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In the News
Last Updated: 04/19/2004
Sudan: Another resource war?
Yotam ben Meir

The world’s attention was recently attracted to the Darfur region in the west of Sudan, where the conflict has escalated in recent weeks, fearing a second Rwanda might take place. An estimated 1,000 people per week are dying in the region.

"Never again", pledges a world, which last week commemorated a million Rwandans who died in the 1994 genocide. Yet in Sudan's western Darfur region a similar catastrophe is unfolding amid a deafening silence. "The only difference from Rwanda is the numbers," said last week the UN humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, Dr Mukesh Kapila. Human Rights Watch has accused Khartoum of crimes against humanity. Amnesty International charges the regime with breaking the Geneva conventions. Western governments fear disrupting the peace talks which they are mediating between Khartoum and its southern opponents for the last 6 months, trying to resolve 20 years of violent conflict in the south of Sudan. The international community talks of ethnic cleansing in Darfur, but dares not refer to genocide.


The western region: Darfur

Combined ethnic, religious and interest based violent conflicts tear Sudan to pieces for over than 20 years now. Like in many countries in the Horn of Africa, the ones most affected by conflicts between rebels and government, who both claim to fight in the name of the people, are the people themselves.

The world’s attention was recently attracted to the Darfur region in the west of Sudan, where the conflict has escalated in recent weeks, fearing a second Rwanda might take place. An estimated 1,000 people per week are dying in the region. Their crime? To belong to the "wrong" ethnic groups or living on lands rich with oil.

Despite rebel and government assurances that a recently agreed ceasefire was holding, wounded and exhausted refugees were still limping into Chad this week fleeing the Darfur region.

The mostly black African refugees, who have been coming over the border for months, have said they are fleeing systematic attacks by horse-riding Arab militia and government bombers wreaking destruction on their homes and villages.

"Young girls are whipped and raped. They kill the boys over 10," said Bichara Ali Diar, scratching a pattern in the sand with his finger as he spoke. "There are piles of bodies outside in the open air. Nobody has been able to bury them."

As this 2-years-old conflict is in-process right now, the numbers are not clear. The estimated causes and motivations for the conflict, local and international, are also varied, complex and sometimes contradictory. Nevertheless, the one thing clear, in this terrifying fight over power and resources, are the facts, facts of displacement, of rape, of murder, of looting and of ethnic cleansing, taking place daily despite numerous peace talks and mediations.


fear of a second Rwanda

By now, more than 100,000 people have fled fighting in Darfur and crossed into neighbouring Chad. Everyone from the very old to the very young have been caught up in the fighting. Rebels say government-backed Arab militias are conducting ethnic cleansing - the government says the rebels are bandits. The land on both sides of the border is desolate, offering little shelter to those on the move. Some have walked for days. The refugees have access to some medical care but not much. The local Chadian population gave some help to the refugees but they too are poor. Aid agencies have accused the Sudan Government of closing down centers intended to help those who have not crossed into Chad”. BBC

”75 people were killed in the attack on my village by Arab militiamen,” One of the refugees described his personal tragedy. “All houses as well as a market and a health center were completely looted and the market burnt. Over 100 women were raped, six in front of their fathers who were later killed,” he said. “A further 150 women and 200 children were abducted. Village after village are being razed to the ground by the militias”, he added. BBC

Thus far, aside from the testimonies of the refugees who make it to Chad, little is known about the violence in Darfur. To compound the problem, aid agencies can only reach small parts of Darfur and are subject to attacks. Access from over the border is too dangerous for aid workers, and the Sudanese government is keen to minimize press coverage.  Reuters


Violent ruling encounters violent rebellion

“Fighting in Darfur broke out more than a year ago, when rebels attacked government targets, saying black Africans were being oppressed in favor of Arabs. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced in the fighting. Thousands of people had been killed in the region and there were reports of mass rape by the Arab militias. A report by New York based rights group Human Rights Watch also accused the Sudanese authorities of committing crimes against humanity in the region” (BBC)

Historically, there has long been tension between the two communities [Arab and African] over land and grazing rights. There are two rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which have been linked to senior Sudanese opposition politician Hassan al-Turabi. The government began mobilizing a horse or camel-mounted Arab militia - the Janjaweed - to tackle the insurrection. BBC

“Arab militias are conducting an organized campaign of ethnic cleansing to drive out black Africans from Darfur and the government is doing little to stop it”, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator said on April 2. "I have no reason to believe that the government is actively planning it, but I have reason to say that little is done to stop it, and therefore it seems as if it is being condoned," said  Jan Egeland, the world body's humanitarian affairs chief. "Scorched-earth tactics are being employed throughout Darfur, including the deliberate destruction of schools, wells, seed and food supplies, making whole towns and villages uninhabitable," he said, describing an "organized campaign" that has driven hundreds of thousands from their homes”. CNN


Arab militias

The atrocities the Janjaweed have committed on the civilian population of Darfur are well documented, not just by the people of Darfur but also by international aid agencies. The Janjaweed, these groups claim, have attacked black Africans from the Fur, Massaleet and Zagawa tribes with a ruthlessness that has not been seen in the region for some time. They have killed, raped, maimed, looted and burned down tens of thousands of village homes, displacing hundreds of thousands of people. The number of the Janjaweed is reported to be very small, maybe a few thousand, but they are well armed with automatic weapons and ride well-fed horses and camels. Even before the rebellion erupted in Darfur more than two years ago, the Janjaweed, known then as Arab tribesmen, had been raiding African villages. The objective then, as it is probably still now, is to drive the African tribesmen from their homes and force them to abandon valuable water points and pasture. The government has been at pains to disassociate itself from the Janjaweed. [Nevertheless, given that] The African tribesmen have supplied the bulk of the fighting forces for both the two main rebel groups in Darfur (SLA and JEM), by scuppering the African tribesmen, the Janjaweed are able to disrupt the two movements' recruitment drives. This fits well in the government strategy of beating the rebels militarily [detouring diplomatic channels]. The Africans of Darfur and relief agencies claim that, far from stopping the Janjaweed, the government is providing them with weapons, training and uniforms.  BBC


World’s reaction

The United Nations co-ordinator for Sudan, Mukesh Kapila, said the conflict had created the worst humanitarian situation in the world. He said more than one million people were being affected by ethnic cleansing. He said the fighting was characterized by a scorched-earth policy and was comparable in character, if not in scale, to the 1994 Rwandan genocide. "It is more than just a conflict. It is an organized attempt to do away with a group of people," he said. BBC

“We are gravely concerned at the scale of reported human rights abuses and at the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Darfur, Sudan, notwithstanding the progress made in connection with another conflict in the country between the Government and the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army. It is reported that the population in the Darfur region, mostly from the Fur ethnic communities, has been the victim of systematic human rights violations, committed mainly by Government-allied militias such as the Janjaweed, Muraheleen and the Popular Defence Forces. The Government is allegedly encouraging the actions of the militias in order to pursue a strategy of forced displacement of the non-Arab population of the region. Since February 2003, over 100,000 people have reportedly fled across the border to Chad, and as many as 750,000 have been internally displaced within Sudan, a country which already has the world's largest number of internally displaced persons. According to recent reports, the situation has seriously deteriorated with scores of civilians being killed. Information received speaks of attacks against refugees and displaced persons, the rape of women and girls, abduction of children, the burning of dozens of villages, looting, and destruction of livestock by the militias. The top United Nations official in the country has described the situation as "possibly the world's hottest war", characterized by a campaign of ethnic cleansing "comparable in character, if not scale, to the Rwanda genocide". UN statement, March 26

 “Such reports leave me with a deep sense of foreboding,” said the Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who headed the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations in 1994 and said his thoughts since then had been “dominated” by questions about what more could have been done to stop the bloodshed [in Rwanda]. “Whatever terms it uses to describe the situation, the international community cannot stand idle […] It is vital that international humanitarian workers and human rights experts be given full access to the region, and to the victims, without further delay […] If that is denied, the international community must be prepared to take swift and appropriate action […] If there is one legacy I would most wish to leave to my successors, it is an Organization both better equipped to prevent genocide, and able to act decisively to stop it when prevention fails,” said Mr. Annan. UN news center

A U.N. spokesman in Geneva said on Friday April 9 the United Nations planned to send a fact-finding mission to Darfur in coming days to probe allegations of rights abuses. While some have compared the Darfur conflict to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, U.N. eyewitnesses reported a systematic campaign by Arab militias to drive black Africans out of the region, rather than mass killings. "I would say it is ethnic cleansing, but it is not genocide, and we should avoid it escalating further," he said. CNN

The 10-member team led by Jan Egeland, U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, will visit each of the three regions of Darfur from April 18 to 21, during the 45-day cease-fire. CNN

"We have free access along a number of corridors. Certain areas, in which we have concerns, we still have not been granted permission to travel to," said Glyn Taylor from the U.N. office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs for Sudan. He told aid representatives and government officials in Al-Fashir, capital of North Darfur state that displaced people would only return when they felt safe. "Should this not happen and should they not be able to engage in agricultural activity before the rains then we will be looking at a severe food security situation over the next 12 months," he said. CNN


The Ceasefire

On Wednesday April 1, rebels from the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice Equality Movement (JEM) began indirect talks with government representatives in the Chadian capital, Ndjamena, aimed at ending the war. BBC

The rebels insisted on the presence of international mediators. But the government says Darfur is a regional conflict and does not want to internationalize it. BBC

A 45-day ceasefire, agreed on Thursday April 8, came into effect on Sunday April 11 under a deal reached between government forces and the two rebel groups. They agreed to guarantee safe passage for humanitarian aid, free prisoners of war and disarm militias. BBC

“There is no winner, there is no loser. We reached a consensus and the only winner is Darfur and Sudan," said Sudanese Investment Minister Sharif Ahmed Omar Badr - the government's representative at the talks, quoted by the AP news agency.

“We managed, through painful negotiations, to reach an agreement," said the SLA's negotiator, Dr Sharif Harir.

The ceasefire, however, has had little effect on the ground, and Government-backed Arab militias are reported to be continuing their attacks. BBC

The United States said Monday April 12 it believes the Sudanese government and Khartoum-backed militias are in violation of a ceasefire and called for the immediate implementation of the truce. The State Department said information received by Washington in the hours after the ceasefire was to go into effect earlier Monday indicated that the government and the rebels were not fully adhering to the deal. AFP

Sudan's government says it was trying to disarm Arab militias who have rampaged through west Sudan, but residents here said Friday April 9 they still feared attacks even when gathering wood [outside refugees camps]. "Young girls can't leave the camp. We are scared to send them out. They rape them. We can't send the young men out because they will kill the men," said Fatma, an African villager clutching her infant, in a camp on the edge of Kutum. CNN


A Humanitarian crisis

The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, says it is now a race against time to move the refugees further inland before the rainy season begins in a few weeks. Speaking in Geneva, the agency's emergency coordinator for Chad, Yvan Sturm, said so far only around 22,000 refugees had been moved to safety and that aid workers faced major logistical problems moving the rest [more the 100,000]. The UN is struggling with sand storms, no shade and no water. But in just two months time the transport trucks will be immobilized, stuck on muddy, unsurfaced roads, when the rainy season begins. The UNHCR wants to move 65,000 refugees hundreds of kilometers inland - away from the Sudanese border - before that happens. BBC


Southern Sudan

In far too many African countries, oil - or another natural resource - has been what prolongs a conflict. In Sudan, the main factions in a two-decade-long civil war have reversed the trend. The first thing to come out of peace talks in the Kenyan town of Naivasha between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), is a deal on sharing the revenue from Sudan's oil reserves. [Although] The deal leaves the detail of power-sharing between the largely Christian south and the Muslim government in the north, not to mention the problem of three hotly disputed territories. Aid agencies, pressure groups, governments and economists agree that the deal, as it stands, is good news. It offers the chance of solid funding for the massive development needs of all Sudanese. The talks in Naivasha have nothing to say about the Darfur situation, and there are fears that the conflict there could be inflamed if local people feel left out of the wealth-sharing deal. There is even the concern that the rebels in Darfur could ally with other groups in the Nuba Mountains and along the Blue Nile who have suffered at the governments' hands, intensifying conflict across the country. BBC

Nevertheless, the peace deal is delayed as negotiations are still continuing, while the Sudanese government and the southern rebel are still discussing the issues of power sharing and three disputed regions. The SPLA spokesperson Yasser Arman, said that the issue of Islamic law in the Sudanese capital is the latest issue blocking the signing of the final deal. "The main point that has stalled the talks is the laws to govern Khartoum. The government insists that everyone must be subjected to Sharia law. We on the other hand are advocating for Sharia law for the Muslims and secular laws for the non-Muslims," Arman said. XINHUA


Decades of Ongoing Conflict

The Sudanese civil war started as the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) took up arms fighting for self-determination in the southern part of the country in 1983, after the government dominated by northern Arabs tried to impose Islamic Sharia law across Sudan, even in areas where the majority is not Muslim. This exacerbated a rebellion that had begun in the south, which is inhabited by black African Christians and those who practice traditional religions, although they are divided into many different ethnic groups. The rebel SPLA has never clearly stated whether it is fighting for southern autonomy within Sudan or outright independence.

The conflict has pitted the Muslim north against Christians and animists in the south, leaving some 2m people dead, mostly through war-induced famine and disease. The Sudanese government and the SPLA began peace talks in March1994 in Kenya, aimed at ending the longest civil war on the continent, under the auspices of the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a seven-member regional group in east Africa, consisting of Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Uganda, Eritrea, Somalia and the Sudan. Hopes are higher than at any time since the war began in 1983. BBC

The conflict also caused an additional four million to become internally displaced. About half-a-million Sudanese have been turned into refugees. IPS


Oil and religion: ethnic cleansing and Slavery

Oil, seen today as a mediating resource, has had its crucial part in mobilizing the terrifying atrocities that took place over the last 20 years. Only last year, the American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG) has reacted sharply to new evidence that Talisman Energy of Canada might have requested that the Sudanese Army ethnically cleanse its oil fields in Southern Sudan. The request resulted in a major offensive on civilian villages, which savagely reduced the population in the area by 50%. AASG President Charles Jacobs pointed to a secret Sudanese police communiqué reporting an incipient attack on African villages near Talisman's oil fields at the behest of the Canadian oil company. "For over two years, we have said that Talisman bears responsibility for slave-raids and genocidal attacks in Sudan," Jacobs stated. "This document looks like the smoking gun… the first direct link we have seen between the ethnic cleansing and corporate decisions by the oil companies themselves."

The memo, issued on May 7, 1999, reported that "… fulfilling the request of the Canadian Company (Talisman)… the armed forces will conduct cleaning up operations in all villages from Heglig to Pariang." Two days later, a major offensive was launched and villages from Heglig to Pariang were destroyed. A Canadian Foreign Ministry report described how civilians were killed, homes and whole villages destroyed, food stocks looted or burned, humanitarian aid forced into flight. It is estimated the attacks reduced the overall population in the county by 50%.

"America leads the civilized world in a war against terror," Jacobs said. "Here is a Western oil company, trading its shares on the New York Stock Exchange, instigating and funding the same jihad-terror that struck America." The complicity of oil development in the ongoing destruction by the radical Islamism regime in Khartoum of Christian, moderate Muslim and animist Civilian populations in Southern Sudan has been chronicled by Amnesty International, the UN, the Canadian foreign ministry, Human Rights Watch, and Christian Aid (UK). iABOLISH

On top of that, as part of the country's on-going civil war, Northern and Northern-allied militias, armed by the government but not paid, where instructed to raid Southern villages to terrorize the local population. Villages are targeted for their strategic military value. Women and children become booty for the militiamen, who also seize grain and cattle. Slavery in Sudan takes place in the context of the Sudanese government's declared jihad against Black non-Muslim communities that resist subjugation to the Islamic state.

According to the former Sudanese Prime Minister Sadiq Al Mahdi, there is a close relationship between jihad and the revival of slavery in Sudan: "It is true that the regime has not enacted a law to realize slavery in Sudan. But the traditional concept of JIHAD does allow slavery as a by-product [of jihad]."

Nevertheless, over 80,000 women and children have been smuggled or purchased out of bondage through the local "underground railroad" of traders and chiefs and emancipated since 1995. iABOLISH - The Slave Redemption Program in Sudan


And where are the people in this story: Women demand a place at the negotiating table

The Sudan People's Liberation Movement and the northern government in Khartoum are powerful groups but they are both minorities in their respective areas. The leadership of SPLM is drawn almost entirely from the Dinka people, one of dozens of groups who inhabit the south, and as mentioned the government in Khartoum is Muslim-Arab, while most of the population in the south are Africans and Christians. BBC
Strategic Initiatives for the Horn of Africa (SIHA), a regional organization that promotes women's participation in politics, has called for gender issues to be addressed in the Sudanese peace negotiations. "So far, there is no voice of women in the talks. Women are not visible in whatever has been accomplished at the negotiations and that is why we are advocating for them to have a say in the process, because they are the ones who have been affected most by the civil war in Sudan," Hala Elkanib, Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Horn of Africa (SIHA), told IPS in Nairobi. "We want women and girls to be protected. We are demanding control over the use of guns which have been responsible for the death and trauma of women in Sudan […] More than ten women in Sudan die daily from abuse of arms, which includes rape," she added. However, this figure could be higher because many attacks on women go unreported. IPS


The US

President George W Bush has been under pressure from both flanks to help bring peace to Sudan. Human rights campaigners are worried about continued reports of slavery, while right-wing Christians, which have considerable influence in his Republican Party, want him to end what they see as the persecution of Christians by Muslims. BBC

The United States on Monday April 12 warned the Sudanese government and southern rebels that they could face US sanctions if they do not conclude the long-anticipated but much-delayed peace deal in nine days time. The State Department said the two sides had until April 21 to
ink an agreement or leave themselves open to penalties called for by US law. Under the law, the United States can seek a UN arms embargo on the Sudanese government and restrict its access to credit and oil revenue if Khartoum is found to have obstructed a peaceful resolution to the conflict. At the same time, the law provides for cutting ties with the SPLA and other punitive measures if it is found to be at fault. AFP

The United States and other western countries have played a crucial part in the peace process that began in Kenya in early 2002. The key incentives held out to the government in Khartoum are the lifting of American sanctions and the dropping of Sudan from Washington's list of states it regards as sponsors of terrorism. Another big reason for American interest is Sudan's recently developed oil wealth - the subject of the agreement. The signing of an agreement between the Sudan Government and southern rebels on the sharing of oil revenues between north and south is the latest significant step towards an overall settlement of the civil war. BBC


Comments and Analysis

-- “The Sudanese government is complicit in crimes against humanity committed by government-backed militias in Darfur […] In a scorched-earth campaign, government forces and Arab militias are killing, raping and looting African civilians that share the same ethnicities as rebel forces in this western region of Sudan”. For the full Human Rights Watch report on Darfur click here


-- "The people in Sudan want to resolve the conflict. The US is committed to overthrowing the government in Khartoum. However, peace-making was made all the more difficult in the 1990s by United States policy and regional conflicts involving Sudan and some of her neighbors. Any sort of peace effort is aborted, basically by policies of the United States... Instead of working for peace in Sudan, the US government has basically promoted a continuation of the war." The search for peace in Sudan


-- The Sudanese have always had a tendency towards independence of mind, theological, national and political. The Mahdi’s regime, for example, has been described as “one of the first modern Islamicist revolts against corrupt, secular, colonial authorities”. The Republic of Sudan, and particularly the present government, has maintained this independence. This is one reason, for example, why somewhat transparent attempts to portray present-day Sudan as a terrorist state that is both a mirror and an instrument of Iran and Iran’s model of Islamic fundamentalism, simply do not reflect reality. It is also this independence of mind, which had initially led to difficulties with the United States in the post-Cold War international realignment. And Sudan has come in for considerable criticism for being the first Arab country to become a modern, democratic Islamic republic. Images of Sudan

 -- For an excellent Sudanese news source in English click here

-- For more Background information on Sudan click here and here

-- For the UN reports and statements click here

-- For latest ICG Report see Darfur Rising: Sudan's New Crisis, the latest report from the International Crisis Group.

See also