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.
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.
At New Sereif, camp dwellers have had nowhere else to go for more than two years. They have escaped the fighting, at least temporarily, but are fighting for routine. Aid workers have installed boys' and girls' schools in the camp. About 50 eager students, elementary-age girls, cram a one-room school of new brick walls complete with wooden desks, a blackboard, and Arabic texts. The girls are eager to point out a wall poster from which they are learning the English alphabet and to sing a few bars of ABCs.
Elsewhere in the camp residents have found grass or woven reeds to reinforce roofs of plastic sheets initially provided for shelter by groups like UNICEF, World Vision, and Samaritan's Purse, the logos long faded and pieced together against a strong winter wind. Some have built low fences around their shelters out of acacia thorn limbs as a bulwark against blowing debris and the random goat.
Inside the bramble enclosures, a few women are resourceful enough to eke a small yield from kitchen gardens planted in okra, potatoes, onions, and a few greens edible by both family and family goats. These Darfurians are farmers or livestock managers, after all, and they know little else after being deprived of homes and land. Most of the plots have withered into dry stalks now that one rainy season is over and another has not yet begun. But what they are able to produce on their own supplements a daily feeding program currently run by World Vision.
Despite the visible signs of progress, having nowhere to go is just a different way to spell "dead end." A temporary peace agreement signed in May has not stopped the fighting. A strongly worded UN resolution adopted last August and calling for an international peacekeeping force has been steadfastly rejected by Sudan.
If anything, formal diplomatic rifts have widened. A tit-for-tat with U.S. officials beginning in September is preventing most Americans, particularly those involved directly in relief work, from traveling to Darfur.
One aid supervisor for a U.S.-based relief organization told WORLD that personnel from Canada, Ethiopia, Europe, and other countries do travel in and out. "Everyone can travel freely except the Americans," he said, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity surrounding negotiations to get U.S. workers back into Darfur.
Key to those negotiations is State Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Karti. In September Karti sat on the tarmac at Dulles International Airport outside Washington. He had flown into the United States for diplomatic meetings but was detained four hours by Homeland Security officers because his name appeared on a watch list, allegedly for his support of Darfur's janjaweed. U.S. officials that same month slapped travel restrictions on President Omar al-Bashir, for 17 years the leader of Sudan's Islamic republic. Bashir was not allowed to travel more than 25 miles outside New York City while attending the 61st UN General Assembly.
Upon his return to Khartoum, the Sudanese president retaliated, imposing restrictions on all U.S. citizens in Khartoum: no travel more than 25 kilometers outside the capital.
Then, last month Bashir gave UN envoy Jan Pronk-long a fixture in Darfur mediation-72 hours to leave the country after the Dutch diplomat made what the government considered objectionable statements about its role in Darfur on a personal blog. Bashir rebuffed an appeal from Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Pronk's behalf. It was Karti who summoned Pronk to his office Oct. 22 and handed him a letter for Secretary-General Kofi Annan saying the government considered Pronk's mission in Sudan "terminated."
Yet it is Karti who also hosts U.S. visitors to Sudan, seeking to enlist support for better relations. Speaking in Khartoum, Karti dismissed his detention in the United States as "not a big problem" but was critical of U.S. policy toward Sudan-particularly economic sanctions and recent pressure to send UN peacekeepers to Darfur.
"It is not for Condoleezza Rice to tell us what to do," Karti said. "We are suffering because of the portrayal in the media. We made peace and are working together but we receive continued sanctions and pressure builds for intervention."
Karti contends that his government now is working to disarm the Arab militias. For that reason, he said, it may agree to a stronger African Union force (currently about 7,000 African Union soldiers and military police patrol Darfur's three states) but not to the proposed UN force of up to 20,000. That, he said, would amount to unjust and excessive outside intervention.
But with the African Union's mandate in Darfur scheduled to run out at the end of this year and janjaweed attacks continuing, members of the UN Security Council are pressuring Sudan to halt military operations in Darfur and open its doors to a UN force. One reason Karti and other officials are resisting a peacekeeping force, his critics say, is that it might lead to their being cited for war crimes and to calls for an international tribunal.
Perhaps with that in mind, Karti is reaching out to potential allies in the United States, and particularly to American evangelicals. Despite the ban on nearly all U.S. travel to Darfur, the state foreign minister has allowed at least two groups in the past month: one including former Michigan congressman Mark Siljander and former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley, both Republicans.
Sudanese officials gave the private U.S. group a tour of government development projects, even as U.S. aid groups struggle to staff and supply the work in South Darfur's displaced camps. They are desperate to promote development in Nyala-a city whose population has grown from 400,000 in 1993 to 1.8 million-even as life in the camps remains primitive.
Government-supported projects include a newly paved and extended runway at Nyala's airport, newly paved roads, and a gravity-fed water tower with another tower under construction. A hospital recently was completed using funds from the Italian government. But left unanswered: How quickly can an agrarian-based society caught in war and dislocation transition to the kind of forced urbanization brought on by the conflict? And how serious is the Sudanese government about extending the city's progress to its displaced citizens?
"I believe there is a desire to find middle ground," Siljander told WORLD concerning the purpose of his visit to Darfur. "Did the Sudan government arm the janjaweed? Absolutely. No question they did horrific things. But now they realize it got away from them and they have announced that they aim to disarm the janjaweed. If they say they are willing to disarm them and protect workers, then let's come to some agreement."
Both Siljander and Beasley told WORLD they believe lifting U.S. sanctions would "incentivize" Khartoum to resolve the Darfur crisis and to increase economic development in a way that will benefit more Sudanese. "In the past we promised to remove sanctions but we then didn't. Our credibility is important here, too," said Siljander.
Their policy of engagement stands in contrast to the work of other evangelicals and advocacy organizations-groups like the Institute for Religion and Democracy, National Association of Evangelicals, Congressional Black Caucus, Freedom House, and others-who formed alliances and successfully lobbied for punitive measures against Khartoum, leading to passage of the Sudan Peace Act in 2002. The bill streamlined sanctions and a trade embargo but also created incentives that all sides acknowledge led to the 2005 passage of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. That pact ended 21 years of civil war centered largely on religious differences between the Islamic north and Christian south but also encompassing resource issues and ethnic conflicts that mirror the conflict in Darfur.
But the eruption of attacks on civilians in Darfur halted the loosening of sanctions held out as a carrot in the Sudan Peace Act. If anything, sanctions against Sudan are tighter. Hilton Hotels Corp., for example, recently learned that the Treasury Department won't renew its license to operate in Sudan. Despite a 30-year presence operating hotels in Khartoum and Port Sudan, the hotel chain is expected to pull out next year, selling off two premiere properties.
But if continued sanctions hurt U.S. business interests, they haven't put a stop to rapid economic development. A Chinese consortium completed a bridge across the Nile in Khartoum; two more bridges are under construction using German and Turkish contractors. Libya is investing in a new downtown hotel and office space, all part of a master plan for a new and gleaming skyline.
A bustling oil industry to the south-underwritten largely by Beijing-and other interests have led to a Chinese labor force of at least 30,000 living in Khartoum (see related story).
This year Sudan is pumping 500,000 barrels of oil per day; next year it plans to increase output to 1 million barrels per day-about one-tenth of U.S. oil production but easily breaking Sudan into the top 20 oilexporting nations. Two pipelines from central oil fields pump crude to the Red Sea. China is pushing for a third pipeline west to the Mediterranean-a project that could require land clearance to traverse Darfur.
What's tragic is that none of that translates into good news-or even a place to call home-for the 31,000 people existing at New Sereif. If only multinational investment and economic growth could be brokered into peace and a measure of prosperity for Darfur-along with other marginalized parts of Sudan-that would be cause for thanksgiving.