Nowhere To Hide

5 minute read
Simon Robinson

The rains have started to fall across the sandy plains of western Sudan. Soon the dry riverbeds will swell with water and the wadis will become impassable. The change in season may bring some respite from the killing campaign that has convulsed the region of Darfur over the past 16 months–but it will bring fresh horrors as well. More than a million people seeking refuge and huddled in makeshift camps outside the largest towns are unable to get back to their farms to plant their crops. The rains will make it harder to distribute food rations. Delivery by road will become impossible, and airstrips may wash away. The camps are becoming open sewers, fueling the spread of diseases like cholera and dysentery. As many as half a million people could starve to death or succumb to illness.

There is no good season in Sudan. Since February 2003 the farming region of Darfur has been riven by conflict. It was sparked by an uprising by black Africans against perceived government discrimination. Since then, government-sponsored militiamen known as Janjaweed have conducted a campaign to cleanse the area of Darfur’s black African civilians. The Janjaweed are Arabs; the Darfurians are non-Arab blacks. Both are Muslim. The U.S., international observers and Darfurians who have fled their villages say the horse-mounted Janjaweed are backed by military forces from Sudan’s Arab-dominated government. Survivors report that government helicopter gunships and planes have strafed and bombed Darfurian towns before and after the Janjaweed carried out their massacres. The U.N. and U.S. do not call the pogroms genocide–in part because doing so could oblige the international community to intervene to save the Darfurians. But two weeks ago, Roger Winter, assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), told a Senate hearing that the Janjaweed’s murders and rapes “raise questions about the [Darfurian] community’s long-term ability to survive and re-establish itself.”

Some 10,000 people have been killed, and more than a million have been forced to leave their homes in the region. At least 160,000 have fled across the border into Chad. In the town of Kailek, according to survivors, the Janjaweed militiamen rounded up men who had fled into nearby hills, then executed two or three every day for a month. Dozens of women were raped. “When the Janjaweed were not raping me, they tied my arms and legs together so I could not run away,” says a 15-year-old girl who was raped by five men for more than a week. She won’t give her name for fear they will track her down and kill her. “After 10 days, they just left me, and my mother had to come and carry me home because I couldn’t walk or sit.” A woman says she became pregnant after she was raped. “One of the four who raped me must be the father,” she says. “It was torture, not only for my body but also for my head. They would not do this to their women, sisters and daughters.” When the men had finished with the woman, they left her bloodied and naked. Her sister found her half dead and gave her a simple cotton dress to wear. It is the only thing she owns.

Despite Sudanese government promises to disarm the militia, the attacks continue. Last week militiamen looted and burned six villages in southern Darfur and attacked a camp in the center of the region. The U.N. says government soldiers and police officers often fail to intervene to prevent the slaughter. In some places Janjaweed fighters are incorporated into the security forces meant to protect civilians. The Janjaweed’s latest tactic is to encircle camps of displaced Darfurians and attack any who venture out to collect water or firewood. Women are often sent to do those chores because they will be raped rather than killed. The government, which is encouraging people in the camps to return home, dismisses the violence as nothing more than banditry. “It’s armed robbery like elsewhere in Africa,” says Eltigani Salih Fediel, Sudan’s Deputy Foreign Minister.

After months of internal debate, the Bush Administration is beginning to pressure the Sudanese government to halt the slaughter in Darfur. Secretary of State Colin Powell is scheduled to join U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on a visit to Khartoum and Darfur this week to demand that Sudan’s government allow humanitarian access and rein in the Janjaweed. The U.S. is quietly working up an initial U.N. resolution that would pave the way for a peacekeeping force, probably drawn from African states.

But many wonder why it took so long for aid agencies to provide assistance and for Western governments to lean on Khartoum to stop the thugs. Aid workers say privately that they were focused on countries like Iraq and did not realize the extent of the catastrophe taking place in Sudan until a few months ago. Once they did, it took months to get money from donors to underwrite an emergency effort. Another stumbling block has been the U.S. effort to secure a peace agreement between Khartoum and rebels in the south, where a separate conflict has killed at least 2 million people since 1983.

The tragedy is that for thousands of Sudanese it may be too late. “That men, women and children uprooted by the war and ethnic cleansing will die in enormous numbers is no longer in doubt due to advanced stages of malnutrition and disease that cannot be reversed,” says USAID’s Winter. The final death toll will depend largely on “whether the Sudanese government will finally make saving lives in Darfur the priority rather than a chit for negotiation.” In such a high-stakes game, few expect that to happen. –Reported by Massimo Calabresi/Washington and Ilona Eveleens/Kailek

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