In the Darfur region of western Sudan, militias have targeted civilians in attacks the United Nations warns could rival the 1994 genocide in Rwanda in which more than 800,000 people died.
The killings of mostly black African Muslims have been blamed on an Arab militia known as the Janjaweed. Like their victims, the Janjaweed are Muslim, but are accused of ethnic atrocities, including burning and destroying villages in parts of Darfur and of slaughtering men, women and children.
Human rights groups and refugees also accuse the militia of mass rape, characterizing the situation as ethnic cleansing and genocide.
International leaders and aid agencies have accused the Sudanese government, led by President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, of arming and supporting the Janjaweed.
“The government of Sudan is responsible for ‘ethnic cleansing’ and crimes against humanity in Darfur, one of the world’s poorest and most inaccessible regions,” a 2004 Human Rights Watch report said. “The Sudanese government and the Arab ‘Janjaweed’ militias it arms and supports have committed numerous attacks on the civilian populations of the African Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups.”
Sudan’s government denies the charges and has promised to disarm its militias, though reports from aid groups in the region say widespread attacks continue.
The conflict in Darfur dates back to early 2003 when black Africans from Darfur rebelled against the country’s Arab Muslim leadership demanding improved infrastructure in the region, proceeds from oil wealth and a power-sharing government. The Sudanese government retaliated by sending in government forces to quell the rebellion. The government also reportedly organized and supplied the Janjaweed militia to combat the rebels.
The main rebel groups involved in the conflict are the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement, or SLA/M, and the Justice and Equality Movement, or JEM. Both groups have demanded equal representation in the government and an end to the economic disparity between black Africans and Arabs in Sudan.
The violence in the mostly arid desert region has driven millions of Darfur villagers from their homes. Most are in disease riddled refugee camps in Darfur while some have fled to crowded camps in neighboring Chad.
The U.S. Agency for International Development has characterized the crisis in Darfur as the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.”
Few aid agencies have been able to penetrate the region because of the violence. Those that have gained access report alarming scenes of starvation, disease and mass killings.
In July 2007, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution to send a joint United Nations/African Union peacekeeping force, known as UNAMID, to the troubled Darfur region. Although the force is authorized at 26,000 members, less than 10,000 had been deployed as of June 2008.
According to Jan Eliasson, former U.N. special envoy to Darfur, a combination of factors was contributing to the slow deployment, including reluctance from the international community to send equipment and from the Sudanese government to accept peacekeepers from certain countries, along with logistical problems such as a lack of roads, lodging and water.
Joint AU-U.N. Special Representative for Darfur and UNAMID chief Rodolphe Adada wrote in a June 25, 2008, op-ed column in The Wall Street Journal that the mission faces a daunting task of trying to keep a peace that doesn’t exist” in light of splintered rebel groups and stalled negotiations.
Nonetheless, Adada wrote that the peacekeeping force — though small — is still managing to conduct daily patrols across Darfur, which is the size of Texas. “Our peacekeepers intervene on a daily basis across the length and breadth of Darfur to calm tensions arising from cattle losses, water distribution and land ownership — issues at the heart of the conflict,” he said.
Meanwhile, a growing number of world leaders are pressing the Sudanese government to improve access to the region, allow peacekeepers and disarm the Janjaweed militia. President Bush has called the situation a “genocide” and said the “world has a responsibility to help put an end to it.”
Under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide signed by members of the U.N. General Assembly in 1948, member countries, including the United States, are required to intervene when genocide occurs.