Some three million Sudanese living in impoverished displacement camps in the country's war-ravaged region of Darfur awoke on Monday to a stark new reality: Citing a lack of funds, the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) began cutting in half its already-minimal food rations for the beleaguered refugees.
While some refugees 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?"
Since 2003, the suffering in Darfur has escalated into a calamity that the United Nations has called the world's worst refugee crisis. The Bush administration calls it genocide. Talks between warring factions, along with promises of cease-fires, have borne little fruit in the past.
A new round of talks, which began over the weekend in Nigeria, have also stalled, and the U.S. State Department dispatched its No. 2 official to the meeting to stimulate progress. The 53-nation African Union, which is overseeing the talks, extended the deadline for reaching an agreement to midnight on Tuesday.
The Darfur conflict began three years ago when Sudan's Islamic government in Khartoum launched an ethnic cleansing campaign against non-Arabs in the west. The government backed Arab militias called the Janjaweed, which razed villages, raped women, and plundered livestock. A handful of rebel groups fought back, and
the war has killed at least 300,000 people, while displacing three million more from their homes.
Government leaders at the meeting in Nigeria say they're ready to sign a peace agreement, but rebel groups are balking at the deal's current form. They say the agreement doesn't guarantee autonomy and security for rebel groups, and that it doesn't make provision for a minority vice president, a condition rebels have demanded.
The violence and suffering in Darfur has recently drawn increased international attention, with thousands rallying on the Mall in Washington, D.C., on Sunday to ask the Bush administration to do more to help end the conflict.
Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said that the U.S. 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 the government.)
While the world turns its attention to Sudan's Darfur region, significant conflicts in other parts of the country go unnoticed, according to Sudan expert Eric Reeves. Mr. Reeves says that the Sudanese government is flagrantly violating the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2004, which was designed to end government oppression in southern Sudan, and give the region a share of the country's substantial oil wealth.
International attention to the conflict in the western region Darfur serves as a convenient distraction from injustices in the south, he told WORLD: "It seems that the international community can't walk and chew gum at the same time when it comes to southern and western Sudan."
When it comes to western Sudan, Mr. Reeves isn't optimistic that the government and rebel groups will sign a Darfur peace agreement by midnight tonight. The rebel groups are "basically being asked to trust the Sudanese government," he says, "but they've already seen how untrustworthy the government is."