Don't Panic! May 20 2004

Your war questions answered

What is the crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan about?

This week, let's take the impotent rage that we've been focusing on Iraq lately and aim it 1,500 miles southwest at Sudan.

Sudan is immediately south of Egypt. To get there from here, simply drive to Egypt and hang a right when you reach the Nile. Keep driving south till you see the "Welcome to Sudan: Africa Hot 24/7!" sign. You can't miss it.

Africa's largest country, Sudan straddles the invisible line that divides predominantly Arab North Africa from the rest of the continent. Sudan's northern half is mainly Arab and Muslim. Sudan's southern half is primarily "black African" — a widely used, catchall term for non-Arab Sudanese that saves us Americans from having to learn the tricky names of tribes. Even though Sudan's black Africans make up a majority of Sudan's 34 million people, the Arab minority controls the central government and Sudan's capital, Khartoum.

While ethnic and religious diversity works well for college campuses, Benetton ads and potlucks, it hasn't been so good for Sudan. The north/south divide has been the inspiration for a particularly horrific civil war that has claimed 2 million people during the last 20 years. To put that in U.S.A. terms for you, imagine the death toll of two or three 9/11-sized attacks, each month, for 20 years.

Sadly, those numbers don't include what's happening now in Darfur. Geographically speaking, and you know that you love it when I speak geographically, the Darfur crisis is actually an east/west thing. Darfur is a region of western Sudan with roughly 6 million people. The conflict there was born from tension between the region's nomadic Arabs and its primarily agricultural black Africans. There's not much water or decent pasture there, and the two groups compete for it. The rivalry has intensified over the past few years as Darfur's black Africans have grown increasingly resentful of the Sudanese central government for strongly favoring the Arab nomads. Unlike the north/south divide, religion is not an issue in Darfur. Darfurians, Arab or black, are nearly all Muslim.

The resentment escalated into rebellion last year with attacks by black Africans on government targets in Darfur. The government of Sudan responded not with negotiations or pledges to do better by the black Africans. Nope, the Khartoum Network decided that what Darfur needed was a good old-fashioned ethnic cleansing.

Government forces, along with mounted Arab militiamen called Janjaweed, have been forcing black African Darfurians to run for their lives. The Janjaweed are on a killing, looting, raping, village-leveling rampage. By the end of last year, 600,000 black African Sudanese were driven from their homes in Darfur. That number is now estimated at 1.1 million. In addition, thousands have been killed. It's so bad in Darfur that more than 100,000 have fled to neighboring Chad, one of the world's poorest countries. Imagine how miserable you'd have to be to make Chad seem like a good option.

The humanitarian crisis will only get worse unless the West, the U.N. or Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture, does something soon. The people being driven from their homes are farmers who just missed planting season. Food production in the area is going to plummet and thousands more will starve to death.

The government of Sudan, of course, denies supporting the Janjaweed. Observers know that they're lying because Darfur villages are being attacked from the air, which means that either Sudan's government is attacking or the Janjaweed are using flying camels.

In a clumsy attempt to get people off his government's case, Sudan's Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail recently claimed that the government was cracking down on the Janjaweed and that its activities had been "reduced by 80 percent." I guess that means that instead of driving people from their homes at a rate of 1.1 million per year, they've slowed it down to about 200,000. That Mustafa is a real humanitarian.

Despite all of the "never again" talk accompanying the recent 10th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, the U.N. and U.S. are doing little to stop the Darfur disaster. The U.N. did, however, add insult to injury by appointing a Sudanese government official to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. It's too bad that bitter irony won't cure the world's ills, because the U.N. produces plenty of that.


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