Cover Story

Dead ends in Darfur

With Sudan blocking outside intervention, crisis in its western province is in a precarious, and deadly, stalemate

Issue: "Darfur," Nov. 25, 2006

In southern Darfur, it's harvest season. The donkey carts pass on gullied red-clay roads laden with grasses for animal feed, dura to sell in the market, or water cans. In the field women, men, and older children swing machetes or hand-hoes in wide, rhythmic arcs above brittle stalks of sorghum and rows of maize or millet.

In the United States harvest traditionally ushers in a time of thanksgiving. But in Darfur where can one go to find cause for celebration? More than three years after fierce militias known as janjaweed - "armed horsemen"-began raiding villages, raping women, killing children, and torching property, the world is little closer to a lasting solution to what many call the world's worst humanitarian crisis. And while harvests and relative bounty may come, the killings, the raids, and the suffering continue.

New Sereif camp, a compound for internally displaced Darfurians, sits outside South Darfur's capital city of Nyala and houses 31,000 war victims. Like other camps in this province, its white tents fill the horizon in a line broken only by the ubiquitous red sand and scrub. The camp opened two years ago when a nearby camp called Kalma became too overcrowded-with more than 100,000 people.

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On the one hand, New Sereif has encouraging knots of activity: women fetching water, men working in fields, playful children on the run. On the other hand, baking in the noonday heat of Darfur's brittle 110-degree-plus landscape, a visitor finds it easy to visualize the discouraging magnitude of the crisis: In Southern Darfur alone, 400,000 people are displaced and living in camps like New Sereif. A nearly equal number have taken refuge across the border in Chad; and as many or more are in similar-or worse-straits in each of the region's two other provinces, Western and Northern Darfur.

Even in Sudan's southern Nuba Mountains, 200,000 Darfur refugees are reportedly camped. And it is not irregular to see unmarked government cargo jets ferrying war victims out of the province altogether for resettlement: In Omdurman WORLD met Sabri, a 17-year-old from Western Darfur newly removed to the city outside Khartoum after his mother, father, and brothers all were killed by janjaweed last month.

Overall, the UN estimates the number of deaths from starvation, disease, and violence to be as high as 350,000. It reports 2 million displaced since fighting began in February 2003. And despite ample international attention, a forceful UN resolution, and dedicated promotion of peace talks on the part of the United States, Great Britain, and others, the remote region in western Sudan-about the size of France-is caught in a suspended state: War zones regain a degree of stability only to be plunged into militia attacks and the worst kinds of fighting again.

During the week of WORLD's early November visit, eyewitnesses reported militia attacks and fighting about 150 miles north of Nyala. To the east and across the border in Chad, gunmen on horseback killed up to 220 villagers the same week, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

On Nov. 6 militiamen attacked villages southwest of El Fasher in Northern Darfur, burning homes, destroying crops, and stealing animals. "A number of people were wounded," said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric, "and an unknown number of civilians have been displaced as they were forced to flee their villages."

And just when it looked like Southern Darfur might be stable, the Norwegian Refugee Council pulled out of Southern Darfur last week, citing the frequent disruption of its aid work by the government and the inability of troops on the ground to provide security at camps near New Sereif.

October was no different. In the Jabel Moun area of Western Darfur, Arab militias attacked eight villages, killing 63 civilians-including 33 children-on Oct. 29.

African Union troops in Darfur, along with a Finnish adviser who spoke to WORLD, said the government regularly bombed an area along the Chad-Sudan border last month using the army's Antonov planes. But the government denies that it is providing air cover to Arab militias and says it is pledged to disarming the janjaweed, even though a late October deadline for doing so has passed. What's clear is that-despite persistent international pressure on Sudan-Darfur's multiple hardships, like the displaced huddled in its camp, aren't going anywhere soon.

In 2002 rebels organiized here under an umbrella group that became known as the Sudan Liberation Army, or SLA. Traditional battles between Arab nomadic cattleherders and African farmers escalated into full-fledged war over scarce resources like grazing land and water. Rebels also took arms against the government for concentrating its resources in Khartoum and marginalizing Darfur, where electricity, running water, and telephones are nearly nonexistent. The SLA attacked the air base at Nyala and destroyed six Sudanese army helicopters. That led to government support for the janjaweed against the Darfur rebels.

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