November 24, 2003
Largely invisibly, but with remorseless intensity, the war and attendant humanitarian crisis in Darfur continue to expand. Human destruction and displacement have accelerated at an alarming rate, with many thousands dead or dying, and well over half a million displaced. The remoteness of this large region in Sudan (it is the most westerly province in northern Sudan, sharing a long border with Chad) insures that the war—as well as the growing death, displacement, and suffering—goes almost completely unobserved. There have been virtually no first-hand accounts by journalists, and the observations by humanitarian organizations are necessarily scattered and only secondarily part of their mandate. Moreover, frank public reporting is also extremely dangerous for such highly vulnerable organizations.
Even so, fragmentary accounts from humanitarian organizations, the flood of confirming second-hand accounts from within the province, evidence from those displaced from Darfur into Chad, and regional and international sources that have managed to see something of the situation in Darfur first-hand—all paint the grimmest picture of a part of Sudan that is now bearing the brunt of Khartoum’s tyranny. The National Islamic Front regime has been able to concentrate its military power in Darfur while it enjoys the benefits of what has become a general ceasefire in southern Sudan. Indeed, a growing number of analysts and exceedingly well-placed observers are now convinced that Khartoum has gone as far as it has toward a peace agreement with the south only because of the military pressure exerted by the uprising in Darfur.
If this is so, it augurs very poorly for the long-term viability of a peace agreement between Khartoum and southern Sudan, as well as the marginalized areas allied with the south. For should the Darfur insurrection be put down, or some sort of expedient political agreement be reached, Khartoum will no longer face military pressure in the west, and may very well turn its attention again to the south. The massive human rights abuses that presently define Khartoum’s war in Darfur will resume their terrible form in the south, especially the oil regions of Upper Nile Province. International humanitarian access, presently so severely constrained in Darfur, will also very likely wither in southern Sudan if war resumes there (see below).
There are, however, two forces militating again such renewed military aggression by Khartoum in the south—two ways in which we can imagine that a peace agreement in the near term may have a chance to take hold, no matter what Khartoum’s disposition to renege.
The first is the potency of the Darfur insurrection itself, and the deepening alienation of those peoples in Darfur who have suffered most at the hands of Khartoum and its Arab militia allies. The Fur, Masseleit, and Zaghawa tribal groups—racially and ethnically African—have found that the fact of their being predominantly Muslim is no protection against the Islamist zeal of Khartoum. As Douglas Johnson observes in his recent book on Sudan’s war (“The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars,” Indiana University Press, 2003):
“The army-NIF takeover further enhanced the power of [the Arab militias in Darfur] when the Popular Defence Forces Act officially recognized them as paramilitary groups at the end of 1989 [the NIF came to power by military coup on June 30, 1989]. As the war in Chad spilled into Darfur, it sharpened the divide between ‘Arabs’ and ‘Blacks’ [Zuruq], with the Sudanese Islamist parties now equating Islam with Arabism.” [page 140]
This “equating of Islam with Arabism” tells us far too much about the hateful animus at the heart of Khartoum’s aggression in Darfur—and the nature of the oppression that will simply no longer be tolerated by the African peoples in this region, who find that racial and religious identity have merged in Khartoum’s vicious ideology, and that this excludes them from the category of real human beings.
Johnson continues his analysis of recent history in Darfur by noting that:
“At present the government’s reassertion of its authority in Darfur has focused on strengthening the military and establishing direct control, with governors being appointed from outside the region.” [page 140]
As a result of these policies, key issues of equity in land disputes remain unresolved, even as Khartoum’s brutally heavy-handed rule runs counter to traditional forms of local governance in this part of Sudan. Hence the inevitable emergence early this year of an insurrection that has as its goal the ending of discrimination, tyranny, and loss of political and cultural power.
To date the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) has proved a formidable military foe, winning the overwhelming number of direct confrontations with Khartoum’s regular army forces. But Khartoum has responded by loosing its Arab militia allies on the civilian populations of Darfur, generating in the last six months over half a million displaced persons and over 70,000 desperate refugees who have been driven into Chad (various UN sources presently cite these figures). It is nothing if not a ghastly reprise of how Khartoum has conducted its counter-insurgency campaigns in southern Sudan, the Nuba Mountains, and Southern Blue Nile for years.
But as successful as Khartoum has been in disrupting and destroying civilian lives and livelihood in Darfur, there is little evidence that any progress is being in military terms. Having earlier in the year forgone the possibility of a political settlement with the peoples of Darfur, Khartoum now finds itself locked in a war that it cannot win soon in outright military terms, and this makes the resumption of war in the south less likely. Moreover, the military and political opposition against Khartoum has partly fractured, and the “Justice and Equality Movement” has become an uneasy ally of the SLA/M, even as it controls huge swaths of northern and western Darfur. (A number of members of the SLA/M felt that the September 2003 cease-fire agreement between their movement and Khartoum was a betrayal and have consequently joined cause with the “Justice and Equality Movement.”)
All of this is further complicated by highly intricate local politics in Darfur, and some significant national political alliances. Thus it is of note that powerful NIF First Vice President Ali Osman Taha two days ago excoriated his Islamicist mentor Hassan al-Turabi for “fanning sedition in Darfur” (Agence France-Presse, November 23, 2003). AFP went on to quote Taha as declaring that Turabi’s “Popular Congress [Party] has to reconsider its policy and the activities of its elements in Darfur, otherwise it will be eliminated from the political arena” (Agence France-Presse, November 23, 2003). We catch another distinctive glimpse of the ongoing character of Khartoum politics in this ironic vignette.
What are the moral obligations of the international community in light of the vast and accelerating human disaster in Darfur? It is first of all to recognize that the source of this disaster is again the National Islamic Front regime in Khartoum. If we don’t have a sufficiently detailed understanding of the range and frequency of Khartoum-sponsored atrocities and war crimes in Darfur, we have only to recall what the regime has done in the south and the Nuba Mountains.
Genocide is the only fully adequate term for the relentless, deliberate destruction of non-Islamicized and non-Arabized peoples in the south and marginalized areas. This has included engineered famine and the highly consequential obstruction of humanitarian relief to desperate populations; the intentional bombing of hospitals, schools, churches, relief operations; the scorched-earth warfare of the oil regions; and countless atrocities directed at the viability of southern and Nuban civil society, as well as their agricultural economies.
It is only reasonable to assume that the regime so clearly responsible for such conduct of war is behaving in the same fashion in Darfur. Indeed, Reuters recently reported a recent bombing attack that was chillingly similar to the many hundreds of such bombings that have been authoritatively confirmed in southern Sudan for years (this bombing attack also constitutes yet another violation by Khartoum of the cease-fire agreement the regime signed in early September):
“Rebels in western Sudan accused the government on Saturday of violating a truce with air strikes and militia raids that killed 30 people, mostly civilians. The government said it knew nothing of the attacks in the arid Darfur area, where the rebels of the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) emerged as a fighting force in February, saying Khartoum had marginalised the impoverished region.
‘It’s been very bad. Attacks by government militias and the air raid have killed 30 people and lots of livestock,’ SLM/A Secretary-General Minni Arcua Minnawi told Reuters by phone from western Sudan. ‘They used an Antonov airplane to bomb civilians areas today (Saturday)'” (Reuters, November 22, 2003)
In a recent BBC dispatch (dateline Khartoum), Andrew Harding reports on the inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the nature of Khartoum’s war against the African peoples of Darfur:
“Diplomats have described the fighting in Darfur as ‘ethnic cleansing’ with Arab militias, possibly backed by the government, destroying entire villages.” (BBC, November 13, 2003)
Of course all available evidence indicates that Khartoum’s backing of the Arab militias is more than a “possibility”: it is the essential feature of these relentless assaults on the Fur, Masseleit, and Zaghawa civilians who are perceived by Khartoum as providing the essential support for SLA/M military efforts. Again, this is precisely the military thinking that has governed Khartoum’s conduct of the war in the south for many years, conduct that has been authoritatively chronicled by many human rights groups and investigations for years now.
In yet another parallel between Khartoum’s war against the south and its present war against the people of Darfur, the manipulation of humanitarian aid has become a key weapon. Agence France-Presse recently reported on an “Alarming Food Crisis in Western”:
“Alarming food crisis in western Sudan,” [by Lachlan Carmichael, Cairo]
“International relief agencies are sounding the alarm about a looming food crisis in western Sudan as they report a growing number of people fleeing militias burning their villages and farmland.” (Agence France-Presse, November 14, 2003)
But even as this “alarming food crisis” grows more urgent, Khartoum has refused to accept food aid from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) on completely spurious grounds. Claiming that US sorghum and wheat are genetically modified, the Khartoum regime denied entrance at Port Sudan to a critical food shipment. But as Khartoum well knows, the US does not export or even grow genetically modified sorghum or wheat. Some strains of other grains have been genetically modified—but not these two key staples. Extraordinarily, this was reported in Khartoum by Kamal al Sadig in Al-Ayam:
“In a new development on the USAID confined food crisis, the Ministry of Agriculture has reaffirmed refusal to allow entrance of the food into the country and distributing it, claiming that the food is genetically modified. The new excuse was announced yesterday in a meeting held for all concerned bodies.” (Al-Ayam, November 16, 2003; issue no 7825)
It is this same Al-Ayam newspaper that was recently suspended by the regime for posing a “security threat to the state.” And indeed, we may be sure that speaking truth in Khartoum is indeed a threat to the present Islamic fascism.
But the grim parallels between the denial of humanitarian aid to Darfur and to southern Sudan are all to clear and have begun—despite Khartoum’s propaganda—to be articulated. Agence France-Presse quotes one aid official, who spoke on condition of anonymity:
“One relief official said the Darfur region suffers from the same factors that produced the famine in the Bahr al-Ghazal region in 1998: limited access for relief groups, marauding militiamen, and entrenched poverty. ‘The parallels are evocative,’ the official said on condition of anonymity.” (Agence France-Presse, November 14, 2003)
Perhaps as many as 100,000 people starved to death in the terrible Bahr el-Ghazal famine of 1998—and nothing was more consequential than Khartoum’s precipitous cutoff of humanitarian aid at the height of the crisis.
In a final and particularly ominous parallel with Khartoum’s war against the south, the regime has refused to allow for any “internationalization” of the crisis in Darfur. This means no international observers at the peace negotiations in Chad or on the ground in Darfur—and no adequate international humanitarian access. On this latter score in particular, we are morally obliged to face squarely the fact that in present circumstances, Khartoum’s claim to “sovereignty” will inevitably entail thousands of innocent people dying from starvation and from the illnesses that become so threatening to displaced persons in the harsh environments of Darfur.
The UN has already spoken bluntly about the need for more access, and received a furious response from Khartoum for its efforts. But of course the UN has no motive to distort the realities of Darfur, while Khartoum has every reason to do so. It is with this in mind that we should recall recent, extraordinarily frank comments from UN spokesmen and dispatches:
“Sudan’s government is hampering an adequate response to an escalating humanitarian crisis in the war-ravaged Darfur region by reneging on a pledge to process aid workers’ travel permits speedily, the UN accused on Monday. ‘Some aid operations haven’t been able to start. Aid workers who are ready to go (to Darfur) are getting stuck,’ because their permit applications have not been turned around within a promised 24-hour period, Ben Parker, the Nairobi-based spokesperson for the UN’s Humanitarian Co-ordinator in Sudan, Mukesh Kapila said.” (Agence France-Presse, November 10, 2003)
A further statement from the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan notes:
“New regulations [from Khartoum] on travel permits that entered into force on 1 October 2003 have not been followed consistently. As a result, travel procedures remain slow and cumbersome and, in some cases, permission to visit affected areas is withheld.” Statement from UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan (issued Nairobi/Khartoum, November 10, 2003)
But if continued military resistance in Khartoum is, perversely, one means by which the chances for peace increase for southern Sudan, what is the second way? How else might a peace agreement for southern Sudan be sustainable, presuming that a peace settlement is reached, and that the difficult outstanding issues are resolved in a just fashion?
This second way for the securing of a real peace would derive from the willingness of the international community to provide truly adequate resources for emergency transitional aid following a peace agreement, and the resources for a peace support operation that gives peace a real chance to take hold in the ravaged regions of southern Sudan and the marginalized areas. Tragically, the evidence grows daily that neither emergency transitional aid nor peacekeeping will be either timely or sufficiently funded. The international community is poised to betray Sudan yet again, and at its moment of greatest hope and need.
The US administration in particular is guilty of an unforgivable reneging: then-Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Walter Kansteiner promised, in Congressional testimony of May 13, 2003, that “we stand ready to support reconstruction and development in post-war Sudan.” In speaking of the need for the Khartoum regime and the opposition Sudan People’s Liberation Movement to reach peace under presently auspicious circumstances, Kansteiner declared further that “both sides know that there will be a large peace dividend for reconstruction and development if, but only if, there is peace.”
The budgetary realities of the Bush administration $87 billion supplemental foreign operations bill make clear than all this really meant was $20 million for “famine assistance” in Sudan. This is an amount so absurdly disproportionate to the needs that will be occasioned by peace that the real nature of the Administration’s commitment to Sudan has been called deeply into question. Further supplemental funding for Sudan now seems impossible until the next fiscal year, so the presently appropriated amount stands as the “large peace dividend” promised by the Bush administration.
If the marginalized and tyrannized peoples of Darfur see this betrayal, we may at least be sure that they will understand that their survival depends not on the international community, but their own resilience and fighting prowess. It is a grim prospect, but one that the international betrayal of southern Sudan—in which the US has all too many partners—makes inevitable.
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