Cover Story

No way out

Three years and 300,000 deaths later, the world seems no closer to a solution in Sudan. "Haven't the people of Darfur already suffered enough?"

Issue: "No way out," May 13, 2006

It takes nearly four hours to walk the length of the Um Tagouk village in Sudan's western region of Darfur. The sprawling desert community is home to some 65 smaller subvillages, where thousands of Sudanese spend their days searching for water and wondering if they'll face an attack before sundown.

For many residents of Um Tagouk, along with millions more from the Darfur region, vicious attacks are a brutal reality they've already faced. Three years of bloody civil war have escalated into a calamity the United Nations calls the world's worst refugee crisis. The Bush administration calls it genocide. Since 2003, at least 300,000 Sudanese have died from war-related violence, starvation, or disease. At least 3 million more have lost their homes and livelihoods, leaving scores on the brink of starvation.

This month the severe suffering deepened: Citing a lack of funds, the UN World Food Program (WFP) began cutting in half its already-minimal food rations for nearly 3 million Sudanese living in Darfur's impoverished displacement camps. Even before the cut, many of the displaced showed early signs of severe malnutrition: orange hair and wasting.

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While some in the camps manage to supplement their rations with food from other sources, many depend solely on WFP for their nutrition. "This is one of the hardest decisions I have ever made," said program chief James Morris. "Haven't the people of Darfur already suffered enough?"

The war-related suffering in Darfur began three years ago when Sudan's Islamic government, based in Khartoum, launched an ethnic cleansing campaign against non-Arabs in the west. Government-backed Arab militias, called the janjaweed, razed villages, killed residents, raped women, and plundered livestock. A handful of rebel groups fought back, and the ensuing war has left Darfur one of the most dangerous and miserable places in the world.

Talks between warring factions, along with promises of cease-fires, have borne little fruit in the past, but the international community hung its hopes on a new round of peace talks that began earlier this month in Nigeria. The negotiations quickly stalled, and the 53-nation African Union, which has been moderating these and other formal talks for two years, extended the deadline for reaching an agreement.

Sudanese government leaders initially agreed to the peace deal, but rebel groups balked at the agreement's first draft, saying it didn't guarantee autonomy and security for rebel groups, and that it didn't make provision for a minority vice president. Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha abruptly left the meetings and returned to Sudan, frustrated with the rebels' refusal to make a deal.

As talks degenerated, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said it was time for the United States to "shake the trees" and press the two sides for an agreement. Ms. Rice dispatched her deputy, Robert Zoellick, to Nigeria to stimulate progress. Mr. Zoellick, the Bush administration's point man on Sudan policy, met individually with rebel and Sudanese leaders, laboring to construct a new agreement that would appease both sides.

Two days later, rebel groups indicated they would endorse a new proposal drafted by the United States and Britain that would meet more of their conditions and set the stage for a peace accord.

The high-level involvement from the United States is one part of a chorus of international attention recently directed toward the crisis in Darfur. Thousands rallied on the Mall in Washington, D.C., in late April to ask the Bush administration to do more to help end the conflict.

Ms. Rice said that the United States has been "one of the most active states" in working to resolve the fighting, but that it needs more help from the international community, particularly China and Russia. (Both China and Russia have business interests in Sudan, and have frequently defended its government.)

Some fear that even with a peace agreement, enforcing peace in the war-ravaged region will prove a major challenge. The rebel groups are "basically being asked to trust the Sudanese government," Smith College professor and Sudan expert Eric Reeves told WORLD, "but they've already seen how untrustworthy the government is."

The UN Security Council has discussed sending troops to supplement or replace the failed peacekeeping African Union forces in Darfur, but UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told ABC News that it would take at least four to five months to get troops on the ground. He also said the UN will only send troops if the Sudanese government agrees. Meanwhile, UN member countries have expressed reluctance to send troops from their own forces. "It's an uphill, uphill battle," said Mr. Annan.

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