Toll rises in Sudan's quiet war
'Ethnic cleansing' in the Darfur region alarms UN official, even as peace talks resume in Chad. [Editor's note: The original version mistakenly attributed the alleged 'ethnic cleansing' to the rebels instead of the militias.]
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA
It is, according to one UN official, the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world right now. Some 810,000 African tribes- people in the Darfur region of western Sudan have fled their homes. They're trying to escape what may be a campaign of ethnic cleansing by Arab militias, which are apparently backed by Sudan's government. They're struggling through blazing days and frigid nights in hilly terrain at the edge of the Sahara.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet, even as Darfur's warring parties agreed this week to start peace talks, it's not clear how the international community can respond to the ongoing humanitarian crisis. The issue is particularly poignant, observers say, because the 10th anniversary of Rwanda's genocide - and the world's weak response to it - is just two weeks away.
At least three dilemmas complicate the global reaction to Darfur, experts say.
First: Access by aid workers. Not only is Darfur still a war zone, but bandits abound, making aid-worker safety a big concern. Furthermore, Sudan's government - for apparent political reasons - is reluctant to let in aid workers. Officials recently took three weeks, for instance, to grant approval for a set of United Nations satellite phones to be taken to the region.
Second: How much aid to provide. If Darfur's displaced legions get too many blankets or medicine kits they're often targeted by Arab militias, who kill and rape as they steal the goods. Some wanderers have refused aid rather than risk attack. But without enough water, food, and supplies, many may perish.
Third: Peace talks in Sudan's other war - a 20-year conflict between north and south - are gaining momentum. President Bush this week again urged the government to accept a deal. But observers worry the US may give Sudan's leaders a pass on Darfur to ensure that a north-south deal is struck.
All this is perhaps why the United Nations coordinator for Sudan, Mukesh Kapila, is ratcheting up calls for help. "It's an organized campaign to rid an entire area of a group of people," he says speaking to the Monitor by phone from Khartoum, and that means "it fits the definition of 'ethnic cleansing.' " It's a dramatic term that hasn't been applied to Darfur before. Furthermore, he says, "The government has a close knowledge of what's going on - and can influence the militia."
Dr. Kapila adds that the militia's tactics - regular rape and brutal killings - are reminiscent of Rwanda's genocide in 1994. "The lesson we learned from Rwanda is to take note of these things early and to act to stop them," he says. Clearly, the scale is different, however. Some 800,000 to 1 million were killed in Rwanda. The UN estimates 10,000 civilians have died in the Darfur conflict so far. Some 110,000, meanwhile, have fled into neighboring Chad.
The government has vehemently denied Kapila's accusations, reportedly calling them a "heap of lies." The Humanitarian Affairs department says it has facilitated "noticeable stability and the return of tens of thousands of displaced persons and refugees," the Associated Press reported.
Other observers don't use Kapila's words but agree the situation is grave. At the very least, the regime is blocking aid and starving its own people - as well as giving "support and impunity" to Arab militias carrying out vicious attacks, says John Prendergast, an Africa expert at the International Crisis Group in Washington.