US raising stakes over Darfur crisis

The US is poised to ratchet up efforts to halt the ethnic cleansing in Sudan's western Darfur region.

This week Washington is expected to introduce a UN Security Council resolution that threatens sanctions against Sudan if it doesn't disarm Arab militias who have been attacking, raping, and killing black villagers in Darfur. This comes after Congress took the extraordinary step Thursday of declaring Darfur's crisis a "genocide" - and pushing the White House to follow suit. Some observers see the declaration of genocide as the first step toward putting US or UN "boots on the ground." An American legal team is here now doing tent-to-tent surveys of Sudanese refugees to determine if genocide occurred.

The crisis is far from over. Officials with the UN refugee agency and other groups are preparing for an influx of 200,000 more refugees here, including people like Um Fahara Muhammad, a recent arrival in Chad. After months of hiding in Sudan's dry riverbeds from Arab militias, she says she and her four children were eating only bits of camel food. So they made an eight-day dash for the border, arriving in Chad around July 11. About 200 new refugees a week come to this border town - one sign Darfur's mayhem hasn't abated.

"At the current level of pressure, Sudan's government will only go so far," says John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group in Washington. The new US steps may be what is needed to get Khartoum to rein in the militias, he says. But short of added pressure, they won't, "because they don't believe Washington or the UN Security Council have the political backbone to take it any further."

In response to the early pressure, Sudan's leaders did start opening Darfur to humanitarian groups, who are struggling to deal with the estimated 1 million people displaced by the conflict, which began in February 2003 when Darfur rebels took up arms against the government. Up to 30,000 have died in the race-based conflict so far.

But Sudan apparently has not clamped down on militias, as it promised to do when US Secretary of State Colin Powell and UN chief Kofi Annan visited the capital, Khartoum, in early July. Last week Secretary Powell again accused Khartoum of "supporting and sustaining" the Janjaweed Arab militias.

Many more people like Mrs. Muhammad are still living in fear in Sudan.

She says she and her children hid for months in a dry riverbed, or wadi, near their village after a Janjaweed attack in which she saw two cousins die. When that spot became dangerous, they walked to nearby mountains where 10 other families were also hiding. But Janjaweed and government soldiers prevented them from going to a nearby well, she says. "If you try to go, they kill you or rape you."

When the refugees' food provisions ran out, people first refused to eat camel rations, she says with a grimace at the thought. But then they'd soak it for several days in water, making it more edible. Eventually, even that food ran low. So she risked the border run. Along the way, one donkey "got tired," she says, so they left it, and began carrying luggage on their heads. The other donkey expired just as they crossed the border to join an estimated 180,000 refugees already in Chad.

It's these kinds of accounts the genocide-investigation team - run by the American Bar Association - is probing. A preliminary report is due at the end of July.

If it leads to a genocide declaration, the biggest impact would be political and moral pressure on the US to intervene, says Jerry Fowler, staff director of the Committee on Conscience at the US Holocaust Museum. The issue of sending in troops would certainly arise, he says. But there is nothing in UN genocide treaties requiring that "when you declare genocide you have to send in troops," he says. Rather, there are general calls on signatories to prevent genocide and punish perpetrators.

Meanwhile, neither Amnesty International nor Human Rights Watch has declared genocide in Darfur, saying they need more information. The Holocaust Museum, however, Monday will label Darfur a full-fledged "genocide emergency," the first such warning in its history.

Refugees are convinced of the ethnic nature of the attacks. "They're trying to change Darfur into Dar-Arab," says Asama Haron, a refugee in the Oure Cassoni camp, and a former secondary school teacher. (In the local language "dar" means "home of." And the "Fur" are a dominant regional tribe. Thus, Darfur.)

The UN appears to be skirting the issue of genocide. The new US resolution, which Kofi Annan saidhas passable support, calls on Sudan's leaders to "apprehend and bring to justice Janjaweed leaders" within 30 days - and threatens that the Security Council will "consider ... the imposition of sanctions" if Sudan doesn't comply.

Congress was much firmer. In its unanimous non-binding resolution, it urges the White House to describe the Darfur crisis "by its rightful name - genocide." Congressional pressure, observers say, stems from a trifecta of lobby groups. The first: Conservative Christians who engaged on Sudan because of a separate, ongoing conflict between Muslim northerners and mostly Christian southerners. The second: genocide-sensitive Jewish groups. The third: African-Americans outraged at their black brethren being killed by Arabs.

Mr. Prendergast says he hasn't seen so much lobbying on an Africa issue "since the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s." There's even a poll on the issue - a rarity in Africa topics.

Some 56 percent of Americans say the Darfur crisis is genocide, according to a PIPA-Knowledge Networks survey. Also, 69 percent said if the UN declares the crisis genocide, the world body and the US should act to stop it, including by sending troops. Only 14 percent said they've heard "a lot" or "some" about Darfur.

Sudan's Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail, meanwhile, has accused the US of meddling in domestic affairs, as it did in Iraq. He said last week that Sudan arrested 100 Janjaweed leaders and was preparing to put them on trial.

And Mrs. Muhammad awaits the next chapter from her UN-provided tent in Chad. Like many refugees, she still has her watch set an hour ahead of Chadian time - to Sudanese time. It symbolizes, she says, how much she wants to "go home."

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