent than among refugees here.

"There is no fighting in the south. But we still can't go home," said Abdul Mou, the chief of Bilal, where 8,700 refugees, mostly members of the Dinka tribe, now live. "This war wants to spoil our peace in the south."

Martin Atok has lived here for 16 years, since he fled his burning village. He remembers watching his brother, Achien, running the other way. It was the last he saw of him.

"The Arabs entered our village and took our cattle," recalled Atok, as he sat on a bench outside his large mud and brick hut in Bilal. "They burned houses and stores of grains. They killed fathers first, then kidnapped their children."

Atok bounced from refugee camp to refugee camp until a Western relief agency brought him to Bilal.

Even if he raised the courage to cross the front lines, he can't get very far.

"How can I get back there? I'm not working. Where can I get the money?" he asks.

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