Deborah Scroggins: Beyond Darfur there is the plight of southern Sudan

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"Don't Look Away Now" was the rallying cry at the Day for Darfur events held around the world last month. But the trouble with Sudan – and Darfur is still part of Sudan – is that as soon as you focus on one crisis, another one breaks out somewhere else.

I met my first refugees from Sudan's wars almost 20 years ago. Listening recently to women from Darfur and Chad tell of being raped, of watching their husbands and children being murdered before their eyes, all I could think was how sickeningly familiar their stories were.

Sudan's refugees have been telling the same stories for a long time because their misery stems from the same root: the tactic whereby successive Sudanese governments have armed favored tribes and encouraged them to attack rebellious tribes.

The tactic itself is part of a centuries-old pattern in which the Arabised tribes living near Khartoum along the Nile have dominated and exploited the peoples of the country's periphery, who have in turn periodically risen up in violent revolt. One has only to read General Charles Gordon's diaries to recognise today's Sudan in his 19th-century descriptions of Darfur's piles of skulls.

In Gordon's day, slaves and ivory were the loot. Today the loot is oil, gas, and well-watered land. As the stakes have grown and the weapons improved, the slaughter has intensified. Until two years ago, southern Sudan was the scene of a much longer and even bloodier war than the one in Darfur. About 2 million southerners died in it; an additional 4 million were driven from their homes. After years of negotiation and mighty international pressure, Khartoum and the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) agreed to divide the south's oil wealth between them and to hold nationwide elections in 2009 and a referendum on independence for the south in 2011.

The north-south peace talks were still under way when the Darfur rebellion broke out in 2003. One of the reasons it did is the lesson the Darfur rebels drew from the southern war. This was that only by fighting could they win a bigger share of money and power from the Khartoum elite.

By the time the south signed its agreement with the north on 1 January 2005, the diplomats who had worked so hard to bring it about were in no mood to celebrate. In a predictably murderous response to the Darfur revolt, the government had set mostly Arab militias on civilians from the mostly African tribes accused of sympathising with it. Darfur was ablaze and roughly 200,000 people were dead.

Outraged Western activists launched a campaign to save Darfur. The campaign has become the biggest African cause célèbre since the anti-apartheid campaign of the 1980s. Without the political pressure and media attention that it has garnered, it's doubtful whether the Sudanese government would have allowed relief agencies to mount the massive humanitarian effort that currently keeps some 2.5 million Darfurians alive. It's also doubtful that the UN Security Council would have authorised an additional 19,000 UN peacekeepers to join the 7,000 African Union soldiers on the ground in Darfur next year.

The problem is that, while all eyes have been trained on Darfur, the armed men who thrive on Sudan's conflicts have been setting fires elsewhere. Only a few weeks after the Day for Darfur was over, the SPLM quit the national government over what it said was Khartoum's failure to implement the 2005 peace agreement. Salva Kiir, the president of Sudan's semi-autonomous southern region, had been warning before the walkout that the south's deal with the government was coming undone, and that the country was in danger of reverting to full-scale war.

Southerners complain that the Government has refused to remove troops from the southern oilfields, has missed the deadline to begin a national census leading to the planned elections, and has rejected the ruling of a commission on the fate of oil-rich Abyei. Others say that political figures on all sides are looking for opportunities to avoid a vote that would put their power at risk.

The breakdown of the southern peace agreement almost certainly has doomed whatever hopes were left for the Darfur peace talks scheduled to open tomorrow. Seven of Darfur's rebel groups, including the two largest factions of the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudan Liberation Movement, have pulled out of the talks. Instead, the Darfur rebels have been meeting with the SPLM in the southern capital of Juba. SPLA officials have said they could form an alliance with the Darfurians that would render Sudan "ungovernable". The JEM gave a graphic illustration of the point last week when they attacked an oil field and kidnapped two oil workers.

If war breaks out again in the heavily armed south, there's no telling how much killing could go on or how far it would spread. Perhaps even more important, if the 2009 elections are cancelled, all Sudanese civilians would lose their best chance in decades of reversing the destructive patterns that have doomed the country to endless wars.

By all means, don't look away now from Darfur – but try not to lose sight of the big picture either.

Deborah Scroggins is the author of 'Emma's War' (Harper Collins), which tells the story of a British aid worker who married a southern Sudanese rebel, and is now being made into a film