The Stakes in Darfur


On September 9, Colin Powell declared that genocide was taking place in Darfur in western Sudan. But during a recent three-week visit to Sudan I met few people who claimed that genocide—as distinct from systematic war crimes—was going on there. I spoke with Darfur’s African rebels, who talked about poor schools and hospitals, about soldiers who raped their women, and about Arab nomads whose herds and camels trampled and ate their crops. When I met Arab tribesmen they complained that the rebels were kidnapping their fellows and stealing their camels.

The educated supporters of the rebels I met in Darfur claimed that Sudanese government officials were now rushing to destroy the evidence of the massacres they had approved. They were doing this, my informants said, because Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, has dispatched a high-level team on a discreet mission to investigate Mr. Powell’s claims.

Thus far about 70,000 people are believed to have died in Darfur, fewer than the 100,000 the British medical journal The Lancet estimates to have died in Iraq in the same period. But even if genocide is an exaggerated description of what is happening in Darfur, some 1.6 million people have been forced to flee their homes. And whether the war continues or not, a catastrophic famine is now unfolding there.

On November 18 and 19, the UN Security Council met in Nairobi in Kenya to discuss Sudan—but Darfur was not its main concern. In fact, ever since the rebellion began last year, it has served as a distracting sideshow for most of the Western and African diplomats involved with Sudan. It has diverted time and energy away from the huge efforts that they have invested over the last few years to end the war in southern Sudan, where the Islamist Sudanese government has been fighting black African rebels, many of them Christians or followers of traditional beliefs. That conflict has been going on for almost half a century and, since 1983, is said to have cost some two million lives. At the Security Council meeting the Sudanese government and the southern rebels pledged to sign a comprehensive peace deal by December 31. If this happens, then a large UN peacekeeping force will be deployed. Six and a half years after that, under the agreement, the southern Sudanese could choose to form a country of their own.

For months news reports from Darfur on European television have told a familiar and even repetitive story. They have explained, quite accurately, that because of drought and the expansion of the desert, there has been more and more pressure on the people of the Darfur region to acquire and hold on to land. This has pitted the majority of the African tribes, who are farmers, against the mainly nomadic Arab tribes, whose cattle and camels need extensive grazing land for their annual cycles of migration.

There have been many reports on television and in the press about Africans who have been brutally driven from their villages…

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