Disaster in Darfur

Darfur is a 150,000-square-mile expanse of desert and savannah, with five or six million inhabitants, spreading out from the fertile slopes of Jebel Marra, the mountainous zone in Sudan’s far west. Remote from the country’s political heartland on the Nile, it is linked to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, by seven hundred miles of dirt road and a single-track railway. Over the last sixteen months a disas-ter has been unfolding in Darfur, one that is agonizingly familiar to observers of Sudan during the past two decades. In response to an insurgency on the part of rebel groups demanding greater political representation in Khartoum, the government of General Omar al-Bashir has unleashed a scorched-earth policy across large tracts of the province. Locally recruited militias, armed and commanded by Sudan army officers in combined operations with helicopter gunships, burn and loot villages in rebel areas, raping women and killing men, forcing the survivors to flee west across the border into Chad, or else to seek refuge in government-controlled towns and camps, where they are under the control of those responsible for their degradation.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the conflict. 120,000 are in camps in Chad. Many more still inside Sudan—trapped in the impending seasonal rains without assistance—are likely to perish from malnutrition and epidemic disease. Recent visitors to rebel-held areas report seeing the remains of young men, victims of extra-judicial executions by Sudanese troops.1 A cease-fire between the government in Khartoum and the rebels has broken down; the international aid effort has been put in jeopardy by government obstruction and the delay of emergency relief. Despite much-publicized visits by Colin Powell and Kofi Annan in June, demands by the UN and other international bodies that the militias be disarmed have not been met.

The crisis in Darfur comes at a time when Sudan’s other war, the war in the south, seems to be on the point of resolution. In May, after two years of sustained diplomatic pressure, primarily from the United States, the government of Sudan and the southern rebels, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), signed a preliminary peace agreement in Naivasha, Kenya, to end the twenty-one-year conflict in the south. This is a war in which the death toll has greatly exceeded that of Darfur so far. For the US administration the Naivasha Agreement seemed to promise a rare foreign policy achievement, one that could offset growing doubts about Iraq and bring some luster to the 2004 election campaign. But success in southern Sudan, such as it is, has been eclipsed by the international outcry over the horror in Darfur, which a number of human rights organizations are characterizing as genocide.2 Now the US administration is in the awkward position of commending the Khartoum government for the Naivasha Agreement, while threatening it with sanctions over Darfur.

The administration’s present difficulty is the result of a policy that has been shaped not by any analysis of the long-term problems of Sudan but rather by…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.