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Sudan: Humanitarian Crisis Deepens As Militias Drive Villagers From Homes

  • Charles Recknagel

Aid groups say Sudan faces a humanitarian crisis as fighting in the west of the country continues to displace hundreds of thousands of people. The situation is prompting new world attention to events in the African nation.

Prague, 7 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Armed militiamen have forced over 1 million people from their homes in western Sudan in a little-noticed crisis to which no end appears in sight.

The crisis began a year ago as armed Arab nomads and herders in the western Sudan region of Darfur began launching attacks on indigenous black African villagers.

The raiders -- moving swiftly on horses and camels -- have killed thousands of farmers in a campaign of terror. The attacks include the burning of houses, gang rapes, looting, and abductions and has gone unstopped by the central government in Khartoum.

International aid organizations warn that the crisis could worsen in the weeks ahead as the approaching rainy season might complicate efforts to feed and care for the displaced population. The attacks have sent 100,000 refugees into neighboring Chad in addition to the some 1 million people who have fled to other parts of western Sudan.

George Ngwa of London-based Amnesty International described the violence in Darfur this way: "The situation in Darfur and in the refugee camps across the border in Chad is dire. Despite the signing of a cease-fire agreement on 8 April, Amnesty International continues to receive reports of human rights violations by militia and government forces, including killings and aerial bombings of civilians."

The Sudanese government signed a cease-fire in April with two indigenous rebel groups that took up arms a year ago, complaining that the region's people, especially its black African population, was being marginalized.

The attacks by the Arab militia forces, known locally as the "Janjaweed" -- are reported to have begun in response to the rebellion. The rebel groups say the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum has sponsored the militias by giving them automatic weapons and aerial support.

Khartoum denies the charge and says its troops are trying to end the violence and restore order.

The UN has repeatedly called on the Sudanese government to end the attacks by the Arab militias.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in early April that reports about the extent of the attacks and population displacement in Darfur left him with "a deep sense of foreboding." He spoke as the world in April marked the 10th anniversary of the ethnically motivated genocide in Rwanda that left at least 800,000 people dead.

Annan also said: "Whatever terms [the Sudanese government] uses to describe the situation, the international community cannot stand idle."

U.S. President George W. Bush said in April, "The Sudanese government must immediately stop local militias from committing atrocities against the local population and must provide unrestricted access to humanitarian agencies."

Bush added: "The government of Sudan must not remain complicit in the brutalization of Darfur."

Khartoum has barred international aid groups from working in much of the area for most of the past 12 months.

U.S. officials highlighted Washington's criticism of Khartoum by walking out of a United Nations conference this week where Sudan was elected to a three-year term on the UN Human Rights Commission. A U.S. representative said Sudan's election to the commission by a 54-member council compromised the credibility of UN human rights efforts.

Sudan's representative to the commission accused the United States of "shedding crocodile tears" in criticizing Khartoum over Darfur while "turning a blind eye to atrocities committed by American forces against the innocent civilian population in Iraq."

Washington has long maintained sanctions on Khartoum over charges it supports terrorism. The U.S. faults Khartoum for, among other things, allowing Osama bin Laden to reside in Sudan in the 1990s.

In Darfur, many of the internally displaced are reported to be living in makeshift camps with dwindling provisions.

Amnesty International spokesman Ngwa said local resources are insufficient to cope with such large numbers of destitute people.

"The humanitarian crisis in the region is reaching a critical point,” he said. “There are not enough NGOs and they are not deployed sufficiently widely to assure food and medicine to all those displaced by the war. The situation inside Darfur itself is very troubling because there are over a million people who are internally displaced and they are now gathering around towns with no capacity to attend to their basic needs."

The crisis in Darfur -- in which Arab Muslim militias are attacking black African Muslim villagers -- is separate from Sudan's long-running civil war. That war pits the predominantly Arab and Muslim north against rebels in the predominantly black African and Christian or animist south of the country.

The war in southern Sudan, which began in 1983, has made progress toward a settlement in recent months after causing the death of some 2 million people, mainly from war-induced famine.

Government and southern rebel leaders signed an agreement early this year on sharing national resources -- including oil revenues -- in what is seen as a major step toward a lasting peace arrangement.