Sudan's Darfur Is Home to Tragedy, Optimism

The conflict in Sudan's western region of Darfur has raged for four years. More than 200,000 people have been killed, and more than two million have been driven from their homes. But there are optimists in the midst of the tragedy.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

After four years, there is no sign of a permanent peace in Darfur, Sudan. But there is a kind of optimism there that defies the headlines and the militias and even reason.

NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports.

GWEN THOMPKINS: At first sight, Darfur looks about as worn and shapeless as an old moth-eaten sweater. The desert stretches in every direction - sand, sand, and more sand, the dull golden brown of a lion's face, and little trees stand in places where water once flowed as reminders that one day it just might rain again in Darfur.

(Soundbite of crowd)

THOMPKINS: Fatma Azzam Mohammed(ph) doesn't know how old she is but she knows that she's old enough to have raised 10 children and buried five of them, and a husband. The fighting between black rebel forces and the government-backed Janjaweed militia has put her in the middle of the Kassab camp for internally displaced people in Northern Darfur.

Ms. FATMA AZZAM MOHAMMED: (Through translator) The Janjaweed is the one that killed my children. They killed them one by one. When they come, my children tried to run but (unintelligible) they used to kill them. Yeah. My children have just been killed. Just been killed one by one. Not at the same time.

THOMPKINS: Mohammed lives at Kassab with about 24,000 other displaced people who have similar stories to tell. She says that when there is peace in the region, she will return to her village and start again. But when asked whether she thinks there'll be peace in Darfur, she smiles the way a young girl with a secret would smile and says...

Ms. MOHAMMED: (Through translator) I think God is great. God is great. The peace will come.

THOMPKINS: So far only one rebel group has signed the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement, and the fellow who signed has been trying to change it ever since. Rebel armies fighting government-sponsored Arab militias have splintered into any number of fighting forces. And even Arab militias are reportedly fighting among themselves. That leaves 200,000 people dead and two million people in the camps with two million sad stories to tell.

(Soundbite of children playing)

THOMPKINS: But that doesn't mean every day in Darfur is a bad day. On Thursday, when the new chief of the United Nations World Food Program visited the camp, the women ululated until they couldn't ululate any more. They seemed flattered that company had come to see them, and they shook hands and hugged Josette Sheeran as if she were a long-lost sister. For a moment, there was music and laughter in everyone's face.

Mr. PABLO RECALDE (Director, World Food Program, Western Darfur): It's very deceiving, because it changes within a moment.

THOMPKINS: Pablo Recalde heads the World Food Program's operation in Western Darfur, where the camps for the internally displaced are filled to capacity and more are coming. He says don't be fooled by relative calm in the camps. Instability on the border with Chad has fanned more violence, endangering residents and aide workers. Carjackings have been frequent, disruptive and downright scary.

Mr. RECALDE: I sleep with my radio and it's always there and I'm always dreading to hear the panic button. It gives you a stomach ache. It gives you migraines. It gives you insomnia. It basically provides you with all that - you know, those elements. And that is living with fear. That's what it does to you.

THOMPKINS: Bur Recalde and other aide workers from a variety of organizations here say they can't afford to dwell in the politics of the region, beyond knowing who controls the next road or the next checkpoint. The rest they leave in the hands of others.

Mr. RECALDE: I'm an eternal optimist. I will always be an optimist. We have always won, optimists, no matter what. But I think that we can certainly, certainly think eventually one day that Darfur is going to get out of its war, that Darfur is going to go forward.

THOMPKINS: In the meantime, people are doing what they always do - cooking, washing, and hanging out clothes to dry, scrounging for wood, pumping their plastic jerry cans full of water and raising children.

Perhaps that's the only great thing about the camps. There are a lot of children here. One day they may live to see a different life. But on this recent afternoon, most of them seem satisfied to know that their names would be on a tape that would be heard around the world - little reminders that one day peace might just reign again in Darfur.

Ms. FATMA NUSOV BRAGADIZA(ph): (Speaking foreign language)

THOMPKINS: And what's your name?

Ms. BRAGADIZA: Fatma Nusov Bragadiza.

THOMPKINS: And what's your name?

Mr. SHIAYA YUKEL ZAFATI(ph): Shiaya Yukel Zafati.

THOMPKINS: Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, the Kassab camp of Darfur.

INSKEEP: And you can explore the roots of the conflict at npr.org.

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Scarce Resources, Ethnic Strife Fuel Darfur Conflict

An African Union soldier patrols a camp for the internally displaced in the war-torn western region i i

An African Union soldier patrols a camp for the internally displaced in the war-torn western region of Darfur, Sudan, June 2006. The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution in August to replace the A.U. forces with more than 20,000 U.N. troops, but Sudan's president opposes the move. Charles Onians/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Charles Onians/AFP/Getty Images
An African Union soldier patrols a camp for the internally displaced in the war-torn western region

An African Union soldier patrols a camp for the internally displaced in the war-torn western region of Darfur, Sudan, June 2006. The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution in August to replace the A.U. forces with more than 20,000 U.N. troops, but Sudan's president opposes the move.

Charles Onians/AFP/Getty Images
Darfur map i i

Darfur, a region in western Sudan, borders the Central African Republic, Libya and Chad. Darfur is the site of an ongoing, Muslim-on-Muslim conflict between black African tribes and Arab-speaking populations. Many of those displaced by the fighting have fled across the border to refugee camps in Chad. Melody Kokoszka, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Melody Kokoszka, NPR
Darfur map

Darfur, a region in western Sudan, borders the Central African Republic, Libya and Chad. Darfur is the site of an ongoing, Muslim-on-Muslim conflict between black African tribes and Arab-speaking populations. Many of those displaced by the fighting have fled across the border to refugee camps in Chad.

Melody Kokoszka, NPR

About the Author

Before joining NPR's foreign desk as an editor in 2001, Didrik Schanche was a newspaper and wire service reporter. From 1987-94, she was The Associated Press' East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Rebels from the Sudanese Liberation Army

Rebels from the Sudanese Liberation Army play cards in a house in a deserted village in northern Darfur, May 2006. This branch of the SLA refused to sign the peace deal concluded in May between Sudan's government and another SLA faction, led by Minni Minnawi. Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images

The deadly conflict in Darfur has deep roots in a vast, arid and long-neglected region in Sudan's west, where battles over water and grazing rights stretch back generations.

The demographic shift that plays out across Africa's north helps feed the conflict. Darfur is on the leading edge of the continental demographic divide, where sub-Saharan black Africa melds with Arabic-speaking populations. And in this Muslim-on-Muslim battle in Darfur, it is the civilians who suffer.

The current hostilities erupted in early 2003, when two rebel groups - The Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) - attacked government targets, claiming that the predominantly African region was being neglected by the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum. The rebel movements - from different ideological backgrounds - cooperated in their fight against the government.

But during peace talks in 2006, the rebels went their separate ways. The SLA, led by Minni Minnawi, signed the accord, while the JEM, led by Mohammed Tugod, did not. Since then, the insurgents have splintered and there are now more than 20 offshoots of these groups.

Long-Standing Ethnic Tensions

Tension between the region's African farmers and Arab pastoralists has existed for decades. Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmentalist and winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, described the roots of the conflict.

"To outsiders, the conflict is seen as tribal warfare. At its roots, though, it is a struggle over controlling an environment that can no longer support all the people who must live on it," she said in an interview with The Washington Post.

A sense of inequity was exacerbated by years of official Sudanese government support for groups in the region who identified themselves as Arab. An administrative reorganization in 1994 divided the vast territory into three regions and put Arabs in positions of power.

The black African tribes - the Fur, Zagawa and Masalit - found themselves increasingly marginalized. People in Darfur refer to themselves as "black," and many Darfuris say that the dispute with the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum is ethnically based. Droughts and diminishing resources ignited regular communal hostilities, which came to a head with the rebel assaults in 2003.

A Scorched-Earth Response

The government responded with a scorched-earth campaign against the rebels and the tribes they came from. The Sudanese government used aerial bombardments, while government-backed Janjaweed militia attacked civilians on the ground. Janjaweed come from Arabic-speaking pastoralist communities. They herd camels in northern Darfur and cattle in southern Darfur.

The attacks razed villages, resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands - most as the result of disease and starvation - and displaced millions of people, many of whom fled across the border to refugee camps in Chad. The Janjaweed have been accused of the systematic rape and ethnic cleansing of Darfur's black residents. Sudan's government denies it supports the militia.

Shaky Peace Deals Fail to Stem Violence

The African Union brokered a shaky truce between the government and the rebels in May 2004 and sent a small force of military observers to monitor the pact. But violence continued. Citing a "consistent and widespread" pattern of atrocities, the United States in September 2004 accused Sudan's government and Janjaweed militia of genocide.

The African Union troops were bulked up to a force that eventually numbered 7,000. But the soldiers were badly outnumbered and outgunned. Funding problems mean they often went weeks without pay. Their weak mandate, combined with poor resources and insufficient numbers to patrol a region the size of France, left them incapable of halting abuses.

Fighting escalated as rebel factions splintered and new insurgent groups were formed. Civilians continued to suffer attacks from insurgents, government forces and Janjaweed militia.

In June 2007, Sudan bowed to international pressure and agreed to a detailed plan by the African Union and the United Nations to send a joint peacekeeping force of nearly 26,000 troops to Darfur. But by late 2007, that force still had not been assembled — due in part to the logistics involved in assembling such a force and also, say some, on bureaucratic roadblocks thrown up by Sudan's government.

In September, 10 African Union troops were killed when rebels overran their camp.

In a renewed effort to forge peace in Darfur, Libya invited all parties to the conflict to African Union-United Nations mediated talks in Sirte, Libya, at the end of October. But those talks foundered over the absence of the key rebel leaders, the SLA's Abdul Wahid Mohammed el-Nur and the Islamic Justice and Equality Movement's Khalil Ibrahim.

Aid Efforts Snarled by Ongoing Violence

Throughout this conflict, international aid groups have worked to care for Darfur's victims. But continuing attacks have made their jobs increasingly difficult. More than a dozen employees of international aid organizations have been killed in the violence. The lack of security has forced many relief organizations out of the region altogether, and limited access for those that have stayed.

One of the most difficult things about providing assistance to the people of Darfur is just getting there. Darfur sits in the middle of the continent, just below the Sahara Desert. Ships carrying food aid for Darfur are docking at ports on three sides of the continent, in Cameroon on the Atlantic, in Libya on the Mediterranean and to the east at Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

Once the food gets to Africa, it has to be trucked over land in all-terrain vehicles to refugee camps in Chad and Sudan. During the rainy seasons, the land becomes impassable.

The U.S. government remains one of the biggest donors of humanitarian aid to Darfur.

Bush Administration's Response to Darfur

The Bush White House became the first and only government to label the conflict in Darfur as genocide in September 2006 when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "We concluded — I concluded — that genocide has been committed in Darfur and that the government of Sudan and Janjaweed bear responsibility and genocide may still be occurring," he said.

President Bush named former USAID administrator Andrew Natsios as special envoy to Sudan, in an effort to get greater weight behind an international peacekeeping force and maintain momentum on peace mediation efforts. However, the situation is little changed. Civilians continue to be killed and uprooted in violence that has only escalated with time. And those committing the violence remain largely unpunished.

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