Sudan: The Tragedy of SUDAN

Fifty thousand are dead, thousands more will die, and more than 1 million have lost their homes. Simon Robinson visits Darfur and witnesses what is happening while the world dithers

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    Over the past two decades, though, persistent drought has forced the Arabs to move to more arable lands, straining relations with the Africans. In the late 1980s, competition for turf began to turn violent. Light arms poured into the region from neighboring Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo, leading to occasional massacres. Hostilities simmered for more than a decade. But the spark for war came in April last year, when, following two months of occasional raids on villages, African rebels from a group calling itself the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) swept into the tumbledown airport in the town of al-Fashir, killed 75 Sudanese government soldiers, shot up four military aircraft and kidnapped the air force chief, Major General Ibrahim Bushra. The rebel group claimed that the raid was a protest against both the government's neglect of Darfur and an increasing Arab militancy.

    In response, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir called on local tribes to crush the rebellion. The most eager recruits came from small groups of Arab nomads who saw an opportunity to grab land and livestock under the banner of a state-sanctioned military operation. Locals dubbed the fighters Janjaweed, a name that loosely means "devils on horseback" and has long been used to describe the region's bandits. By August 2003 the Janjaweed had begun attacking not only the SLA fighters but also Darfurian civilians, who it said were aiding the insurgency. The conflict quickly descended into ethnic cleansing, say human-rights observers, with the Janjaweed attacking and driving out people on the basis of ethnicity. Darfur's largest Arab tribes refused to take part in the fighting, and many Africans did not support the rebels. But the battle lines had been drawn: Arab against African. "I think the Sudanese government thought they could sort out the problem quickly," says Cynthia Gaigals, Care International's advocacy coordinator for Sudan. "But it soon became something much bigger."

    The Sudanese government says it has armed some 10,000 local tribesmen as part of the paramilitary Popular Defense Force but that these troops, who include Arabs and Africans, have not participated in any massacres. Khartoum says the charge of genocide is U.S. hype in an election year and accuses the rebels, who control mountainous central Darfur, of committing raids and kidnappings of their own. Aid agencies agree that the rebels are guilty of attacks, including, last week, the first outside Darfur. Khartoum says the rebels are funded by Hassan al-Turabi, who supported the 1989 coup that installed al-Bashir as President but has since fallen out with the government. The war in Darfur, say government insiders and opposition figures, is a proxy battle for power in Khartoum. "This is a war that the rebels want to fight inside villages," says El Tijani Fedail, Sudan's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs."In very rare situations we may bomb and kill civilians. If the Americans do it, they call it collateral damage, don't they?"

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