Imagine a dry, parched land, filled with three different communities of farmers and a nomadic Arab population, all trying to eke out a living. Then imagine rebel militia attacking government targets, in a bid to attract attention and manifest the resentment felt by many at the perceived neglect of the central government. After over 4 years of fighting, clashes and uncertainty at every turn, more than 2 million civilians have become refugees, hundreds of thousands of fearful Darfuris (200,000 being the most widely accepted estimate) have been killed and attacks are renewed everyday. Welcome to the western Sudanese region of Darfur, a much harped-about but little known-about region playing host to some of the worst war crimes and human rights atrocities ever witnessed. (While the US and some activist groups claim that there is an ongoing genocide, the UN has denied this.)
From time immemorial, seasonal fluctuations in water and grazing land had led to conflict over natural resources in Darfur. This time, however, the crisis has escalated to a point where several million people, across borders, across ethnicities, tied together by nothing but their combined innocence, are at risk.
There are two main rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (Jem), although both groups have split, some along ethnic lines. These groups accuse the government of favouring Arabs over black Africans, and oppressing the later. The government denies this charge, as well as the accusation that it is supporting the Janjaweed militant group, who are accused of trying to ‘cleanse’ the region of blacks.
Meanwhile, while well-read individuals argue over how to label and group these different players, refugees tell tales of Janjaweed men riding into villages after government air raids, killing the men, raping the women and taking all that they can find. Multitudes of women have reported being abducted and kept as sex slaves for week by the Janjaweed groups.
The 7000-strong African Union observer mission is hard pressed to protect civilians in the region, facing armed opposition of bureaucratic restrictions at every turn. While the United Nations Security Council has approved a 26,000 strong peacekeeping force for the area, it has been refused entry by the Sudanese government. The government also opposes the UN’s attempt to try up to 50 key suspects at the International Criminal Court, promising to try members of security forces thought to have committed abuses, but this is seen as a panicked attempt to maintain its own authority. This is, after all, the same government that has promised to disarm the militant Janjaweed group, which still patrols the limits of refugee camps, attacking starving refugees who stray too far in search of food and water. At the end of the day, however, as many point out, what good are peacekeepers when there is no peace to keep?
Up to 200,000 refugees are camped along the border with Chad – close to escape, but still, inevitably, vulnerable. With diplomatic tussles putting their status at risk, they may seek shelter in Chad’s eastern areas, which have a similar make-up to Darfur. Following a 2006 deal with a major militant leader, it was hoped that the situation would improve, but it simply worsened. There has been a dramatic increase in violence and displacement since the deal was signed. While aid agencies are doing their best to help resolve the situation, they too are at great risk.
Today, the conflict between the government and the Janjaweed against armed opposition groups is not the only source of insecurity in Darfur. After more than four years of conflict, armed men on all sides are benefiting from the total collapse of law and order to loot the livestock of vulnerable people, hijack humanitarian vehicles and relief supplies, impose war “taxes” and extort “protection” money. The emergence of a strong war economy also threatens to perpetuate the conflict. Camps for the displaced have become so crowded and volatile, with so many uncontrolled small arms in circulation, that they present a danger even for those who are attempting to provide humanitarian services. In some camps, government police and AU forces are no longer allowed entry and there is no institution entrusted with guaranteeing security and administering justice. And so, even ‘refuges’ are no longer safe. It seems that security is an almost impossible fantasy, looking at the current situation – all that can be hoped for is, not surprisingly, a deal. Yet until wheeler-dealers resolve their arguments, whether or not there is a clean winner or loser, it is the common people who bleed, who suffer, who really lose.
By: Akbar S Ahmed