Crisis: Return to Darfur

With the UN held at bay, the conflict in western Sudan just gets bloodier. Does the world have another Rwanda on its hands?
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This is what the world looks like when all hope is gone. For over two million citizens of Darfur holed up in displacement camps across this barren desert land in western Sudan, no knight in shining armour is about to ride over the horizon. These are the lucky ones: those who survived the Sudanese government's scorched earth policy that saw their homes burnt to a crisp. And now, the lucky ones live in constant fear that each night will be their last.

The crisis in Darfur, a region the size of France, is deepening by the day. While Sudan's autocratic ruler, Omar al-Bashir, plays a game of political brinkmanship with the United Nations and, in particular, the US and the UK, millions of black Africans lie alone and exposed. There's been a build-up of Sudanese troops in the region over the past two months and attacks by the feared horsebacked militia, known as the Janjaweed, are on the increase.

The fragile security situation, which has seen more than a dozen aid workers killed since May, has forced many aid agencies to pull out. And while western leaders call for a UN force to enter the region as soon as possible, the job of holding the peace is left to the African Union (AU). The underfunded and understaffed AU soldiers have all but given up trying to prevent more deaths. Instead, they scurry around as fast as their sub-standard military vehicles will allow, recording incidents. All they can do is take notes and hope that someone, someday, will be held responsible.

The lack of the most basic military equipment has had devastating effects. Without any night-vision goggles, the AU troops are unable to patrol after dark, when most attacks by the Janjaweed take place.

And yet even the AU troops, bitterly f referred to as "Keystone Cops" by aid workers in the region, may leave Darfur soon. The Sudanese government vowed to kick them out last month, eventually relenting until the end of the year. Then, so the UN hopes, a force of 20,600 blue helmets will take over.

But the UN resolution has a nasty caveat. The soldiers can enter Sudan only if the government gives its approval. Unsurprisingly, it's not keen. And this resolution, a desperate cry from the world's richest nations for "somebody" to "do something", failed to pass unanimously. China and Russia, wary of getting on the wrong side of an important economic ally, abstained.

President al-Bashir, who came to power following a coup in 1989, has likened any UN force in Darfur to "western colonisation". Last month he even vowed to personally lead the "jihad" against the invading westerners. (His moral outrage at a UN presence in Darfur is diluted somewhat by the 10,000 UN peacekeepers currently in south Sudan - UN vehicles are a common sight in the capital, Khartoum.)

And yet, if UN troops ever do arrive in Darfur (and it is a very big "if"), they will look very similar to the AU soldiers. Despite the tough rhetoric from Bush and Blair, no American or British soldiers will be sent to Darfur. Instead, the force will be made up of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepalis, South Africans and Uruguayans - the normal make-up of UN forces in faraway places.

What they will find in Darfur is no longer the straightforward story of genocide carried out by Arabs against blacks. Following a peace deal signed in May, the conflict has become more bloody and more complicated.

Militants from three major non-Arab African tribes in Darfur, the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa, originally started a rebellion against the Arab-led Sudanese government in 2003, claiming discrimination and lack of resources. Al-Bashir felt unable to turn to the army for help, as many of them came from the same tribes. Instead, he used a proxy force: an Arab militia, known as the Janjaweed.

Khartoum provided military support from the air, bombing villages before the Janjaweed went in to clear up. It was not the rebels themselves who were targeted - it was civilians belonging to the same tribe. Since 2003, more than 85,000 people have been killed, a further 200,000 have died from war-related diseases, and more than two million have been displaced.

But what started as a rebellion by repressed tribes against a brutal regime has swiftly unravelled. Two main rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), began US- and UK-brokered peace talks with the Sudanese government earlier this year. By the time the agreement was in place, the SLA had split in two. One faction, led by Minni Minawi, signed the peace deal. The other refused, as did the JEM. Undeterred, the US and UK announced the partial signing as a step forward for Darfur.

But since May the violence has increased. Not only did Janjaweed attacks on Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps continue, they now had new allies fighting alongside them - Minawi's faction of the SLA helped government forces attack rebel groups who were against the peace agreement.

The main rebels formed an umbrella group, the National Redemption Front (NRF), but according to the UN's envoy to Sudan, Jan Pronk, there are now as many as eight disparate rebel groups active in Darfur.

All of which has made the semantics of how to refer to the Darfur crisis more convoluted. Genocide is an emotive word. It also carries with it a series of international obligations. The United States refused to call the 1994 slaughter in Rwanda "genocide", only going as far as accepting that "acts of genocide" were taking place.

The US has not been so coy this time. They are the only major nation to refer to the crisis in Darfur as "genocide". The United Nations, with Sudanese allies holding vetoes on the Security Council, have stuck to "crimes against humanity" and "war crimes". If the 1948 Genocide Convention were to be followed to the letter, there would be little debate. It defines genocide as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group ..."

Longtime observers of the Khartoum regime point out that it is not the first time the Government of Sudan (GoS) has been accused of genocide. According to Gerard Prunier, author of Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide, "the whole of GoS policy and political philosophy since it came to power in 1989 has kept verging on genocide ..."

One of the main IDP camps in Darfur is called "Rwanda". It is named after the first battalion of AU troops who guarded it. But as the killing continues unabated, it also serves as a reminder of what can happen when mass slaughter is not stopped in its tracks.