The humanitarian disaster in Sudan's Darfur region, which the US labels a "genocide," has been growing steadily worse since it began in 2003. But it may have just turned a corner toward peaceful resolution.
The plainspoken United Nations' humanitarian chief, Jan Egeland, whom Sudan barred last month from visiting Darfur, arrived there Sunday for a critical assessment of the current situation. His visit comes two days after Sudanese authorities and Darfur's main rebel group reached a landmark peace agreement.
Observers say that the most important result of the deal is that it could pave the way for a UN peacekeeping force to enter Sudan. In the past few days different spokesmen for the Sudanese government have confirmed that the government would now at least consider allowing UN peacekeeping troops on the ground, something Khartoum had flatly rejected before Friday's deal.
But two smaller rebel groups rejected the deal, and John Prendergast, head of the International Crisis Group's Africa Program, remains skeptical about the sincerity of Sudan's government. "The agreement is not insignificant ... but it's going to require a strong effort by the international community to ensure even minimum compliance," he says. "It's going to be a year before there are enough peacekeepers on the ground for real coverage."
Mr. Prendergast points out that the Sudanese government has previously shown a willingness to sign treaties (during a rebellion in the south of the country) and then delay implementing them.
Meanwhile, Darfur refugees in camps just across the border in eastern Chad were far from optimistic about the peace deal. "I don't think the agreement will bear fruit in the end," says refugee Zakaria Mahamat. "People will blame those rebels that won't sign, but I think they are refusing because it's not a good deal for the people of Darfur. I want peace as quickly as possible but it has to be something that will last."
Crowded around a battered radio perched among slabs of yellowing meat at a butcher's stall in Gaga, the newest of 12 refugee camps strung across arid eastern Chad, Darfur refugees Friday listened to the latest developments at talks designed to bring peace to the region they fled in terror.
Mr. Mahamat has escaped the clutches of the Khartoum-backed janjaweed militia more than once. He fled his village first, then a camp for the displaced in Sudan. Even when he had crossed the border and was holed up in a hamlet in neighboring Chad, he says the horseback militia pursued him, and he went on the run again.
Now at the Gaga camp, he is in no rush to turn around and head home - peace deal or no peace deal. "I won't be going back straight away. I want to see whether the reality on the ground really changes first," he says.
Skepticism reigns in the camp as to whether Khartoum will stick to its promise of disarming the janjaweed that have waged a campaign of slaughter and rape, looting, and torching for the last three years.
"I'd like to see a UN force in Darfur, I won't have the confidence to return without that," Mahamat says.
Rebels, Sudanese officials, and diplomats pounded out the peace deal in Abuja, Nigeria last week as midnight deadlines slipped by and journalists slept on marble floors outside locked meeting rooms. Finally, faced with written assurances from President Bush that the peace deal had full US support, the leader of the largest rebel group reluctantly signed a cease-fire with the Sudanese government, although two smaller groups rejected the deal.
Sounding a cautiously optimistic note, US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick said the agreement represented "an opportunity for peace." He went to Nigeria after talks stalled between rebels and the government over security issues. Eventually both the Sudanese government and the largest rebel faction, the Sudan Liberation Movement, led by Minni Minnawi, signed the deal on Friday. Two smaller groups refused, with the leader of one, Abdulwahid El Nur, storming out of the signing ceremony.
"It's not perfect, but Minni controls most of the forces on the ground and it's something that he felt that he could live with. There was a real feeling that we had to grab at this chance now," says one African diplomat who was not cleared to speak to the press. At least 200,000 people have died and 2 million have been displaced since the war in Darfur started three years ago. A series of previous ceasefires has been left in tatters.
Crucially, this pact seeks to contain and disarm janjaweed fighters before the rebels are asked to withdraw from their positions. Some 4,000 rebel fighters will also be incorporated into the army and 1,500 into the police force to help rebuild trust in the authorities. Villagers forced to flee their homes will receive compensation, and the impoverished Darfur region will get a one-time infusion of $300 million, and $200 million a year later. Darfurians will be asked to vote on whether they want a regional government and given representation at a national level through the post of a presidential adviser, the fourth-highest office in the country.
Cameron Hume, the US Charge d'Affaires in Khartoum, said the breakthrough had finally come during negotiations over security arrangements. Reaching an agreement on the number of rebels to be integrated into government forces and a strict timetable for disarming the janjaweed had finally tipped Mr. Minnawi into signing, he said. American diplomats insisted on "checks on the process of disarming the janjaweed, like removing all their heavy weapons ... deliberately identified milestones that could be confirmed and certified by [the African Union peacekeeping mission in Sudan]."
Earlier in the negotiating process, the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) had offered to play a role in an expanded Darfur peacekeeping effort if a peace accord were reached. But some Africa experts say even a peacekeeping force enlarged beyond the 7,000 troops the African Union now has in Darfur should be left to Africans - both to avoid the impact of what might be viewed as a Western intervention, but also because they say Africa needs to learn to solve its own problems and not remain dependent on outside saviors.
"If NATO goes in and solves the crisis in Darfur, when the next one comes along Africa's leaders will just sit back," says George Ayittey, an economist specializing in Africa at the American University in Washington.
"It's not for the US to solve either, it's what the African Union should do," adds Mr. Ayittey, a native of Ghana. "The US should focus on building the capacity of Africa to deal with these problems."
However, international relief workers say the situation on the ground has worsened in recent months, with fighting between the government and different rebel factions severely restricting access.
"The African Union has shown that they are not up to the job and the Sudanese government has no interest in providing security for us. We need to bring in the United Nations," insists one humanitarian worker, who asks not to be named for fear of reprisals against her organization, which has suffered several armed robberies recently.
Ann-Louise Colgan, director of policy analysis at Africa Action, an Africa advocacy group in Washington, says Darfur - which has been called a case of genocide by Mr. Bush - transcends the issues of a regional conflict.
"The African Union has shown leadership in addressing this crisis, and on the ground their troops have done what they can. But we have never felt this is a problem that is regional or African only," she says. "What's happening in Darfur is a crime against humanity, and that requires international intervention."
• Staff writer Howard LaFranchi contributed to this report from Washington.