Sudan: What's wrong with this picture?

There's something wrong with this picture. Here in Khartoum, a building boom is under way with plenty of air-conditioned office buildings, wide, freshly paved boulevards, new cars, and a new enormous shopping mall.

Inside the air-conditioned "Afra" mall, a consumer can find just about anything desired. Anchored by a Wal-Mart-sized emporium that sells everything from fresh food to toys, clothing, televisions, and appliances, the mall has an assortment of stores with well-known names like Giordano and Pierre Cardin. Upstairs, a movie theater sits next to a bowling alley and a room of pool tables. Sudanese shoppers, dressed mostly in traditional white robes for the men and colorful wrapped dresses for the women, look healthy and joyous.

The scent of money engulfs the place, a carefree way of life for the fortunate Sudanese who are well-heeled, possibly the beneficiaries of new oil money, investment from the outside, and a miniboom created by a huge expatriate aid community.

What makes the picture seem grotesquely distorted is the scene a thousand or so miles to the west of Khartoum where, in the past couple of years, as many as 200,000 people have died and 2 million have fled their homes in a civil war between antigovernment insurgents and the government-supported Arab militia known as the Janjaweed.

The place is Darfur, where I spent a week recently on assignment for Catholic Relief Services.

Darfur has no Afra shopping mall. It has no roads to speak of. It's mostly desert, baked by the sun that sends the temperature up to 120 degrees. No one has money with which to buy life's essentials.

Here, the closest thing to a market is the food distribution site, where monthly rations of cooking oil, salt, and sugar are luxury items, if only for the lives they will sustain for 30 more days.

Aid agencies are busy in their attempts to feed, house, and care efficiently and responsibly for the millions of internally displaced people in Darfur. As people and whole communities establish themselves in makeshift settlements in the desert - somewhat safeguarded by humanitarian agencies - they also receive shelter materials, blankets, mats, cooking utensils, water cans, buckets, and soap. In many camps and surrounding host communities, aid agencies have built water facilities, latrines, schools, and health clinics.

It seems everyone has a tale of horror - of burned homes, murdered family and friends, raped mothers and daughters, stolen livestock, and a loss of all that they once owned and knew. Their stories make up the ghastly tapestry that is Darfur today, blamed mostly on the Janjaweed militia and the government officials in Khartoum who are widely understood to have supported the scorched earth and killing campaign across this remote and unprotected region.

Despite the human rights atrocities devouring this vast landscape, the aggressive international campaign to stop the tragedy of Darfur from a year ago seems to have lost its momentum.

A year and a half ago, at the height of the conflict, international attention was riveted on Darfur. Aid rushed in. World leaders, including President Bush, made forceful declarations about the need to end the war. Parties to the conflict signed a cease-fire and mounted a peace process, though the firing did not cease and the peace did not proceed. The African Union (AU) dispatched troops to the area. The United Nations Security Council passed a flurry of resolutions condemning the fighting and holding responsible the government in Khartoum.

Yet, today Darfur is barely visible on Washington's agenda. Progress on strengthening both the mandate and the size of the AU force has been painfully, if not deadly, slow. The UN resolutions on Darfur have yet to be enforced. Last month, the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced the indictment of individuals responsible for the Darfur catastrophe, but the government in Khartoum responded defiantly, asserting its right to try its own criminals.

In some respects, the perpetrators of the violence seem to have been emboldened by the international community's drift away from the Darfur crisis.

This month, the government of Sudan arrested two officials of Médecins Sans Frontieres, after the Nobel Prize-winning organization issued a report on 500 rape victims in Darfur between the ages of 12 and 15, most of whom said they had been raped by militiamen or soldiers.

The officials were later released, but the point was made, and it sent a chill throughout the aid community, whose workers are already coping with official interference and security risks.

In places like Afra, not to mention beyond the country and continent, Darfur couldn't seem further removed from public interest or attention.

Some say last December's tsunami generated the effective distraction from Darfur. If that's true, then the tsunami was a fatal distraction, for Darfur is like a silent, man-made tsunami whose casualties continue to pile up. But, in isolation and with no protection, Darfuris' current horrors could be only the beginning.

And only the outside world can put a stop to it.

G. Jefferson Price III, a former foreign correspondent and editor at The Baltimore Sun, is an emergency correspondent with Catholic Relief Services.

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