FOR MORE THAN 20 YEARS THE Sudanese government attacked non-Muslims in the south, wiping out largely Christian villages and pagan tribes in attempts to Islamicize the country. Now, with a brokered peace agreement between northern officials and southern rebels nearly complete, government-approved militias are raiding the western province of Darfur, killing fellow Muslims in the predominantly Muslim area.
The attacks suggest an attempt at "ethnic cleansing"-Arab Muslims vs. African Muslims.
Fighting in Darfur has hurt about 1 million out of a population of 6 million residents in less than a year. Thousands have died and more than 700,000 have been displaced from their homes since last March, according to United Nations monitors. "The United Nations now regards the worsening situation in Darfur as probably the worst humanitarian crisis in the world at this moment," said Jan Egeland, UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs.
Well-armed Arab militias have attacked villages belonging to three tribes that identify themselves as Muslim but are indigenous black Africans. Seventy thousand refugees from Darfur have already arrived in neighboring Chad, and 300 died in one week at one UN refugee camp.
Darfur's western reaches are remote, and Khartoum has cut access by aid groups and human-rights monitors. It has prevented flights to the region, even limiting the sale of fuel so aid planes cannot reach the area from UN airfields.
Despite the blackout, residents are leaking reports of deaths to Sudanese living abroad. On Jan. 1, according to one document, Arab militias attacked five villages north of the city of Kass, killing 19 civilians ranging in age from a 1-year-old girl named Samia Abdelhameid to a 74-year-old man named Abkaer Hassan Haroun.
"I believe this is an elimination of the black race," one tribal leader told UN monitors. "The government is arming some tribes, just Arabs, they go and kill, take the belongings and rape the women."
Mukesh Kapila, UN humanitarian aid coordinator for Sudan, said the reports suggest ethnic cleansing, and possibly genocide. News of massacres, starvation, and water shortages all suggest subhuman conditions. "Even animals don't live like that," Mr. Kapila said.
While Christian groups and politicians have been at the forefront to condemn atrocities in Sudan, few are speaking out for Darfur. President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell personally intervened for more than two years to bring Sudan's President Omar Bashir into peace negotiations with Sudan People's Liberation Movement head John Garang. Those talks have bogged down for the past year over three contested areas of Sudan claimed by both rebels and the government. Like Darfur, those regions have large Muslim populations who nonetheless align themselves with the self-government aspirations of Sudan's southern Christian minority.
Now, with a final deal nearing, none of the principals want to throw another contested area into the talks. Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Powell have phoned the negotiators over the last month. Mr. Powell phoned Mr. Bashir, Mr. Garang, and Sudan Vice President Ali Osman Taha most recently on Dec. 30-underscoring how crucial signing a peace accord is to the White House.
For Khartoum the stakes are also enormous. Mr. Bashir would like to remove his National Islamic Front government from the U.S. terrorism list. Like Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, President Bashir is seeking brownie points with Washington, offering information on al-Qaeda suspects and promising cooperation in the war on terror. But events in Darfur suggest the government is not ready to give up on its vision for an Arab-dominated Sudan.
Smith College Sudan scholar Eric Reeves said that with killing in Darfur, "it is not possible to rejoice in terms we might have. You would have peace in one part of Sudan but not in this part." Mr. Reeves believes the U.S. focus on the Middle East precludes proper attention to what amounts to ethnic cleansing in Darfur.
But how can even Khartoum's government justify wiping out fellow Muslims? The Khartoum mindset is Islamist, explained Mr. Reeves: "But it is also Islamist as reflected through Arab identity. African Muslims are not as Muslim as Arab Muslims." In the Nile River region, said Mr. Reeves, "it is part of the longstanding quest for the educated Arab Muslim elite to control the fate of the entire country."
That kind of racism is spiking the death rate. "What is so frightening is that there are 6 to 7 million people in Darfur," said Mr. Reeves. "We have seen one-tenth of the population displaced in under one year. I don't know anywhere in southern Sudan over two decades where that rate has applied."