How Darfur became a tragic tangle

Darfur has taken on the shorthand status accorded Biafra and Bangladesh in a previous generation.

The very word has come to represent horrible things happening to poor and defenseless people, held up to shame the rich and powerful world for its lack of action in stopping this injustice. For many who decry these atrocities, that is all they know, all they need to know.


There is no doubt that Darfur fits that rather simplistic role. But there is also no doubt that no solution to its many problems will be possible without understanding its complexity.

For years now, the international community has offered condemnations of the situation in Darfur, calling for action against the Sudanese government for its role in the atrocities. The latest came a few weeks ago when the International Criminal Court announced possible action against two members of that government for their role in the troubled province.


But threats have led only to ineffective action. "Or else," the world keeps telling Sudan. But somehow, the "else" never comes.

The basic description of what is going on in Darfur goes something like this: Poverty-stricken rural settlements are under attack by groups -- who go by the appropriately villainous name of Janjaweed -- armed and supported by the government of Sudan.

The somewhat more sophisticated description of what has happened in Darfur includes a bit of historical perspective: Taking advantage of the fact that the central government was preoccupied with a rebellion in the south of Sudan, in 2003 Darfur rebel groups launched their own strikes. The Sudan government, in part because it was militarily strapped and in part because its army is made up predominantly of soldiers from Darfur, hired the Janjaweed to do its fighting and they have responded with mercenary tyranny that has wreaked such havoc on civilian populations that it is now categorized as genocide by the U.S. government.

The even more detailed historical analysis, courtesy of Robert Collins, a history professor who has spent his career studying Sudan: Darfur was never really part of Sudan, as its attention faces east toward Lake Chad, not west toward the Nile basin. Its attachment to Sudan was one of the many mistakes made by European colonialists drawing lines on the map of Africa. Any understanding of the current conflict comes only with an appreciation of the generations of tensions between Darfur and Khartoum.

"The central government in Khartoum had never fully controlled or administered the peripheral areas," says Collins, an emeritus professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "Darfur is a classic example.

"During the last 100 to 200 years, the Turks, the British and certainly the Sudanese have never really ruled Darfur," he says. "That is a fundamental and basic problem."

All that said, there is no doubt that some horrible things are going on today in Darfur that cry out for the world's attention.

Scott LeFevre, the regional representative for Catholic Relief Services in the Horn of Africa, says that where CRS is currently working, in the northern half of west Darfur, there are 150,000 men, women and children who have fled their homes for fear of the Janjaweed attacks that have killed thousands.


For some, he says, home is now a circle of sticks in a refugee camp.

"They may or may not have a mat to sleep on," says LeFevre, who was in Darfur last month. "This is a very harsh environment. We are just finishing up the cold season and it gets quite cold at night there. But many of these people are sleeping under the stars, with no shelter."

Limiting the work of CRS and the other relief agencies is the dicey security situation.

"It is a very complex situation," LeFevre says. "Very fluid, very unpredictable. Security is at best tenuous. Sometimes it can be very poor, sometimes nonexistent, so our access to certain areas is limited at times."

LeFevere gives high marks to the United States for providing the bulk of aid to the region, food and medical supplies that is keeping the displaced of Darfur alive.

But the big question is if there is a solution beyond what should be the temporary measures of relief and refugee camps.


The danger is that Darfur will become so dysfunctional that it will take on the trappings of a failed state. Those doing the fighting will become detached from whatever political motivations they once had. It will simply be a matter of greed and pillage.

At that point, the political solution most are aiming for now will be out of reach. As in so many African tragedies, the violence will simply have to exhaust itself, leavings thousands dead and a people traumatized.

David Mozersky of the International Crisis Group does not think Darfur has reached that point, but the longer the situation goes on without a solution, the more difficult it becomes.

"Certainly it has become a lot more chaotic and complicated and confused over the last couple of years," he says. "What could have worked politically two or three years ago, even last year, no longer can."

One reason for that, explains Mozersky, the ICG's project director for the Horn of Africa, is that the rebel groups are fracturing, meaning it is difficult to get them all on board..

Mozersky and others agree that the Sudanese government still holds sway over the Janjaweed, but has seen little reason to alter its policies despite widespread international condemnation.


"The Sudanese government has concluded that the international community is all bark and no bite and that it can continue to do whatever it wants. The result is no change in policy."

The latest bark from the international community came at the end of February when the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague announced the start of a process that could lead to charges against the Sudanese state minister for humanitarian affairs, Ahmad Muhammad Harun, and the militia/Janjaweed commander, Ali Kushayb, for war crimes and crimes against humanity for their action in Darfur in 2003 and 2004.

That follows a long string of international actions taken against Khartoum over Darfur, including United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding that the Khartoum government cease military actions in Darfur, others authorizing a U.N. military force and continued denunciations by the U.N. and the U.S. and the European parliament.

But, stubbornly, Darfur has remained in crisis.

Collins, for one, is not surprised. "Frankly, there is very very little that we can do," he says of the U.S. government. "We certainly can't invade another Muslim country. The only way would be a U.N. peacekeeping force, and Khartoum is adamant that they do not want to have one."

The problem, Collins explains, is that China and Russia get a lot of oil from Sudan and have other business interests there. So they have a great deal of interest in keeping Khartoum happy by keeping the international community at bay. Threats of a veto hang over every Security Council resolution, forcing them to be carefully drafted, always allowing Khartoum an escape route.


And, Collins says, that government has many years of practice making such escapes in its dealings with international pressure over the rebellion in its south.

"Their negotiating pattern is fixed and it's been successful," he says. "Essentially they will suddenly make a few concessions which will make everyone forget about them for a while. While no one is paying attention, they will do nothing.

"Or they will just stonewall, which is what they are doing now," Collins says. "They can sweet-talk people without doing anything. They are really masters at this."

Meanwhile, he says, visitors to Khartoum will see a prosperous city, full of new construction and First World amenities, paid for with Chinese and Russian money, buying oil and doing deals. The problems in Darfur seem far away.

"Khartoum is a huge boom area," Collins says. "They can thumb their noses at us."

The outlines of a settlement are clear to many who look at the region. Some sort of increased autonomy for the Darfur region, disarming the Janjaweed, perhaps an international force to maintain order as one does now in the former Yugoslavia.


As in Yugoslavia, war has led to both sides exploiting what what might have been minor rifts between ethnic groups, turning them into deep divisions. Enmity will remain for generations.

But Collins says the Darfuris will not give up until they get some freedom from Khartoum.

"Until 1916, Darfur was a sultanate," he says. "Many Darfuris have told their grandchildren about that, people who remember when they had their own independent sultanate. It had some of its barbarous ways, but it functioned."