Saturday, October 22, 2005
Flashing signals that look more and more like Rwanda in 1994, a tragedy that killed upwards to a million people, the problem of Darfur in western Sudan is spinning further and further out of control.
The conflict there, in one of the most inhospitable settings on Earth, involves so far some 2 million people. Nobody knows how many Sudanese have died since it started in 2003, but the toll is in the five-figure range. Nor does anyone know how many people have been displaced from their homes, farms and villages, although that number is in the seven-figure range: camps in Sudan house 1.8 million, another 200,000 Sudanese are in camps in neighboring Chad.
It is no tribute to them for the effort, nor excuse for them, nor criticism, but nations of the African Union have showed themselves so far incapable of dealing with the problems of Darfur. There are currently some 6,000 AU troops -- mostly Nigerians -- in the Darfur area, in principle monitoring a negotiated but, in fact, nonexistent ceasefire. Rebels of the Sudanese Liberation Army, one of the five rebel factions, are attacking, killing and taking hostages from among AU troops now.
The world, in the form of the Africans, and then the United Nations are paying some attention to what is happening, but that attention is proving itself so far to be ineffective.
There are peace talks, in principle under way in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. They involve what are now five rebel groups, the best known being the SLA and the Justice and Equality Movement, the Sudanese government and the militia allegedly supported by it, the so-called janjaweed. They are camel and horseback-mounted marauders, whose specialties are rape and burning villages. The Abuja talks are currently suspended, reportedly because the rebel groups are scrapping among themselves.
The Bush administration has been sporadically vocal on the subject of Darfur, calling it genocide, and has run into Sudan various noteworthies, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick. But the United States doesn't even have an ambassador in Sudan, and it is perfectly clear that this is a situation that has gone beyond any susceptibility to be dealt with by words; threats, cajolery, even tempting offers of aid to various parties to the conflict have had no perceptible effect.
It is easy to argue that Darfur is far away, too complex to grapple with effectively and, basically, of little significance to the United States. That was the same argument employed by Clinton administration and U.N. officials in 1994 as Rwandan Hutu government armed forces and interhamwe militia cut their way through more than 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
President Clinton and other officials from that era continue to wring their hands and ask pardon for having stood by and let the Rwandan slaughter occur in 1994. That conflict, at least, more or less ended. No end is in sight for Darfur. Presumably, when it does end, there will be a certain number of Bush administration officials, hopefully those responsible for the inaction now, doing comparable penance, way too late for the dead Sudanese.
There remains the possibility of doing something about Darfur now, rather than after the death toll piles up even more bodies in the desert.