Lakhdar Brahimi, a former UN envoy to Iraq and one of several international eminences know as “the Elders,” briefly toured Sudan last week and declared that the Darfur rebels were being “pampered” by the “international community.” This sentiment represents a growing exasperation on the part of western and African diplomats with the Darfuri rebels for being unable to coordinate a common position from which to negotiate a peace accord. And for this failure, rebel leaders and Darfuri political leaders in the disapora bear a great deal of blame, even as Khartoum has been exceedingly resourceful in its divide-and-rule policies.
But the notion that the rebels are being pampered by the international community is simply nonsense. Diplomatic criticism of the rebel leaders has grown steadily in past weeks and months. Moreover, one has only to look at the anemic Western contributions to the UN/AU hybrid peace support operation to Darfur authorized by UN Security Council Resolution 1769 to see how little pampering has occurred. All evidence suggests that the people of Darfur – civilians and rebels alike – will be left without meaningful improvement in human security for many months to come.
Indeed, the international community’s willingness to commit to a policy of moral equivalence, in which Khartoum is no more responsible for violence and civilian destruction in Darfur than the rebels, shows that it is the Khartoum regime that is pampered, not the rebels. This perverse balancing of moral equities prior to peace talks scheduled to take place in Sirte, Libya has played directly into the broader strategy of the regime. These ruthless survivalists envision, with terrifying plausibility, a peace process owned by no one, poorly prepared for by AU and UN envoys, and presenting unfettered opportunities for the regime to cleave insistently to the ill-conceived Darfur peace agreement (DPA) as the only basis for negotiations.
The rebels, as well as Darfuris in camps for the displaced, overwhelmingly reject the DPA. Thus, with diplomatic pressure largely removed because of Khartoum’s nominal commitment to a peace process, and with the disastrous consequences of the rebel attack on Haskanita, the regime intends to move toward a final military solution of its Darfur problem. Hundreds of thousands of civilian Darfuris are poised to die.
This renewed military solution has already begun in earnest, and Darfur appears on the brink of a resumption of full-scale war. Khartoum has in recent days attacked a number of targets, including humanitarians and civilians, and is gathering its forces across this deeply threatened region. The town of Haskanita, which came under Khartoum’s control following the rebel attack on the nearby AU outpost, has been completely burned to the ground by Khartoum’s regular forces, together with the Janjaweed militia. All the surrounding ethnically African villages have been abandoned, according to Suleiman Jamous, the most respected and credible of the rebel leaders, who also reports that during a rampage of several days more than 100 civilians were killed. The Associated Press has reported that 15,000 civilians were forced to flee the area. Some 130km to the west, according to numerous reliable reports, the town of Muhajeria was bombed on Monday by one of Khartoum’s Antonov aircraft. Amnesty International reports that the plane was painted white, the colour of UN aircraft. At least 40 civilians were killed in this town of 5,000, which also hosts some 45,000 displaced civilians. We should bear in mind that all offensive aerial military flights are prohibited by the March 2005 UN Security Council Resolution 1591, a prohibition that Khartoum regularly ignores because of tepid criticism from precisely the international community Brahimi invokes as pampering the rebels.
There are threats far to the northwest, as well. Amnesty International and others warned on Tuesday that Khartoum is massing its forces near at least six towns in North Darfur, including Tine, Kornoy, Baru and Kutum. Tine is approximately 500km from Haskanita. The Group of 19, comprising many of the most honourable of the rebel commanders, dominates militarily in North Darfur and had nothing to do with the attack on the AU peacekeepers near Haskanita; indeed, at least one leader tried desperately to halt the attack beforehand. And yet a major military offensive by Khartoum is clearly in the offing, targeting this most potent source of rebel resistance.
Perhaps most ominously, Nyala – capital of South Darfur, the largest town in the region and previously thought one of the safest – is on the brink of a security collapse. Khartoum’s forces in this area are attacking elements of the rebel faction of Minni Minawi. Reports from the ground in and near Nyala indicate that UN humanitarian organizations have begun withdrawing their non-essential personnel. If international nongovernmental aid workers also withdraw, some of the very largest camps for displaced persons in Darfur will be without assistance and – in the absence of international witnesses – vulnerable to violent assault. A number of expatriate humanitarian workers have also recently been expelled from the Nyala region by Khartoum.
And yet those who have been most critical of the rebel attack on the AU are evidently willing to countenance these attacks by Khartoum. The demonizing of the rebels has gone far beyond what can possibly be justified, even as a willingness to condemn Khartoum for its years of massive atrocity crimes has in many quarters atrophied to the point of merely perfunctory criticism.
Here it is important to recall something of the history of the Darfur conflict, as this history is increasingly distorted or simply ignored. The rebellion commonly dated to February 2003 grew out of years of severe economic and political marginalization by Khartoum, as well as antecedent ethnically targeted violence, much of it orchestrated by the National Islamic Front regime through Arab militias. The late 1990s saw especially intense attacks on the Massalit, an African tribal group that has had over 95% of its villages in Darfur destroyed over the last decade.
Since Khartoum began its genocidal counter-insurgency war after rebel military successes of early 2003, the ensuing destruction has been savagely comprehensive. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Africans have been killed; tens of thousands of African women and girls have been raped; the vast majority of African villages have been burned, along with food and seed stocks. Precious water wells have been poisoned with human or animal corpses. Agricultural implements have been destroyed; mature fruit trees cut down. The notorious Janjaweed leader Musa Hilal articulated the regime’s intention in an August 2004 memorandum: “Change the demography of Darfur and empty it of African tribes.”
When we assess current rebel violence, intransigence and fractiousness, we risk hopelessly distorting the nature of the rebellion and continuing resistance if we ignore the clear evidence of Khartoum’s strategy of genocidal destruction. Similarly, if we ignore the regime’s record of genocide – in Darfur, but also in the Nuba Mountains and the oil regions of southern Sudan – then the baseline for any peace process will also be badly distorted.
Confident that such distortions and ignorance will prevail, Khartoum has moved decisively onto the military offensive. This in turn will make it even harder to persuade rebel leaders to attend the peace talks. Historical myopia, excessive criticism of the rebel groups and growing international unwillingness to acknowledge the realities of genocidal destruction have brought Khartoum steadily closer to a final solution of its Darfur problem.
Eric Reeves is author of “A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide”]