Another Problem From Hell

Thirty-five-year-old Azine (not her real name) is still in shock at what happened to her in Western Darfur, Sudan, four months ago. One morning, soldiers entered her village, burned her house, and forced her to flee with her four children. She and her family now live in a refugee camp in Farchana, Chad, in a tent provided by the United Nations. On a recent day at the camp, she described what happened to her in the Sudan:

"At around 5 a.m., helicopters and Sudanese military Antonovs circled the village," she said. Later, four men wearing Sudanese military uniforms entered her house and took all her property, then set the house on fire.

"My husband had fled first for fear that he might be killed," she continued, describing what appears to be a common pattern among Darfurian villagers attacked over the last several months. As the men in the village get wind of impending attacks, they flee at once – knowing that they will be killed if they stay – leaving the women and children behind. The male villagers know that the women will be raped, but probably not killed. That is, unless they resist.

Of the 300 families from this village, about 25 people were killed and about 15 wounded. Azine's sister ran away from the attackers and was shot and killed, along with her 3-year-old daughter.

Since early 2003, tens of thousands of Sudanese citizens of African descent who live in the Darfur region have been systematically killed, raped, and displaced as their villages have been destroyed. Through coordinated land and air attacks; the burning of homes and crops; the rounding up of livestock; the destruction of wells, granaries, and irrigation works; the uprooting of trees; and the theft of all possessions, the government of Sudan and the government-supported Arab militia, Janjaweed, have displaced more than 1 million people.

Thousands are now wandering the drought-stricken, barren landscape, while tens of thousands are reportedly being held in prison enclaves in cities and villages throughout Darfur. An additional 200,000 Darfurians have crossed the eastern border of Sudan, seeking refuge in Chad, as Azine did after her village was destroyed.

For several months, experts from humanitarian and human-rights groups and the United Nations have predicted that tens of thousands of internally displaced persons in Sudan will die unless they receive major international humanitarian support. According to some reports, the early stages of those grim predictions have already been realized.

In May 2004, as part of a Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) emergency investigation, in partnership with the Open Society Institute's Justice Initiative, I arrived in this region along the Chadian-Sudanese border to assess human-rights and humanitarian law violations of the Darfur civilians and the risk of morbidity and mortality among the refugees driven from their homes in that region.

Jennifer Leaning, a physician who teaches a course in humanitarian emergencies, and I spent two weeks traveling extensively throughout eastern Chad. We traversed several thousand kilometers in order to assess the situation and to conduct interviews with refugees in camps and in other places along the Chadian-Sudanese border. We wanted to gather testimony from refugees who came from different parts of Darfur about the timing, nature, and targets of the attacks, to collect information on the attacking forces and the way they pursued villagers and local Sudanese to the border of Chad.

We recorded dozens of refugee testimonies that indigenous African civilians – primarily from the Fur, Masilit, and Zaghawa ethnic groups – are being targeted by the Sudanese government and its Arab-Janjaweed militia because of their ethnicity. There is ample evidence to indicate that an organized campaign on the part of the Sudanese government is under way, targeting several million people from this region of the country either by killing them or forcing them to migrate. Without an immediate and concerted international intervention, a substantial part of the targeted group may be eliminated. Current predictions from governmental and nongovernmental sources suggest that the toll could be between 300,000 and 1 million if a robust intervention does not occur.

PHR is calling the forcible removal of black African Darfurians from their land, the total destruction of villages and livelihood, and the deliberate obstruction of aid indicators of genocide that warrant immediate intervention. An intervention, ideally backed by a UN Security Council resolution – which supports the protection of humanitarian supply lines, disarms the militia groups, ensures the cessation of violence and a withdrawal of Sudanese government forces in Darfur, allows for the safe return of internally displaced persons and refugees to their land, and provides human-rights monitors – is necessary. Simultaneously, PHR calls on the United States to ramp up its humanitarian assistance and to impose targeted sanctions on Sudanese government officials (including freezing assets and access to U.S. capital markets). In addition, PHR is discovering signs of genocide that may put international agencies and other countries under an obligation to act to prevent and punish the perpetrators.

The Bush administration has been a leading force on the UN Security Council on matters concerning Darfur, but it has not determined that genocide has taken place. In addition, the Bush administration has been unwilling to push for a UN resolution seeking an intervention.

The administration should take a harder position with the Khartoum government, including support for a UN Security Council resolution that calls for intervention under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Its current approach may be the result of the administration's concern about jeopardizing the long-awaited peace-signing process that would end the decades-long war between the Arab north and the Christian south. Talks between the Sudanese government and rebels from the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) will soon take place in Naivasha, Kenya, focusing on security and a permanent ceasefire – as well as possible autonomy for the South. Moreover, the Iraq conflict may have taken its toll on U.S. diplomatic efforts elsewhere.

Without a more robust response to the crisis in Darfur, thousands will perish inside Sudan and refugees like Azine will continue to languish in refugee camps with little hope of returning home anytime soon. What's at stake here is enormous and clear: a moral obligation by the United States and the international community to prevent another genocide from occurring under their watch.

Copyright © 2004 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: John Heffernan, "Another Problem From Hell", The American Prospect Online, Jun 30, 2004. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@prospect.org.

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