The conflict in Darfur has entered a violent and deadly new phase. Another "scorched earth" policy is being unleashed, reminiscent of the worst waves of government-backed violence that brought the Sudanese region to world attention five years ago and led the US to declare that what was happening there constituted genocide.
Internal reports by humanitarian agencies operating in the region, and seen by The Independent, reveal that the active Sudanese government-backed military phase of the conflict, thought to have ended early in 2005, has resumed, with horrifying consequences.
The brutal new onslaught is centred on western Darfur where clusters of villages have been aerially bombed and, in co-ordinated ground attacks, homes have been looted and burnt to the ground. Hundreds of people are believed to have been killed and tens of thousands forced to flee into neighbouring Chad.
"The tactics are exactly the same as those the government pursued right at the start of this conflict: aerial bombings, followed by sending in the militias to loot, kill and rape," said one source in Sudan. "It is as ruthless as in 2003."
The village of Sileah, with a population of 20,000, is among those attacked. When UN officials reached it last week, they found just 300 people left. "These places had been scorched," said Orla Clinton, a spokeswoman for the UN's humanitarian operations. "People pleaded with us for protection. They feel like it has been five years and nothing has changed for them. They are losing hope in our ability to protect them." The UN team said health clinics, schools, water systems and aid agencies' compounds were looted or destroyed.
In another offensive, five bombs were dropped on the village of Aro Sharow and the nearby village of Korlingo. Shortly afterwards, Sudanese troops raided the villages with Janjaweed Arab militia, burning homes and looting. At the end of last week, helicopter gunships bombarded three villages close to Jebel Moon in an attack that lasted several hours.
Witnesses said girls as young as 10 were mass-raped by government soldiers and militia fighters. Families have also been split up in the chaos and countless children are missing. Of those who have fled to Chad, the internal reports noted, "Most fled with nothing and are sheltering under trees and in dry river beds".
Attacks of the kind now being unleashed have been rare since the start of 2005. "There had been occasional bombing of villages, but rarely so well co-ordinated and on such a large scale affecting so many people as now" said one senior humanitarian official.
Diplomats fear that the Sudanese government, buoyed by the "success" of its attacks in West Darfur, may try to launch fresh bombing raids against other rebel-held areas, such as the mountainous Jebel Marra region. The big worry is that it will intensify its scorched earth tactics in a bid to recover territory it had lost to rebels. "Over the past week, there has been more military build-up in the area: several hundred government army vehicles including tanks have arrived in El Geneina [capital of West Darfur]" the internal reports state.
In the five years since the Darfur conflict began, at least 200,000 people have been killed and 2,400,000 made homeless. Despite attempts by the UN and the African Union to launch a peace initiative, talks have failed to get off the ground.
And despite high-profile campaigning by celebrities including George Clooney, Mia Farrow and Steven Spielberg, the Khartoum government remains impervious to external pressure. The Chinese government, Sudan's biggest trading partner stung by the threat of Olympic boycotts, has recently joined in the criticism.
But Sudan is defying the world, and arrogantly parks its bomber aircraft on the same airstrip the new UN peacekeeping force is using at its West Darfur base. Some of the Sudanese-government Antonov aircraft which bombed villages in West Darfur last week have even been painted white, the same colour as the planes used by the UN and aid agencies for delivering food. "The openness with which the government has carried out the air strikes is worrying," one Sudan-based diplomat said.
The new UN force (Unamid) took over from the underfunded and understaffed African Union mission on1 January this year. The African Union soldiers had struggled to police Darfur, an area twice the size of the UK, with just 7,500 troops. But despite a commitment to sending 26,000 troops and civilian police, Unamid's numbers are barely higher. An Egyptian company is to arrive in South Darfur this week, but the full force is not expected to be fully deployed until 2009. The Sudanese government has tried to block deployment at every turn, vetoing non-African troops, blocking supplies and refusing to provide land for new bases. But Western leaders are also accused of failing to follow their words with actions. "We're in the hands of member states," said a Unamid spokesman, Adrian Edwards. "They need to make good their pledges of support."
It is not just soldiers that Unamid is lacking. The force requires 18 troop-carrying helicopters and six armoured attack helicopters. So far, they have none. Unamid officials say they could have responded to last month's attacks if they had the right equipment.
Darfur is home to the world's largest humanitarian operation but the growing insecurity has also made it one of the world's most dangerous places. The World Food Programme has had 45 trucks hijacked already this year, and now transports about half as much food into Darfur as it normally would.
James Smith, the chief executive of the Aegis Trust said: "Darfur is on the radar, people are talking about it, but they [Western leaders] are just not acting. All this does is give a message to Khartoum that Darfur still isn't a priority to the West."
Bombed, looted – then torched
Pictures show what remains of Abu Surouj. First Sudanese government aircraft dropped bombs on the town, and then government troops and Arab militiamen arrived to loot huts and shops and burn homes to the ground. "The helicopters hit us four times and around 20 bombs were dropped," Malik Mohamed, a resident, told Reuters. Human Rights Watch said that at least 150 died in the assault on Abu Surouj and two neighbouring districts. All are believed to have been civilians.
What is now left is a vivid illustration of the scorched-earth policy being waged by Khartoum in its zeal to clear the area of rebels from the Justice and Equality Movement. Such attacks characterised the early years of the genocide but they have been rare since 2005. Their return marks a bloody new phase in the conflict. Khartoum denies targeting civilians but thousands have fled. The almost total destruction of villages makes it impossible for refugees to return, and international aid workers have been banned from the area.
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