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Out of the shadows

International | U.S. pressure brings attention to a humanitarian crisis, but can Khartoum be trusted to keep its promises?

Issue: "Kerry picks Edwards as VP," July 17, 2004

Aid groups have call the conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, but it festered for 16 months in the shadows until late last month. That's when Secretary of State Colin Powell visited a camp of 40,000 black Sudanese who survived rapes, village burnings, and wholesale slaughter at the hands of government-backed Arab militias. Stop the attacks, Mr. Powell told Sudanese leaders in Khartoum, or face the prospect of international sanctions.

The week of bare-knuckle diplomatic pressure couldn't have come too soon. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan added his warnings in Sudan, as did members of the U.S. Congress. Their trips prompted vows from Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail that his government would disarm the militias responsible, collectively called the Janjaweed, and send a 6,000-strong security force to keep the peace.

Strong words, but untrustworthy, said Omer Ismail, a Darfur native who now runs a relief group for the region from Washington. The flurried diplomacy was welcome, but it won't nail down a Sudanese government used to buying time through empty promises. "Without heavy scrutiny and continued pressure from the international community, nothing will change," he said.

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The 20-year civil war between Sudan's North and South allowed Khartoum's Islamists to fulfill one goal and attack non-Muslim Christians and animists. In Darfur they're pursuing a second: clearing off blacks, even if they're Muslims, to make way for Sudanese with Arab blood. In response to the two-decade campaign, two rebel groups -- the Justice and Equality Mission and Sudan Liberation Army -- started attacking military sites last year. Since then Janjaweed militias have displaced 1 million black Darfuris, and killed some 30,000.

Now huddled in refugee camps within Darfur and in neighboring Chad, civilian Darfuris are too afraid to return to their charred villages. They've also lost a harvest through the violence, and the United States Agency for International Development says 300,000 face death within nine months from disease and starvation unless urgent relief arrives.

So far Sudanese leaders have lingered over allowing full humanitarian access, requiring visas for aid workers entering the country and then internal travel permits for Darfur. They've also held up relief supplies in customs, and insisted that only Sudanese trucks carry them. Now time is short: As the rainy season begins, most roads into the region will become impassable.

With a genocide in waiting, Mr. Ismail said the first priority is preventing more attacks. Here's where the United States and other countries could step in, by funding enough peacekeepers. The African Union is sending 300 peacekeepers into the region, but it would take 7,000 to 10,000 to patrol an area the size of Texas, he said. Nor should the international community rely on Sudanese government forces, which would likely absorb Janjaweed fighters who could then continue killing in new uniform.

Mr. Ismail also knocks a draft UN Security Council resolution that would begin an arms embargo and travel ban against the Janjaweed, who have no ties outside Sudan. All their resources come from the Sudanese government: "The sanctions are OK, but they're targeted against the wrong people." If adopted, the resolution would give the council 30 days to decide if the sanctions should be extended to other groups.

In the end only a political settlement for Darfur will satisfy its rebel groups, who have long learned to mistrust the central government. After seeing the North and South sign protocols on May 26 that outline a power-sharing agreement between Khartoum and the rebels, they too want a stake in their country's future. Mr. Ismail thinks the United States has done well in leading the world's outcry over Darfur. But the work has only just begun.

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