B y Hamara Abate
A forgotten twenty-first century genocide. This is how Daowd Salih, founder of the Damanga Coalition for Freedom and Democracy in Sudan, referred to the current situation in Darfur.
Since February 2003, Darfur, a western Sudanese region, has suffered intense conflicts affecting an estimated five million citizens. Although the United Nations initially paid substantial attention to this region, in recent years there has been an undeniable abatement of active intervention, foreign mediation and media attention in Darfur.
The conflict commenced in early 2003, when rebel groups in Darfur revolted against the central government, decrying its negligence in the region. The groups claimed that the policies of the repressive government in Khartoum had done little to solve the chronic food shortage in the west. Many in Darfur believed this abandonment was the result of a deep-rooted ethnic divide. High poverty rates plagued the region, which has scarce access to water and other resources. Therefore, when nomadic ‘Arab’ tribes moved into the area to graze their herds, the settled ethnic ‘African’ farmers were angered. Salih says that the central Arab government in Khartoum did little to intervene in the conflicts that ensued between these groups because they consider the ‘African’ citizens an inferior race to their ‘Arab’ counterparts.
By January 2004, the situation in Darfur had escalated into full-blown rebellion. With orders from Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, the army moved in to repress the uprising. They allied themselves with the ‘Arab’ Janajaweed militia. By taking up a scorched-earth policy, these armed groups committed ghastly acts of ethnic cleansing. They systematically pillaged entire ‘African’ villages, burned crops, and raped women. In a single week, the United Nations reported that more than 18,000 refugees had fled to nearby Chad. By September 9, 2004, then US Secretary of State Colin Powell labeled the crisis in Darfur a ‘genocide.’
In the years that followed, the genocide in Darfur generated an immense amount of publicity in the media and a large response from foreign powers. Fearing a repeat of the Rwandan genocide, the U.N. took the situation seriously. In July 2004, the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) was created with the mandate of dealing with enforcing international humanitarian law in Darfur. By 2005, there were a total of 17,000 peacekeepers in the region.
John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, an organization that aims to end genocide, spoke with The Politic about these actions. As a past director of African Affairs at the National Security Council and special advisor at the State Department, Prendergast is an expert on Darfur. He noted that the actions taken by the UN were only a “partial solution.” By the time peacekeepers had been deployed to Darfur, the damage had already been done. Prendergast said that the Janjaweed militia had already finished attacking the targeted areas; thus, when the AU and the UN intervened, death rates fell, which gave the false impression that the situation had markedly improved.
In the years since, however, the situation in Darfur has stagnated. The Sudanese government and leading rebel groups of Darfur have signed a number of peace agreements. Yet the region has not experienced significant change as President al-Bashir has not implemented the reforms promised. Prendergast asserts that “you can sustain international interest on an issue for only so long a period … definitely, Darfur’s period has come and gone in terms of the public spotlight.” In the years since, the attention on Darfur has been phased out and replaced with other issues in Africa that the world has found more pressing and immediate.
In 2011, for example, it was Sudan’s split into two countries. However, there is still hope for this western Sudanese region. Although the secession of South Sudan took attention away from the crisis in the west, this may have positive implications for Darfur as South Sudan and Darfur share many of the same problems. And in December, China sent a special envoy to encourage the central government to settle its disputes with South Sudan. China alluded to the adverse implications on its investment in the country if the issue is not resolved.
It has become apparent that if real change is to occur in the region, foreign powers must take action against the current regime. Beyond Chinese pressure, Prendergast stressed the importance of U.S. involvement because of its singularly important role in the region. For now, however, those in Darfur can only hope that the stakes are high enough for others to intervene.