Tracking Darfur's Descent into Disaster

The United Nations describes the situation facing the refugees in Darfur as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. How did the region become so troubled? Why are prospects of a peaceful solution to civil war and genocide still so grim?

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YDSTIE: The United Nations is describing the situation facing the refugees in Darfur as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, today. For a look at how the crisis developed, here's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:

It's been three years since the main rebel groups in Darfur, the Sudan Liberation Movement, the SLM, and JEM, the Justice and Equality Movement, took up arms against the Sudanese government in the western region of Darfur. The reason for the rebellion, they accused the Arab-dominated Muslim government in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, of deliberately marginalizing the predominately-black Muslim populations of Darfur. And like the Rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army in the south, locked in a bitter civil war with Khartoum, the Darfur rebels claim they were fighting for independence in the west.

But it soon became clear that civilians were to be the main casualties in Darfur. After the Sudanese government unleashed its proxy militiamen, known as the Janjaweed, devils on horseback, on the rebels and the people. In 2004, these were some of the harrowing accounts that Darfur refugees gave to NPR reporters, including Jason Beaubien, who spoke with Avan Hassan(ph).

Ms. AVAN HASSAN (Speaking foreign language)

JASON BEAUBIEN, reporting:

The Janjaweed and the government soldiers came to kill all the people of our village, Hassan says. And then they burned the village to the ground. Her husband and three of her nine children, she says, were killed in the attack.

She says she's afraid to return to Darfur. Hassan believes Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, who's Arab, is trying to expel all of the black Africans from Darfur so Sudan can be a purely Arab country.

QUIST-ARCTON: In three years of violence and devastation in Darfur, estimates put the number of civilians killed at anything up to a quarter of a million. Two million more people have been chased from their homes, many of which were destroyed in Darfur. They now live in vast, squalid camps.

Tens of thousands more have become refugees across Sudan's border in neighboring Chad, evidence that the Darfur conflict risks destabilizing the region.

Back in 2004, then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell described the human rights atrocities in Darfur as genocide. But analysts say very little was done at the time by the international community to stop the fighting. In January of that year, a special envoy for the United Nations, Tom Eric Vraalsen, described the plight of the Darfur refugees who had been forced to flee.

Ambassador TOM ERIC VRAALSEN (Special Envoy to Darfur, United Nations): The refugees are virtually on the border, and they are subject to (unintelligible) border raids, looting and so on. So, for their security, we want to move them. It is urgent. It is urgent to get the support. It is urgent for us to be able to buy the food.

QUIST-ARCTON: While humanitarian agencies focused on helping the millions of displaced Darfur civilians, analysts said there was more talk than action by the international community, including the United States.

The Darfur issue has come up again and again at the U.N. Security Council with threats of U.N. sanctions against those deemed to be blocking the peace process, which began two years ago with Darfur peace talks in the Nigerian capital. But the U.S. has been accused of being slow off the mark, despite labeling as genocide the fighting in Darfur.

The last ditch efforts to reach a Darfur peace deal in Nigeria are crucial to avoid all-out war. Alex de Waal of the African Union, who we heard from earlier, gave this warning this week.

Dr. ALEX DE WAAL (Fellow, Global Equity Initiative, Harvard University; Advisor to African Union): The rebel movements have been responsible for many violations of the existing cease-fire attacks on civilians, attacks on each other, and attacks on government forces. So the situation is desperate. But however desperate it is today is nothing compared to the mayhem that is likely to unfold if this peace agreement crashes. Because all sides have rearmed, all sides are ready for a major new round of fighting if the peace process comes to an end and everyone feels that the best option is to go for a military solution.

QUIST-ARCTON: The fear is that thousands more civilians in Darfur could, again, be caught in the crossfire between the rival armed forces if a peace deal fails and fighting escalates in Sudan's volatile western region. And this, despite massive international pressure and a last-minute diplomatic push, including the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, who joined the Darfur mediation efforts this week.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News.

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