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Sudan crisis traced to varied cultural roots

Michael Busk | Friday, February 25, 2005

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a two-part series focusing on the background of and possible solutions to the current crisis in Sudan.

The current ethnic cleansing crisis in western Sudan – with two-year death toll estimates in the hundreds of thousands – actually traces back to grains of sand.

In an interview with The Observer, Juan Mendez, special advisor to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan for genocide, said he estimated the recent death toll in the region to be as high as 170,000 and perhaps even higher. Some Darfur experts have estimated the death count to be more than 300,000.

Yet the origin of the situation is not located with any specific ethnic group, but with the Sahara Desert, which began to encroach on Northern Darfur, making water scarcer and increasing inherent tensions between ethnically Arab nomadic herders and African farmers.

As precious resources became harder to find, camel- and horse-riding Arab marauders began to raid African farming communities, stealing crops and cattle, according to the international watchdog organization Human Rights Watch. Despite complaints to political leaders, the black African Darfurians felt the Arab-dominated Khartoum government was deaf to their concerns.

According to Robert Dowd, C.S.C., a political science professor and Africa specialist, tensions gradually became heightened as “black African groups in the Darfur region began to feel that they were being discriminated against and neglected by the government in Khartoum.”

Some of these African Darfurians formed self-defense groups in the 1990s to defend against the Arab bandits, which gradually formed into two large rebel groups.

“These movements began to attack government installations in the area,” Dowd said.

The groups’ ultimate aim was to end the economic marginalization of African Sudanese and to gain some African self-governance in Darfur. Not surprisingly, the Sudanese government grew anxious at the hostility of these groups and in 2003, an armed conflict began between them and government forces.

Since the Khartoum government was also attempting to quell another, even longer-standing uprising in Southern Sudan, they lacked the resources to fully engage on both fronts and accordingly hired and armed a large Arab militia force to combat the Darfurian rebel groups. These militias are known by Darfurians as Janjaweed – literally, “those who attack on horseback.”

Although the Sudanese government has consistently maintained that both its own soldiers and the Janjaweed militias have used exclusively to combat rebel troops, both the Janjaweed and the official Sudanese armed forces have specifically targeted black Darfurian civilians, systematically destroying hundreds of villages, according to Human Rights Watch. Often, the Sudanese air force has attacked villages with bombs or machine guns, after which a joint force of Janjaweed and the Sudanese army kill the remaining Darfurians and raze the village. Moreover, Sudanese soldiers and Janjaweed militias have carried out a systematic campaign of rape throughout Darfur as part their ethnic cleansing. The ultimate goal of this killing and rape has been to eradicate the potential population pool for the rebel groups that oppose the oppressive Khartoum government, Dowd said.

“What we find happening in Darfur amounts to a final solution in the eyes of the government in Khartoum,” Dowd said. “The final solution is the elimination of black Africans in the region.”

This final solution has been in large part effective, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and decimating Darfur’s adult male population. Many of the women left behind without homes and husbands have borne children of rape, furthering the Khartoum government’s goal to ethnically cleanse the Darfur region of non-Arab Africans.

The crisis in Darfur eventually gained some attention in the international community, and the atrocities there were deemed ethnic cleansing by the United Nations in March 2004. The Bush administration went a step further, declaring that genocide had occurred there, sending hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid money and promising to send more.

Although the Khartoum government and Darfurian rebel groups signed a ceasefire in April 2004, it has been largely without effect, as human rights violations have continued on both sides, according to Human Rights Watch. The optimists claiming that violence in the region has been reduced fail to recognize that it has decreased largely because the Sudanese government has been so successful in ridding Darfur of its black African population, according to Human Rights Watch. Most of those who have not been killed have generally fled to neighboring Chad, and nearly all international commentators recognize that the situation in Darfur is far from resolved.

Here at Notre Dame, a group of concerned students has attempted to raise awareness of the crisis in Darfur. In October, they began the Green Ribbon campaign, passing out green ribbons on campus to show solidarity with suffering Darfurians and to protest the atrocities taking place there. Thus far, the group has distributed about 3,000 ribbons, said Stephanie Aberger, one of the Green Ribbon campaign student coordinators.

The group is now in the process of sending a letter to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice requesting that the U.S. government work to effect an immediate arms embargo of Sudan, provide the necessary funds for the fledgling African Union to protect vulnerable Darfurians and to endorse the International Criminal Court to prosecute those Sudanese and Janjaweed leaders who have perpetrated genocide.

The students responsible for the Green Ribbon campaign have also succeed in organizing a large symposium, entirely student-run, on the future of Darfur. The conference, which took place Wednesday, included three primary speakers: John Prendergast, former advisor on Africa to President Clinton, Larry Minear, director of the Humanitarianism and War project at Tufts University, and Francis Deng, research professor of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and the former Sudanese ambassador to the United States. The students who organized the symposium managed to raise over $10,000 through various University grants, Aberger said, and they hope the conference will raise awareness of Darfur and promote creative solutions to the crisis there.