TOPICS > Politics

Crisis in Sudan

June 24, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It’s been described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and threatening to get worse.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan warned of genocide on the order of the massacres in Rwanda a decade ago.

An estimated ten thousand people have been killed and more than a million driven from their homes in a brutal 16-month conflict in the region of Darfur in western Sudan.

About 5 million people or one-sixth of Sudan ‘s population lives in an area the size of Texas.

Arab militias — known as the Janjaweed, reportedly linked to the Sudanese government — have attacked dozens of villages killing black African farmers, burning their homes and stealing their land.

The native tribesmen of Darfur had demanded a greater share of Sudan ‘s wealth.

The State Department calls the violence ethnic cleansing, and some villagers in Darfur seem to agree.

AHMED ADAM MOHAMED, Refugee (translated): The militia, they take our children, burn our houses. They’re killing us because we are black.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Among those who have taken refuge in camps on the border with Chad are women have been raped, families whose homes have been looted and young people wounded in the fighting.

In the relative safety of Chad ‘s refugee camps, the day usually begins around 5 am. Women like Jamila Numere start a daunting pursuit of life’s most basic needs. Water comes from a hastily dug, shallow well…

Miserable as life seems for refugees like Jamila Numere, she’s among the more fortunate who’ve managed to escape. She walked for four days to reach this camp with her mother, sister and two young sons.

JAMILA NUMERE (translated): I was with my husband at home and then when the planes started to bomb, he just disappeared. In the panic, we just ran, you know, in every direction and I haven’t heard news from him since then. I think that either he’s dead or he was arrested and taken to jail or kidnapped. He was a teacher.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The government in Khartoum — which has denied any involvement with the militia — has drawn widespread international condemnation for human rights abuses and for not allowing relief agencies into Darfur .

Some relief is beginning to trickle in, despite attacks on aid vehicles and efforts by the Sudan government to delay shipments of food.

The head of the World Food Program toured several hard hit areas last month — and said an additional $140 million in aid is needed to prevent thousands from starving.

JAMES MORRIS, WFP, Executive Director: People are severely at risk without nutrition, have health problems, are away from their livelihoods.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But complicating matters is Sudan ‘s long-standing civil war. Two million people have lost their lives in Africa ‘s longest — and some say bloodiest — conflict. For 21 years, the Islamic government in the North has battled rebel factions in the mostly Christian South over control of the country’s oil reserves.

The United States and other countries were instrumental in brokering a ceasefire that was signed in April, but the ceasefire agreement does not cover the conflict in Darfur.

RAY SUAREZ: For more we go to Andrew Natsios, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and Jennifer Leaning, a professor of international health at Harvard University and a board member of Physicians for Human Rights. She recently spent two weeks in the refugee camps along the Chad-Sudan border.

And Dr. Leaning, maybe we could start with an update from that border. What are conditions like for people who have been dislocated in the Darfur region?

JENNIFER LEANING: They are pretty grim. There are about 200,000 refugees who have come over in the last several months from the conflict in Darfur. They are scattered along a vast border that is very isolated and hard to reach.

UNHCR is trying to move people from the border into camps where they can begin to give them access to food and water. They accomplished that for about 100,000 of them. There are probably 100,000 still out there.

The rainy season is coming up from the south to the north, and an increasing number of these people are getting cut off because the few roads that are there have been completely swamped by the floods of the rains. And the humanitarian community is struggling, but needs a lot more manpower, a lot more infrastructure, and a lot more money to meet the needs of the people over the next several months.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the people in this case, instead of looking to their government for help, appear to be convinced that their own government is responsible for their plight?

JENNIFER LEANING: That’s exactly the case. They are very clear. As you talk to refugees as we did — my colleague and I spent ten days in the region talking to refugees up and down this border area and to the humanitarians trying to take care of them.

The stories are pretty consistent, that a linkage of the Janjaweed militia, who are labeled Arab, and the government of Sudan , is always part of the story. They come in the early morning, surround the villages, systematically go from one end of the village to the other, drive out the men and kill them if they resist, rape the women if they find them, burn down the houses, burn the grain stores, uproot the trees, poison the wells by dropping animals down them, and essentially create a scorched earth and killing field that is driving the people that are nearer the border with Chad into Chad. And if people are too far to flee to the border, too inferior Darfur, they go into towns and enclaves within Darfur where we’re hearing about how dire the conditions are in terms of their desperate circumstance.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew Natsios, the government of Sudan and Khartoum insists that it doesn’t support the marauders, doesn’t support these militia groups that are dislocating people from their homes. What’s the position of the United States Government?

ANDREW NATSIOS: Utter nonsense. They organized them, because when they sent the regular military in to battle the militias last year, the rebel groups last year, they lost most of the battles and the military would not fight in Darfur.

So in order to turn back the rebel forces, they armed these Arab militias on horseback, the Janjaweed. And instead of just battling the rebels, they have had this scorched earth policy.

Two months ago we asked NASA to take aerial photographs of the villages that we’re getting reports from the ground had been destroyed. We’ve now photographed 576 villages — 300 don’t exist anymore. They have been destroyed completely and there are no people in them at all. All the animals are gone, in fact, almost all the shrubbery has been destroyed as well — 76 are partially destroyed.

It’s very interesting, and in the middle of the destruction there are villages that are completely functional, people are working in them, nothing has been touched in the photographs that we’re receiving right now. In fact, some of them are on the air now. If you look at them, we’ve got several that will actually show you what’s going on on the ground. Those villages that have been destroyed are either Fur, Masalit or Zaghawa; three African tribes in Darfur.

By the way, they are all Muslim. There are no Christians or animists in Darfur. The Arab villages are untouched, so this is clearly and indisputably from our own research and U.N. research an ethnic cleansing campaign, at a minimum, at a minimum.

The atrocities that have been going on we’ve recorded in our reports, the Physicians for Human Rights have recorded, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has recorded. We have a DART team out there — Disastrous Assistance Response Team. We’ve been interviewing people in the villages, and the atrocities which Dr. Leaning just described are exactly the same reports that we’re getting.

RAY SUAREZ: By referring to it as ethnic cleansing, and there’s been widespread condemnation around the world of what’s going on in Darfur, a lot of people have been careful not to use the word genocide. Why?

ANDREW NATSIOS: Well, there is an international convention from 1948 on genocide, and what it means or does not mean is something that experts have to review. And in fact, there is a review going on right now of whether or not, from the U.S. government’s perspective, this is taking place or not. The review is not completed, but it is taking place at a very high level.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Leaning, does it meet your definition?

JENNIFER LEANING: We struggled with this as an organization, as a board, and as team members going out to look at what we could find. And we think that people of goodwill who have their eyes open are all acknowledging that this is a targeted, systematic, mass killing of an identifiable group.

What we have concluded based on looking at a lot of evidence from other excellent groups, including U.S. government, and from our own survivor testimonies that we got in the field, we’ve concluded that we should call this an unfolding genocide, that if we look at the terms of the convention it includes, as the definition, the attempt to destroy in whole or in part a people on the basis of, and there are four categories of basis.

The non-Arab Darfurians are very distinct in terms of their language, their lifestyle, their culture from the Arab populations that are attacking them. And everything we can see in terms of destruction of life and livelihood and claims to the land and capacity to stay there, and attempts to drive them thoroughly from the region, would suggest that we are looking at a genocide in action, and that we think it’s important to try to operationalize the term of genocide.

It’s an extraordinarily weighty and important legal term. We think it’s important to try to operationalize it in an early warning mode so that there is an alert that goes out to the great powers to say, do something, intervene, and bring this to a stop, which basically requires a fair amount of pressure on the government of Sudan .

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew Natsios, however the internal review comes out on the legal definition of genocide, are you, in effect, working against the government in Khartoum to bring aid to the people of Darfur?

ANDREW NATSIOS: In March of this year, several months ago, President Bush sent Jack Danforth and I to the Nabacha (ph) peace talks. And while Sen. Danforth was there on the North-South agreement, he sent, President Bush, sent me to deliver the message that there will be no peace dividend, and there will be no normalization of relations with the Sudanese government while these atrocities are continuing in Darfur and while there is a stonewalling of the effort to provide humanitarian assistance and prevent famine.

You see, whether you call it a genocide or not, the issue is that we have not yet lost 300,000 or 400,000 people. We will lose that many people this fall if we do not run this relief effort without any restrictions by the government of Sudan and without Janjaweed attacks, we could have as many as a million people die by the end of this calendar year.

We carefully calculated this using epidemiological data – we’re entering, for example, the meningitis season right now. We just found one instance of polio. We could have a polio epidemic. Malaria will start because of the rains. And there are already epidemics of measles in some of the camps, which will kill a lot of children under five. So the worst is yet to come.

The worst will start in September to December when we’ll have a massive loss of life. What we could do is dramatically drop the number of people who are dying.

President Bush has called President Bashir several times now over the last couple of months, and warned him that there will be no normalization of relations with the Sudanese– which the Sudanese government want very badly with us; they want normal relations with the outside world — while these atrocities continue.

Secretary Powell has spoken to Vice President Taha. I’ve spoken to the foreign minister delivering exactly the same message. We’ve organized with our European allies and with the Japanese and the Canadians an international aid effort. I’m in weekly contact with Jan Egeland, the head of the U.N. OCHA Office.

I just spent a couple of days with Carol Bellamy, the head of UNICEF, and Mark Malloch Brown, the head of UNDP. We need to make this an integrated international effort to stop this tragedy before it gets completely out of hand.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Doctor, Mr. Natsios mentioned Secretary Powell. He announced he’s heading to the region. Does it help your work if more Americans know the name Darfur?

JENNIFER LEANING: Absolutely. It’s splendid that he’s going. It’s a difficult trip. It’s a remote part of Sudan which in itself is, you know, not on the beaten track.

Our hope, in addition to the very symbolic and political power that his presence will bring, our hope is that he will demand, insist upon getting access to populations in Darfur that have not yet been seen. The risk here is that the Sudanese government is going to really block his movement the way it’s trying to block the humanitarians and other senior government officials have gone from the United States.

So one of the hopes we would have is he essentially, that is Secretary of State Powell, is quite vigorous about what he insists upon, and that he says publicly, if in fact he’s disappointed by the cooperation of the government of Sudan , he says publicly that there is ongoing obstruction of his capacity to observe events on the ground. That will be significant.

ANDREW NATSIOS: I will be going with Secretary Powell on the trip, so I will be with him in Darfur, I will be with him in Khartoum . AID has a mission in Khartoum or an office in Khartoum, and one of the most respected relief managers, Kate Farnsworth, is running it. She’s been through this many times before.

And we have a staff of 14 people who have just been deployed out there, and we’re sending more staff in to help organize this relief effort and to get the roadblocks out of the way.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew Natsios, Dr. Leaning, thank you both.

JENNIFER LEANING: Thank you very much.