Home | Comment & Analysis    Wednesday 24 December 2003

Darfur, the forgotten Sudanese war


By Julie Flint, The Daily Star

Dec 24, 2003 — The latest word from Washington is that the White House wants a peace agreement between the government of Sudan and the southern rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) signed on Jan. 7, 2004. If US President George W. Bush has his way, there will be smiles and handshakes and phalanxes of cameras and little, if any, emphasis on the word "Darfur."

In Darfur, on Sudan’s western border, 1 million people are now affected by a new civil war that broke out at the beginning of the year when a lawyer named Abdel Wahid Mohammed Ahmed Nour declared armed rebellion against the government, accusing it of marginalizing Darfur’s African tribes politically and economically and leaving them exposed to the depredations of Arab militias.

Although located in northern Sudan and overwhelmingly Muslim, the people of Darfur are predominantly African, albeit often of mixed Arab ancestry. The region, Sudan’s largest, was ruled by independent sultanates until 1916 and has always had an uneasy relationship with Khartoum. But as drought and desertification began spreading in the mid-1970s, unease grew into open conflict between Arab pastoralists searching for viable grazing land many of them from neighboring Chad and Libya and settled farmers from African tribes like the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa.

The conflict worsened after the National Islamic Front (NIF) seized power in 1989 and weakened Darfur’s traditional tribal leadership by dividing its nine provinces into 26. Within these tribal homelands the NIF cleared smaller lands for Arab tribes of Chadian origin. The settlement of herders amid farmers guaranteed constant conflict.

Throughout 2002, the internationally sponsored peace talks between Khartoum and the SPLA increased the sense of abandonment in Darfur. Tensions increased as scores of notables, including tribal leaders, sheikhs, lawyers and teachers were arrested without charge and held in appaling conditions. In a letter smuggled out of the prison where he was detained, Abdel Wahid wrote: "The cell is 16 square meters. There are 12 of us in this small room without ventilation or windows. I have neither been charged nor told why I was arrested in the first place ? The security forces act with virtual immunity. They terrorize the Fur, raid houses randomly, arrest people including the elderly and children and detain them without charge or trial. Many have been tortured. Many Fur men have left their lands and fled to the mountains to find a safe haven. Many Fur villages have been completely deserted."

Villagers who complained of government inaction in the face of militia attacks were detained and their puny self-defense units disarmed.

As the Fur came under sustained attack early this year in and around the Jebel Marra massif, Darfur’s fertile central belt, the armed wing of the rebellion, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), took up arms demanding a secular, democratic Sudan along the lines already proposed by the SPLA. The rebellion surprised observers by winning considerable support in religiously conservative Darfur, underlining the degree of dissatisfaction with central rule. The government blamed the fighting on "tribal clashes." But the systematic nature of the attacks against the Fur, the presence of masked and sometimes uniformed men and the passivity of the government’s own security forces suggested otherwise.

Amnesty International said the situation "must not be allowed to deteriorate further into another Sudanese war." Yet, at the end of 2003 it has. The war in Darfur today has many of the characteristics of the war in the south Antonov and helicopter gunship attacks by the government; raids against civilians by government-backed militias (in the opinion of United Nations’ Special Envoy for Humanitarian Affairs Tom Eric Vraalsen); and now, according to several sources, the use of relief as a weapon of war.

Only days before the latest round of peace talks between Khartoum and the SPLA began in Kenya, focusing on thorny issues of substance that could yet preclude an agreement, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed alarm at what he called "the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation" in Darfur, one of Sudan’s poorest and most food-insecure areas, and at reports of widespread abuses against civilians including, he said, "killings, rape and the burning and looting of entire villages."

Many of the 1 million people affected by the conflict in Darfur are reported to be beyond the reach of relief workers, who have long been discouraged by the government from working in the sensitive region. Vraalsen recently accused the government of obstructing delivery of humanitarian assistance by "systematically" denying access and supporting militias that are targeting humanitarian workers. Death on a terrible scale threatens: Save the Children, one of the few NGOs that has been permitted to work in Darfur, has warned that malnutrition rates there are "alarmingly high." Across the border in Chad, up to 26,000 refugees from Darfur are reported to be in urgent need of food, water, clothing and shelter.

The situation in Darfur threatens national stability and has for months. Yet it is only now, as the conflict threatens to take the shine off an agreement on the south, that those who have brokered the talks in Kenya are paying any real interest to what is happening in the west. Too little, however, and for many in Darfur, too late.

On Dec. 16, talks in Chad to end the violence in Darfur broke down ensuring that one Sudanese war will grind on as another, hopefully, draws to an end.

For the many marginalized peoples of Sudan who have not been involved in the peace talks in Kenya, the lesson of the emerging peace with the SPLA is that arms and only arms lead to the negotiating table. Worse: many fear that a peace agreement between the government and the SPLA, in codifying wealth and power-sharing arrangements for the whole of Sudan, may exacerbate conflicts in those parts of the country that have not been included in the agreement. As money pours into Sudan to cement the north-south peace, feelings of exclusion can only grow.

Earlier this month, in announcing that it will normalize ties with Sudan and resume development cooperation when a peace agreement is signed, the European Union urged the government and the SLA to resume negotiations, ensure the protection of civilians and allow unimpeded humanitarian access. If the conflict in Darfur is to be contained, and conflicts in other marginalized areas deterred, the language of equivalence must be thrown away. The international community, so late in responding to the Darfur crisis, already faces an impossible task in "rewarding" Khartoum for making peace in the south without seeming to sanction or condone new abuses in the west. Straight talking is the very least that is needed now.

Julie Flint is a veteran journalist based in Beirut and London. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR

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