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.
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).
With UN officials meeting this month to hash out the size and scope of a peacekeeping force for Sudan, the tenuous nature of diplomatic peace makes one-on-one reconciliation more important than ever. Mr. Telar's group visited two camps on an 11-day trip to neighboring Chad, where 200,000 Darfuris have fled for refuge. With little but their clothes, tents, and monthly food rations, the needs are immense. The camps shelter mostly women, children, and the elderly, and malnutrition is rampant. "The problem is just mammoth," said Katie Rhoads, a Kansas City surgeon who traveled with the Sudanese Christians. "Even the UN workers say it's some of the worst refugee situations they've seen."
The most pressing need is winter clothing for the refugees as the desert winter deepens. The Sudanese Council of Churches hopes to raise money for a return to Chad with more formal humanitarian aid and Bibles. About $10,000 for the ministry has been provided by Christ Church in Kansas City, an Episcopalian congregation.
With the government and Janjaweed continuing raids even into refugee camps in Darfur, disrupting the work of the biggest humanitarian groups, the rebels have refused to stop fighting. Prospects for peace are dim, but the meeting between the Sudanese Christians and Darfuri refugees forged a rare moment of reconciliation. "Our last hope is from the South," they told Mr. Telar. These days it also takes a slave to heal a slave.
From prof to prophet of Sudan crisis
Eric Reeves is a one-man army with one mission: He would like to see the murderous government in Khartoum toppled.
The Smith College professor has made himself into a walking encyclopedia on Sudan, probably the most important single human resource for anyone in government or out who wants to understand the country's complexities coming off a 20-year civil war.
Mr. Reeves painstakingly collects reports of militia attacks, tots up civilian mortality figures, and chronicles diplomatic dithering with undiplomatic bluntness. He formulates the data into weekly (and sometimes more frequent) e-mails and a constantly updated website. Such focus is particularly useful now, as a North-South peace accord in Sudan makes it easier than ever to look away from the Islamic government's abuses.
Why would an East Coast Renaissance lit professor depart on such an odyssey? Six years ago, he says, he noticed how little international attention Sudan received despite some of the persistently worst cases of persecution, deprivation, and abuse in the world. A self-described "Russ Feingold Democrat," the 54-year-old said he had always donated to humanitarian efforts, particularly Doctors Without Borders. But Sudan needed more direct intervention, and few were publishing its plight.
On his own time, Mr. Reeves cultivated contacts with UN workers in the field, aid groups, and within the State Department. By synthesizing those reports into regular analysis, he soon became the armchair expert all the salaried experts looked to. "It's become the center of my life," he told WORLD. "Because I'm a one-man band, I do all the administrative work, all the research, all the writing, and I do all my travel arrangements," he said.
Eventually the hobby overtook the day job. Now into his fourth semester of unpaid leave from Smith, Mr. Reeves says he often puts in 60 hours a week researching and reporting, writing editorials, and lecturing on Sudan. The pace took a toll on his family life at first: He says the younger of his two now college-age daughters thought he was rarely around. "Some people would call him absolutely obsessed," said Charles Jacobs, president of the American Anti-Slavery Group. "He's a bulldog, and he doesn't let go."
But the persistence has paid dividends: Mr. Reeves was instrumental in encouraging advocacy groups to push Khartoum to declare a ceasefire with rebels in the South. When ethnic cleansing clearly was underway in the Darfur region, he mobilized facts and figures again, pushing the issue to the forefront at the UN and elsewhere. "He has a strictly pure humanitarian feeling about these people," Mr. Jacobs said. "These are the Jews of our time."
As Mr. Reeves explained in a recent report: "It is immoral for people to die invisibly, victims of deliberately targeted ethnic destruction, without any attempt made to give to these terrible deaths the exceedingly modest dignity of a statistical reckoning."