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Stuart Price/AMIS/AP

On the edge

Sudan | A return to genocidal killings in Darfur is possible again

Issue: "The waiting game," March 22, 2008

In a crowded hospital along the war-torn border in eastern Chad, 11-year-old Kaltouma shares a grim agony with her 3-year-old sister, Hilam: After the Sudanese government bombed and raided their village in Sudan's western region of Darfur last month, each little girl lost a leg.

Doctors amputated Kaltouma's leg first, removing the ruined limb above the knee. Days later, doctors conceded they couldn't save Hilam's tiny, shrapnel-ridden leg either.

From Hilam's bedside, Ashua Osman Youssouf, the girls' mother, told Reuters news agency that a third daughter was also wounded in the attack, and that their home in Darfur burned as they fled for refuge in neighboring Chad: "I don't know what to do. . . . My children are ill and all I want is for them to be better."

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Anguish and despair aren't new in Darfur, where the world's worst refugee crisis heads into its sixth year. Since 2003, an estimated 300,000 Sudanese have died from war-related violence, starvation, or disease. Another 3 million have fled their homes, and many still languish in refugee camps.

The gruesome conflict began when the Sudanese government, based in Khartoum, launched an ethnic cleansing campaign against non-Arab Sudanese in the western region of Darfur. In mass attacks government-backed militia, known as the janjaweed, burned villages, killed residents, raped women, kidnapped children, and destroyed food supplies; the attacks eventually subsided, leaving devastated refugees struggling to survive.

A fresh wave of government-backed violence in Darfur last month bore an alarming resemblance to the genocidal attacks launched five years ago. The raids left many wondering if the Sudanese government is returning to its most brutal tactics of control, and if the long-promised United Nations (UN) peacekeeping force will ever arrive.

In early February, the janjaweed militia stormed into at least three towns in west Darfur, burning homes and killing residents. Sudanese army aircraft followed, dropping bombs that leveled the towns and surrounding villages.

An estimated 45,000 people fled the attacks, with some 12,000 flowing into neighboring Chad. When aid workers in Darfur reached the town of Silea a week later, its population had shrunk from 25,000 to 200.

Sudanese officials defended the attacks, saying they targeted rebel groups in the area, but residents said rebels fled the towns long before the attacks began.

The tension between rebels and the Sudanese government forms the center of the ongoing conflict in Darfur. Rebel groups have long demanded the Sudanese government more widely distribute its resources within languishing parts of the country. Sudanese officials have resisted the rebels' demands, convinced that the groups want to wrest power from the government.

Meanwhile, a small contingent of 7,000 beleaguered, mostly unarmed African Union (AU) soldiers has failed to enforce stability in the region. Last summer, the UN Security Council approved a hybrid UN-AU peacekeeping force of 26,000 troops and police in Darfur. So far, only 9,000 troops are on the ground.

Sudanese officials, who originally agreed to the peacekeeping force, have resisted its establishment by blocking some troops from entering the region and by insisting that the force be predominantly African troops.

Additionally, UN officials say that the force lacks much of the training and equipment it needs to expand, including transport helicopters to patrol a vast region with no roads.

Earlier this month, Richard Williamson, the newly appointed special US envoy to Sudan, expressed frustration at the delay and insisted it's time to stop making excuses. "Given the humanitarian suffering, given the instability and violence that's going on, it's way past time for talk," he said. "We have to take action, including accelerating deployment of Unamid troops on the ground."

To that end, Williamson announced the formation of "friends of Unamid," a group of nations that will work to provide training and equipment for the peacekeeping force. But Williamson also insisted that more peacekeeping troops could be deployed immediately, with or without additional helicopters. "Our job is to overcome challenges, some of which are artificial, some of which are legitimate," he said.

Overcoming challenges won't be easy, according to former UN Ambassador John Bolton, especially without the cooperation of the Sudanese government. "Basically the government of Sudan really has never wanted and still doesn't want a real UN peacekeeping force in Darfur," Bolton told WORLD.

He added that the mixture of African and UN troops in the peacekeeping force could present "a real prescription for trouble." "You have potentially very unclear lines of command and control, and when you get in a situation like that you always have the risk of the kind of debacle we had in Somalia in 1993," he said.

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