What's behind the Darfur crisis - and what's next?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Thursday is a pivotal day for the government of Sudan. The United Nations Security Council begins debate on whether Khartoum has disarmed and brought to justice the Arab militias in the western part of the country responsible for killing more than 30,000 people and causing some 1.4 million others to flee their homes over the past 18 months. The penalty for noncompliance: economic and diplomatic sanctions.

The UN's mission to Sudan, finishing its fact-finding work in Darfur last week, says that security has improved inside the camps and aid supplies are slowly reaching the camps. Still, some 75 villagers were reportedly killed in six separate attacks last week.

Critics have condemned the international community's slow response to the situation. But there are many factors at play. Western troops "invading" an Islamic country, even for humanitarian reasons, may be politically impossible after Iraq and Afghanistan. Members of the Security Council like Russia and China have business interests in Sudan. Then there's the question of genocide: The UN has yet to define the Darfur situation as such, which would, by international law, require members to act.

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If the solution seems complex, the roots of the problem are perhaps more so.

Who's fighting whom?

The conflict in Darfur, three provinces in western Sudan, is usually cast in terms of Arabs vs. black Africans, but the reality is more muddled. Nearly everyone in the region is Muslim, and the skin color of the Arabs and non-Arabs is often indistinguishable. The distinction between the two groups falls mainly on their occupations: farmers and nomadic herders.

According to Human Rights Watch, an international monitoring group, the farmers are generally non-Arabs, or ethnic Africans. They live and farm in the central part of the region. The pastoralists, who reside in the north, are largely of Arab descent. They are nomadic and seminomadic and herd camels by trade.

Spats have periodically flared between the two groups, as migrating camel herders in search of water during the dry season would graze on the farmers' land. Disputes over lost crops would be settled by tribal leaders, with the nomadic tribes reimbursing the farmers. Recent droughts, however, have exacerbated the tension. The pastoralists began raiding farms to restock their decimated herds, and with the introduction of automatic weapons in the 1980s, banditry increased and the clashes became more violent.

Receiving no help from the central government, the farmers began arming themselves. In fact, instead of trying to quell the conflicts, Khartoum sided with the Arabs, according to Human Rights Watch. It recruited, paid, and armed more than 20,000 Arab militiamen, called Janjaweed (which translates as either "a man with a horse and a gun" or the more sinister "devil on horseback").

How did the current crisis begin?

The low-level clashes came to a head in February 2003 when two non-Arab rebel militias - the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) - attacked and captured several towns in Darfur. They demanded that Khartoum increase economic development in the region, share power, and disarm the Janjaweed. The government refused and in July launched major offensives.

After battling for months, the two sides agreed to a series of cease-fires in September, but they were routinely violated. By December all efforts at peace collapsed.

The Janjaweed increased attacks against civilians, according to international observers, creating what the UN has called "the worst humanitarian crisis in the world." It has set up 147 refugee camps throughout Darfur and in Eastern Chad to accommodate the 1.4 million civilians who have fled their homes. The UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that another $434 million is needed by the end of the year to respond to the most urgent needs.

Darfur's location at the southern edge of the Sahara makes it difficult for aid groups to reach, compounded by the onset of the rainy season. What shelter there is comes from tents donated by aid organizations or tarps strapped to tree branches.

Is it genocide?

Aside from 305 African Union troops and 80 monitors currently in Darfur, the international community has yet to intervene militarily to stop the bloodshed. One reason is that the UN has not deemed it to be genocide. In 1948, in an effort to ward off another Holocaust, the UN drafted a convention defining genocide as including killing or causing bodily or mental harm "in whole or in part, [to] a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group."

The US Congress passed resolutions in July urging President Bush to call the crisis a genocide. The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington called the Darfur crisis a "full-fledged genocide emergency," the first time it has ever issued such a warning. But unless the UN calls it genocide, member states are not obligated to intervene. The US is pushing for a greater African Union military presence. And the White House was pivotal in pushing for UN Resolution 1556, which gave Khartoum until Aug. 30 to avoid sanctions. It has also poured in more than $194.1 million in aid, says the US Agency for International Development.

How will this end?

Until recently, the Sudanese government has stonewalled efforts to bring aid to the refugees. Robert Rotberg, an Africa scholar at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., says the Sudanese government "fears that outsiders will discover how it has funded and created the janjaweed," he says. "Khartoum is engaged in a massive coverup."

Some diplomats say Sudan is doing just enough to avoid sanctions. A preliminary UN report on Darfur released Wednesday said Khartoum had lifted restrictions on humanitarian relief, deployed some 10,000 police officers to the region, and begun disarming the Janjaweed. The report also recommended a rapid increase to the international monitoring force already on the ground. The AU has offered to send in 3,000 troops, but Khartoum has so far rejected the offer.

Also, Russia rejects sanctions. Outgoing Security Council president Andrei Denisov of Russia said Monday that Khartoum has made significant progress. And though Sudan isn't a major oil exporter, producing 250,000 barrels per day, countries may balk at sanctions that might push global oil prices higher. If sanctions are slapped on Khartoum, Mr. Rotberg argues they must include barring SudanAir from flying internationally and cutting off oil shipments. He also says that a UN force led by France or another European country must be deployed to bring an end to the crisis.

Darfur snapshot

• Population: 6 million

• Religion: 98 percent Muslim

• People at risk: 2.2 million

• Refugees: 1.4 million

• People killed in 18-month crisis: 30,000 (est.)

• Aid workers operating in region: 4,000

• Funds required: The UN says it needs $434 million by the end of the year. The US has contributed $194.1 million.

• Troop deployments: 200 French soldiers are deployed on the border between Chad and Darfur. Rwanda and Nigeria have sent 305 troops to assist the African Union's 80 military observers in the region.

Sources: UN, USAID, World Almanac

How you can help

• Center for International Disaster Information www.cidi.org, (703) 276-1914

• United Nations World Food Program www.wfp.org, (202) 530-1694

• Care International www.care.org, (404) 681-2552

• Red Cross www.icrc.org, 011-41-22-730-2171

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