Covering an area of one million square miles, Sudan is the largest country in Africa, located in the northeast just south of Egypt. Around 200 different languages and dialects are used by the 33 million Sudanese people.
Early in 2003, an armed conflict started in Darfur, a very poor region about the size of France in the west of the country. Warfare erupted when the non-Arab African rebel group the Sudanese Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/SLM) later to be joined by the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) attacked the Sudanese government forces and ethnic Arab militia. According to a briefing note from the British Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG), both groups have similar demands: "an end to the region's chronic economic and political marginalisation; and protection for their communities against attacks by armed nomadic groups."
However, as Human Rights Watch (HRW) puts it, "[i]nstead of fighting the rebels, the government forces have waged a systematic campaign against unarmed civilians belonging to the same ethnic groups as the rebel groups mainly the Fur, Masaalit and Zaghawa." An Arab militia known as the Janjaweed (literally "armed horsemen" according to Carroll Bogert in the LOS ANGELES TIMES) have joined forces with the Sudanese government as a counterinsurgency force. Human Rights Watch believes that the Janjaweed focus their attacks on looting, burning, and plundering civilian villages and killing villagers, and that they have complete immunity from government prosecution for criminal acts they may commit.
Various humanitarian groups are focusing on the crisis in Darfur in an attempt to attract international attention and action. Many of these groups have compiled statistics and background information on the situation in western Sudan to help those new to this complicated issue better understand the forces at play. The links provided below will lead you to reports, maps, videos, and more on Darfur.
The aforementioned Humanitarian Policy Group at Britain's independent think-tank Overseas Development Institute (ODI) published Humanitarian issues in Darfur, Sudan in April 2004.
HPG's introduction to the report reads: "Darfur has been described as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. Thousands have died as a direct consequence of violence, and many more as a result of conflict-related disease. This HPG Briefing Note (PDF) draws on a variety of sources and on thematic research by HPG to highlight some of the key issues."
An editorial by Samantha Power and John Prendergast in the June 2, 2004 LOS ANGELES TIMES emphasizes the urgent need for united and sustained international action:
The stakes cannot be overstated. Some 30,000 Darfurians have already been murdered, and nearly 1.5 million have been ethnically cleansed from their villages and farms. Hundreds of thousands have been penned into concentration camps, which are patrolled by government-supported janjaweed militiamen who rape women nightly and murder men who try to leave to gather food for their families. Other displaced people roam the region in search of food and water. Meanwhile, Khartoum has blocked and manipulated international food aid."
The commentary goes on to outline steps that the United States could take to ameliorate the emergency.
Nicholas D. Kristof's opinion column in the NEW YORK TIMES for June 16, 2004, "Dare We Call It Genocide?", suggests that maybe the international community has neglected the crisis in Darfur because "320,000 deaths this year (a best-case projection from the U.S. Agency for International Development) seems like one more boring statistic." He goes on to present the story of one woman whose village was attacked by the Janjaweed militia, noting that it appeared the raiders had a "deliberate strategy to ensure that the village would be forever uninhabitable," poisoning wells, destroying access to water supply, and burning all the homes.
The BBC News Country Profile: Sudan provides a good overview of the country, its leaders, and its media. The page links to BBC coverage of news in the region as well as a Q&A on the Darfur conflict.
Sources: Center for the Advancement of Democratic Awareness in Sudan, Human Rights Watch, Humanitarian Policy Group, International Crisis Group