Features

Slave-to-slave peace

Sudan | A North-South peace agreement may or may not hold, but a U.S.-Sudanese group is forging one-to-one truces

Issue: "Bush: Hail to the chief," Jan. 29, 2005

Muslim refugees from Sudan's western Darfur region were stunned when three Sudanese Christians appeared at their tents a little over a month ago. They had traveled all the way from the United States, having fled Sudan in the wake of the South's 20-year civil war with Khartoum. In the fighting they were victims not only of Khartoum soldiers but also of the Darfuris, whom the Islamic government coerced into serving as foot soldiers against rebel and Christian strongholds. Now the southerners had come with medicines and mercy for their old persecutors.

"We went there as a people who have experienced the same thing for 40 years," said James Telar, a member of the Christian contingent. "It is not a new thing to me, but to them it's a new thing."

Mr. Telar's trip with two other Sudanese and an American surgeon to Darfuri refugee camps was the brainchild of the Sudanese Council of Churches USA, an association with 38 congregations from around the country. Moved by the plight of the Darfuris, members met in August to discuss how they could help their fellow countrymen. They launched "Sudan Mercy," a ministry for Darfuris, and decided to dispatch an 11-day exploratory team to Chad, where several refugee camps have sprouted. "We saw the people, in their faces, completely traumatized," said Mr. Telar.

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Darfuris have been victims of an almost two-year ethnic cleansing assault by the Sudanese government and its proxy militias. The violence has displaced 2 million. While it is widely reported that at least 70,000 Darfuris have been killed in the campaign since February 2003, recent mortality estimates show the number may be 400,000-and climbing by 35,000 per month due to disease and displacement. The tactics used by Khartoum's National Islamic Front-violently clearing unwanted tribes off land-are ones Mr. Telar and his churchmen are familiar with. They have long been used against the southern Christian Sudanese.

Since the 1950s, the Sudanese government has employed a policy of "use a slave to kill a slave," recruiting black Muslim Darfuris to fight against southern Christians. "They were recruited in the name of Islam and told that this is a holy war, and you have to fight against the infidels," said Mohamed Adam Yahya, chairman of the Representatives of the Masseleit Community in Exile.

The Massaleits are one of the major African tribes in Darfur, and Mr. Yahya's own father fought in the South. Black Darfuris saw little opportunity for promotion in the military, however, having to defer always to their Arab commanders. If they resisted, they were labeled "opponents against Islam and the law, and sent to jail, tortured, and even killed," Mr. Yahya said.

Such hostility to blacks matured into full-blown war in Darfur two years ago. Government-backed Janjaweed militias have burned villages and killed their inhabitants, raping women and stealing livestock, the lifeblood of Darfuris. Military aircraft have dropped bombs on civilians. Devout Muslim Darfuris, however, did not expect such barbaric treatment from fellow Muslims.

Seeing Mr. Telar's group come to their aid drew swift apologies for past wrongs-especially when the Darfuris had expected other Arab and Muslim countries to arrive first. "We regret that we from western Sudan were the cause of tragedies and atrocities in southern Sudan," the Darfuris told them. "We don't have words to express to you-it is a shame on our faces."

As in the South, the government has launched scattered attacks on local African tribes for years. But when two main Darfuri rebel groups began retaliating against government positions in February 2003, Khartoum's leaders ratcheted up their campaign with pounding intensity. In the arid Darfur desert, their victims had nowhere to hide.

The Khartoum regime's motives in Darfur soon became clear: Its leaders are not only Islamists but Arabists, who believe blacks-even Muslims-are "slaves." Witnesses say it is why Arabs rape women: to impregnate them and so water down the African races.

That is why most close-up observers are doubtful that the peace accord signed by Khartoum and the South's rebel leaders this month will actually take root. While it commits the Islamic government to power- and resource-sharing with the South, many believe it has "highly limited value," said Smith College professor Eric Reeves, and was hastily signed "under diplomatic duress and by way of shifting attention from genocide in Darfur."

"The international community must accept that Khartoum has gone this far down the road of negotiations only because it must," said Mr. Reeves, "because of domestic demands for peace, military pressure from the insurgency movements in Darfur, and because of unusually concerted attention to Sudan's civil war" (see sidebar).

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