Darfur, SUDAN — “We were at morning prayers when the bombing began,” recalls Kaltum Ali Ahmed, one of many refugees in 140 camps across wartorn Darfur. “Then the Janjaweed arrived and tore off our clothes and our jewelry. Anyone who refused was punished or killed. They took some girls and only let them go after three days. I do not want to say what they did to them. It is shameful.”
From the parched dunes of the Sahara in the north to the grassy savannahs in the south, this remote western region of Sudan is a study in lawlessness and savagery. Razing, looting, and mass rapes are commonplace, and food and medical attention are in short supply.
Since violence first flared 19 months ago between rebellious African tribes and Arab militias known as Janjaweed, some 30,000 Darfurians have been killed and more than 1 million displaced. The majority of atrocities has been carried out by Janjaweed, whom the international community accuses of being proxies for the government in Khartoum.
The crisis of instability in Darfur is as much a regional problem as it is a national one. One principal rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), is believed to be backed by the opposition Popular Congress party and its Islamic fundamentalist leader, Hassan al-Turabi, intermittently jailed by Khartoum since falling out with President Hassan Omer al-Bashir in 1999.
The largest rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA), has the support of Eritrea, one of Sudan’s uneasy neighbors, and of John Garang, leader of a separate, decades-long revolt against Khartoum in south Sudan. Known as the Darfur Liberation Front until two years ago, the SLA has been, with varying intensity, an active insurgency for several decades.
After these rebels launched a series of lighting strikes in February 2003 against military and civic targets across North Darfur, a surprised Khartoum turned to the area’s Arab militias for defense. These tribes and others now pursue not only the rebels, but spoils and age-old vendettas as well.
At the same time, the resources of the Sahara have been dwindling in recent years, sending Arab herdsmen south to more fertile lands, giving rise to conflict with both Arab and African farmers and fixed herding tribes.
The United States and the international community have been slow to acknowledge the crisis in Darfur. Their hesitance arguably emboldened Khartoum to obstruct the delivery of much-needed aid and permitted the Janjaweed to amass and proliferate without restraint.
“It is not so easy to get the spirit back into the bottle,” says Jan Pronk, the U.N.’s special representative in Sudan.
In July, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly condemned Khartoum and called the situation in Darfur genocide–a charge echoed six weeks later by Secretary of State Colin Powell. But the United Nations and European Union have so far refrained from calling it as such. The issue is far from settled.
Under international pressure, humanitarian conditions in Darfur are starting to improve. Aid workers say food and supplies are arriving at the majority of camps, and that, barring scattered attacks on convoys by both sides, the situation appears to be under control. But weak infrastructure–there are few paved roads or airstrips in Darfur, and the region, roughly the size of Iraq, is immense–combined with the onset of the rainy season could certainly cause new setbacks.
Security remains a problem. The government has vowed to disarm the Janjaweed militias, but so far its efforts have been less than wholehearted. Khartoum shows little inclination to rein in the Janjaweed until pressure is brought on the rebels to lay down their arms, too. Meanwhile, attacks on villages from Arab militias persist.
Disarming combatants in Darfur will not be easy. Civil wars in Chad and Congo as well as Sudan have left the area awash in small arms, and, even in the best of times, Khartoum holds only titular control. Two rounds of peace talks between Khartoum and the rebels have foundered, and two of the surest arrows in the international community’s quiver–peacekeeping troops and sanctions–are unlikely.
At present, Darfur’s best hope seems to lie with peacekeepers from the African Union (AU), whose troops in Darfur will likely increase in coming months. But the AU’s ability to impose peace–and the Darfur combatants’ willingness to accept it–are both uncertain.
Meanwhile, there are the villagers of Darfur. Victims of, and witnesses to, murder, rape and barbarism, they express little hope that normal life will soon resume. “It is still inside me,” says Ali Ahmed, the Darfur refugee. “And they want me to act as if nothing has changed.”
Sam Dealey is a former editorial writer for the Asian Wall Street Journal. He was part of a Time Magazine team in Darfur that reported the magazine’s October 4, 2004 cover story on the crisis there.