During the US vice presidential debate last week, Sen. Joe Biden (D) and Gov. Sarah Palin (R) found common ground on at least one topic: Both support imposing a no-fly zone in Sudan's troubled Darfur region.
Some 6,000 miles away, Darfuris fleeing their homes welcome such talk, especially after a recent spate of indiscriminate government bombings.
"The government said it was only looking for rebels. It said it didn't want to harm the people," says villager Abdullah Isshac, who spent one week hiding in the countryside after a government attack on the village of Khazan Tungur. "But the rebels are out in the mountains, not in the village."
To the outside world, Sudan's government sings a different tune, claiming since July – when the International Criminal Court (ICC) sought an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide for his role in the Darfur conflict – that the prosecution of its leader would jeopardize the peace process. But as the situation on the ground here grows worse, Darfuris are asking: "What peace process are you talking about?"
Among the many symbols of war in Darfur – sprawling five-year-old camps for displaced people and an ever-growing African Union and United Nations peacekeeping mission – the bumpy road between Tabit and Tawila, two small villages in northern Darfur, offers a striking reminder that this conflict is still going strong.
The hour-long route passes through vast plains and mountain chains and is dotted with small villages – each telling its own story.
In Giringo, a crater three yards in diameter marks the spot where a government plane dropped a bomb just a few weeks ago – only yards away from a set of trees where villagers were seeking refuge from the hot sun.
In Umlaota, ashes and a roofless mud frame are all that remain of a civilian home that was burned by government troop gunfire the same day.
A few yards farther, casings from belt-fed machine guns are strewn across the main road passing by the village.
Stop by any of these villages at night and you will find them mostly empty. People sleep in the forests in hiding, afraid the attacks will continue.
The road to Tawila ends at the UN peacekeeping mission's base, just outside a camp for some 25,000 displaced people, with yet another sign of government attacks: A hole in the barbed razor wire surrounding the base, where desperate residents forced their way through to escape when government police raided their camp in May.
Sudan: ICC indictment hurts peace
But Sudan's government shows a different face to the world.
Vice President Ali Osman Taha told the UN General Assembly in New York late last month that the realization of peace in Darfur and the ICC's aims were two different tracks that could never meet. At a time when the government had made great strides to implement the peace and reconciliation process, he said, such an indictment would be detrimental.
"The unprecedented move by the ICC prosecutor undermines the ongoing comprehensive peace process which has entered a final phase," Mr. Bashir added at an international summit last week. It "will have a catastrophic adverse impact on stability in the entire region."
Arab and African nations have backed Sudan's position. Many Western analysts have cautioned that justice should not come at the price of peace.
"How will the ICC hamper the peace process? What peace process?" asked one international observer in Darfur. "I don't see anything happening."
In fact, quite the opposite is true. Last month saw heavy fighting between government troops and rebel factions in North Darfur. Many of the areas targeted by the government were under control of the only rebel group to have made peace with the government in 2006, contrary to the agreement's cease-fire. Tens of thousands of Darfuris are believed to have been displaced, many of them still hiding in the mountains afraid the bomb-dropping Antonov planes will return.
"The government has not even tried to implement the Darfur Peace Agreement. Not one move," added the observer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Disarming Arab militias, for example? Quite the contrary, they started to give them more weapons and send them out again."
It's getting worse, locals say
Many Darfuris continue to bear the brunt of Bashir's alleged decision to unleash Arab militias – known as janjaweed – on the non-Arab rebels and civilians of their ethnic groups – through harassment by the government's central reserve police and border guards, who villagers and international observers say are simply former janjaweed.
Analysts have characterized the current conflict as low-level, compared to the height of the conflict in 2003-04, when government troops and allied militias allegedly burned villages, raped women, and looted animals en masse. But many Darfuris say the conflict is worse today than it was almost five years ago. Rape, looting, and killing by government police are weekly occurrences in camps for the displaced, residents say.
"[Government troops] are the ones attacking us. How will the ICC threaten the peace process? It won't jeopardize peace. If the criminal is caught, we won't be afraid anymore," said one sheikh at a camp for the displaced in Tawila. "We have run out of hope. We have given up on everything. How long can we live like this?"
Last month, 31 civilians were killed in South Darfur when government troops opened fire on a camp for the displaced, claiming they were trying to confiscate illegal weapons from within the camp.
"And this is while the government is supposed to be putting on its best act," said one UN official. "They don't care and they can get away with it."
The arrival of the African Union-UN Hybrid operation in Darfur (UNAMID) has done little to improve the situation. Hamstrung by insufficient troops, it is often limited by the insecurity it is supposed to prevent. Patrols are suspended when tensions flare and villagers say peacekeepers stand and watch as attacks take place.
Insecurity – especially for the close to 17,000 humanitarian workers bringing aid to some 2.5 million people displaced by the conflict – has never been so acute. Armed robberies and hijackings of aid compounds and vehicles are almost daily occurrences and have now begun taking place in the middle of Darfur's main towns. Vehicles are so vulnerable to attack that UN agencies in El-Fasher, capital of North Darfur, no longer drive outside town. Trips are routinely canceled for security reasons and aid workers feel they have been put in a "stranglehold," as Gregory Alex of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs puts it.
The government insists its military operations are to clear the routes of bandits who have made humanitarian work in some parts nearly impossible. It says the rebels are presenting its operations as attacks against them in order to win battles in the information war.
"The armed forces have the right and the duty to make the routes safe generally for all travelers," says Sudanese military spokesperson Sawarmi Khalid Saad. "Some of the [nongovernmental organizations] have left their work in Darfur because of this insecurity. We have to stop it."
Yet the result has been the opposite: the recent fighting has caused at least one NGO to halt its operations, leaving 20,000 in the Khazan Tungur area without medical care.
And while the government insists it is trying to find peace in Darfur – even signing peace agreements with insignificant split-off members of rebel groups in an effort to extend the illusion, analysts say – a top official from the ruling National Congress Party says the government should not be negotiating with "terrorists," calling the 2006 peace agreement with the most powerful rebel group a "very stupid" move motivated only by "tremendous pressure" from the West.
"I am not condoning everything that our government does. I think one of the most stupid acts they have done is to sign an agreement with those rebels, who are bandits," says Osman Khalid Mudawi, chairman of the foreign relations committee at the National Assembly. "Sudan could have used the language of the time…. Sudan should have refused ever to talk to them and branded them as terrorists and no one would have blamed Sudan."
So fragile is the peace the government is parading publicly in its quest to suspend the ICC case that the aligned rebel group maintains its own weapons, vehicles, and headquarters. Two major fights between both sides have broken out in the last six months alone.
"The government says: 'I want peace,' then it turns around and bombs [us]," says Moussa Abul Qasim, of Tabit village, where fighting recently broke out between the SLA and government troops. "It's all lies."
And many humanitarians think it is only going to get worse. Increased movement of government troops; tactical unification among splintered rebel factions; the end of the rainy season, which hampers military movement; the end of the holy month of Ramadan; and an ever-nearing decision by the ICC on whether or not to prosecute make for an ugly combination.
"People who have been here a long time say this conflict is as bad now as it has ever been," one UN official said. "Things are going to worse before they get better."