How Darfur became a tragic tangle

The world keeps telling Sudan `or else,' but `or else' never comes

April 08, 2007|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun reporter

Darfur has taken on the shorthand status accorded Biafra and Bangladesh in a previous generation.

The very word has come to represent horrible things happening to poor and defenseless people, held up to shame the rich and powerful world for its lack of action in stopping this injustice. For many who decry these atrocities, that is all they know, all they need to know.

There is no doubt that Darfur fits that rather simplistic role. But there is also no doubt that no solution to its many problems will be possible without understanding its complexity.

For years now, the international community has offered condemnations of the situation in Darfur, calling for action against the Sudanese government for its role in the atrocities. The latest came a few weeks ago when the International Criminal Court announced possible action against two members of that government for their role in the troubled province.

But threats have led only to ineffective action. "Or else," the world keeps telling Sudan. But somehow, the "else" never comes.

The basic description of what is going on in Darfur goes something like this: Poverty-stricken rural settlements are under attack by groups -- who go by the appropriately villainous name of Janjaweed -- armed and supported by the government of Sudan.

The somewhat more sophisticated description of what has happened in Darfur includes a bit of historical perspective: Taking advantage of the fact that the central government was preoccupied with a rebellion in the south of Sudan, in 2003 Darfur rebel groups launched their own strikes. The Sudan government, in part because it was militarily strapped and in part because its army is made up predominantly of soldiers from Darfur, hired the Janjaweed to do its fighting and they have responded with mercenary tyranny that has wreaked such havoc on civilian populations that it is now categorized as genocide by the U.S. government.

The even more detailed historical analysis, courtesy of Robert Collins, a history professor who has spent his career studying Sudan: Darfur was never really part of Sudan, as its attention faces east toward Lake Chad, not west toward the Nile basin. Its attachment to Sudan was one of the many mistakes made by European colonialists drawing lines on the map of Africa. Any understanding of the current conflict comes only with an appreciation of the generations of tensions between Darfur and Khartoum.

"The central government in Khartoum had never fully controlled or administered the peripheral areas," says Collins, an emeritus professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "Darfur is a classic example.

"During the last 100 to 200 years, the Turks, the British and certainly the Sudanese have never really ruled Darfur," he says. "That is a fundamental and basic problem."

All that said, there is no doubt that some horrible things are going on today in Darfur that cry out for the world's attention.

Scott LeFevre, the regional representative for Catholic Relief Services in the Horn of Africa, says that where CRS is currently working, in the northern half of west Darfur, there are 150,000 men, women and children who have fled their homes for fear of the Janjaweed attacks that have killed thousands.

For some, he says, home is now a circle of sticks in a refugee camp.

"They may or may not have a mat to sleep on," says LeFevre, who was in Darfur last month. "This is a very harsh environment. We are just finishing up the cold season and it gets quite cold at night there. But many of these people are sleeping under the stars, with no shelter."

Limiting the work of CRS and the other relief agencies is the dicey security situation.

"It is a very complex situation," LeFevre says. "Very fluid, very unpredictable. Security is at best tenuous. Sometimes it can be very poor, sometimes nonexistent, so our access to certain areas is limited at times."

LeFevere gives high marks to the United States for providing the bulk of aid to the region, food and medical supplies that is keeping the displaced of Darfur alive.

But the big question is if there is a solution beyond what should be the temporary measures of relief and refugee camps.

The danger is that Darfur will become so dysfunctional that it will take on the trappings of a failed state. Those doing the fighting will become detached from whatever political motivations they once had. It will simply be a matter of greed and pillage.

At that point, the political solution most are aiming for now will be out of reach. As in so many African tragedies, the violence will simply have to exhaust itself, leavings thousands dead and a people traumatized.

David Mozersky of the International Crisis Group does not think Darfur has reached that point, but the longer the situation goes on without a solution, the more difficult it becomes.

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