By Ron Shirtliff | 2004-10-01 12:00:00

Still unfolding in Sudan in 2004 is a conflict that has created what UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called "the world's greatest humanitarian disaster." As of early September Annan reported: "Attacks against civilians (in Darfur) are continuing and the vast majority of the armed militias have not been disarmed.... Similarly no concrete steps have been taken to bring to justice or even identify any of the militia leaders or the perpetrators of these attacks, allowing the violations of human rights and the basic laws of war to continue in a climate of impunity."

As we go to press it is not possible to know how the international community is going to deal, or fail to deal, with that disaster. For that reason in this article we will only attempt to provide some background information that might be useful to readers attempting to evaluate the appropriateness of the international response as it is revealed in the months ahead.

Sudan is Africa's largest and most diverse country. Situated below Egypt and extending south to just above the equator, it also stretches east and west more than half way from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Khartoum, its capital and administrative centre, is located in the northeast at the juncture of the Upper Nile and its main tributaries, the White Nile and the Blue Nile.

In the 19th Century Egypt had control over the northern part of Sudan and nominal control over the southern parts. In 1899 much of Sudan became effectively part of the British Empire and was given independence in 1956. At that time the new Arab-led government in Khartoum failed to honor promises to create a federal system for this diverse country, a failure that led to 17 years of civil war in the south (1955-72). Essentially the same grievances led to the more recent rebellions in the south and in the west (Darfur). The current war in the south has gone on for 21 years (1983-2004) and is being resolved by the Naivasha Agreement that was negotiated in Kenya in April of this year. The war in Darfur started only in 2003 and might be seen as an effort by the western region to gain some of the political and economic justice that the south achieved after its prolonged and costly effort.

Darfur, the western hinterland, is even more remote from Khartoum than the south, and consists of 150,000 square miles of desert and savannah. It has never been well integrated into Sudan, too remote even to be absorbed into the British Empire until 1916. Seven hundred miles of dirt road, much of it impassable in the wet season, is the tentative link between Darfur and Khartoum, seat of the remote central power that nominally governs this area. Nor was it well governed; in the years before the recent uprising the Khartoum government had failed to provide even a police force, so security and justice were left to self-armed citizens.

A Military Regime

The troubled history of modern Sudan has been complicated by the assumption of power by what is essentially a military government, the last two decades of rule being under General Omar al-Bashir. Islamic Arabs located in the northeastern region centred on the upper Nile, are the foundation of this government. They are Muslim, but they are not fundamentalist Muslim extremists. Indeed the current government has purged itself of extremist fundamentalist elements.

In Sudan the people are a product of considerable racial mixing, and while the Arabs are the dominant political group, the term "Arab" itself may be as much a statement of political identity as it is of racial origin. Hence regional groups in Sudan denied access to power are in conflict with the "Arabs," the central authority, and conflicts which originate in political and economic differences have the appearance of racial conflicts, an appearance which the government is happy to exploit by arming nomadic Arab militias (the janjaweed) and setting them free to attack, kill, rape and harass "other" civilians.

In the south, where two decades of civil war seems to be winding down as a result of American and other pressure, the conflict was between the Arabic central military regime and Christian and other non-Islamic marginalized peoples who were seeking a share of the power and income, including oil revenues from the south, hoarded by Khartoum. The recent Naivasha Agreement promises to end the civil war in the south by sharing with the local area some of the oil revenues that went exclusively to the Nile-based central government. The internationally sponsored accord proposes to end the active neglect that caused the conflict in the first place. In that protracted civil war the central government also used Arab militias drawn from the nomadic tribes to target civilians in the regions sympathetic to the rebels. The result over 21 years of fighting was 2 million dead and 4 million displaced civilians.

It has been argued that the USA recently put great effort into resolving that conflict to appease its own Fundamentalist Christians who were disturbed by the spectre of Muslims attacking Christians. The southern rebellion concerned economic and power issues but was fought on the government side by stirring up ethnic and religious divisions to maintain its own privileges. Ironically, it was this religious conflict that attracted the attention of the American Administration and led to the arm-twisting that forced a resolution.

muslims versus muslims

In Darfur, in contrast with the south, all parties to the conflict are Muslims. The five or six million people of the region, farmers and nomadic herders, have coexisted for years despite their different lifestyles, but increasing population and possibly desertification has brought pressure on land and water resources. The Fur and other African tribes tend to be settled, tending the land and living in established villages. In contrast, the nomadic camel herders tend to be Arabic tribesmen, though the two groups have lived and shared the land together, coexisted and intermarried for so long that it is said not to be possible to identify their ethnicity by sight. But there is a natural competition between the two lifestyles and there is, at least nominally, an ethnic difference. The central government has exploited this natural conflict to retain control without sharing power.

Even before hostilities broke out in Darfur the area was lawless, a vast territory without an effective police force. Noting the apparent successful conclusion of the civil war in the southern hinterland, two related groups, the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) took up arms in 2003 on behalf of the settled population of Darfur, the western hinterland, for much the same grievances as those expressed in the South, the sense of neglect by the central government of General al-Bashir, and the lack of input into decisions made in Khartoum. Rather than attempting to right the grievances, the central government reverted to the divide and rule tactic it had used so destructively to deal with southern grievances. Here again it armed Arab militias (which, in a state without the benefit of a police force, had already come into existence) and gave them a free hand to attack villages deemed to be sympathetic to the rebel groups.

Further, the Sudanese army provided intelligence and high tech backup to the janjaweed raiders, sending in helicopter gun ships to bomb villages in advance of the militias riding in to kill, pillage and rape civilians. The lethal attacks and the burning of the villages forced the survivors to flee in fear without means of support. So far it is estimated that these tactics have been successful in killing 50,000 people and creating 1.2 million terrified, defenceless and starving refugees, in what the UN has called the "world's worst humanitarian disaster."

These actions against civilians have continued despite an internationally sponsored ceasefire agreement reached between the government and the Darfur rebel groups in April 2004.

As we go to press the daily reports make it clear that the past tense is inappropriate to describe a situation that is ongoing. Some of the refugees have crossed the western border into Chad but most are crowded into camps controlled by the Sudanese Army, which continues to put obstacles in the way of humanitarian relief. NGOs fear this managed famine and consequent diseases may kill a large portion of these refugees while the Sudanese Government cynically assures the world that the refugees should go safely back to their homes.

They would starve anyway

In fact, even if the refugees were safe to go back to their burned-out villages they would starve because they have missed their crop year and have lost any livestock or other resources they had before they were victimized by actions of their own government. NGOs point out that it would be even more difficult to provide essentials if the refugees were disbursed back to their villages at this time before there is cooperation from the Sudanese military to allow help to reach the civilians it has deliberately targeted.

The problem lies in what is to be done and how it is to be done. There seems to be little disagreement about the facts of the case but there are different interpretations of the meaning. Most agree that horrendous war crimes have, and continue to be committed. In July 2004 the US House of Representatives voted unanimously to describe the Sudanese Government's actions as "genocide." A week later the Security Council would not go so far but gave warning that there would be consequences if Sudan had not reined in the janjaweed by the end of August, a deadline that passed without notable improvement in the situation. The Sudan Government now claims that the attacks are by groups out of their control, but so far adamantly refuses to allow international troops, even from the African Union, to assist in controlling the janjaweed harriers.

The Security Council is to deal with this matter again but may have difficulty imposing trade sanctions on oil exports, the crucial source of Sudan's income, because of the vested interests of China and possibly also Russia, either of which might use their veto power to prevent international action. China has oil interests in Sudan, and Russia wants no precedents for international interference in their relations with Chechnya. Russia also sells military jets to Sudan.

The African Union has sent some observers to monitor the cease fire, and with logistical support from western nations, a handful of troops to protect the monitors, but at this time they are not able to protect the civilians in their squalid camps or to offer them security if they were able to return to their destroyed villages. They have, however, reported that the attacks by the Arab militias are continuing, a report backed up by the western media that now have a considerable number of journalists in the area.

While the world watches, the UN, sympathetic governments, and NGOs struggle with the humanitarian crisis amid predictions that hundreds of thousands of the refugees could die from starvation and epidemic diseases in the coming months. The logistics of supporting such a large group in that most remote part of Africa in the season when rains make movement almost impossible are formidable. To do so when the Sudanese Government deliberately hampers the efforts to save the lives of its own citizens may prove impossible. The solution to the "world's worst humanitarian disaster" is not easy to find.


The spectre of the genocide in Rwanda chronicled by Romeo Dallaire haunts policymakers struggling with the Darfur crisis; there now appears to be considerable agreement that the international community has the responsibility to protect civil groups when their own government is negligent or complicit in their destruction. Unfortunately, the machinery for making the assessments and the decisions is far from adequately developed. The humanitarian crisis in Darfur should reinforce our resolution to continue to develop international structures through the UN to deal effectively with such situations as quickly as possible. While we cannot help the 50,000 who have already died in this conflict, we can try to give those deaths some meaning by finding ways to act quickly to protect civilians now and in the future, and by bringing to justice those responsible for these past and ongoing war crimes.

Note: In writing this article I have depended heavily on the article by John Ryle in the New York Review of Books, August 12, 2004, and articles in The Economist, July 31, 2004.

Ron Shirtliff, a retired Ryerson University professor, is an editor with Peace.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2004

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2004, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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