The Common Good
August 2004

Ethnic Cleansing in Sudan

by Elizabeth Palmberg | August 2004

What part of 'never again' do we not understand?

Just as peace is finally within reach in Sudan'

Just as peace is finally within reach in Sudan's bloody North/South civil war, a new threat of ethnic cleansing and mass death is looming elsewhere in Sudan, in the huge western province of Darfur. Government-armed Arab militias known as the Janjaweed, with open support from the Sudanese military, are attacking villages from non-Arab ethnic groups. An estimated 15,000 to 30,000 people have been killed so far; between 1 and 2 million people have been driven from their looted and burned homes. Most of these refugees are in camps inside Darfur, where Janjaweed openly rape women and steal food aid. The government has repeatedly blocked and delayed humanitarian aid efforts, in a policy predicted to kill 350,000 from hunger and disease in the upcoming months. This is deliberate, ethnically targeted genocide by starvation.

As the recent peace deal with Southern rebels proves, U.S. and other international pressure can make Sudan's government do the right thing. The question now is whether we will take the trouble to do so.

Ironically, the gathering crisis in Darfur has gone on simultaneously with this spring's 10-year anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, in which 800,000 Tutsis (and moderate Hutus) died while the world did nothing. The body count isn't that high in Darfur yet, but it's growing. With food stocks burned or looted, the planting season already lost, and the rainy season rendering roads impassible through September, immediate and massive humanitarian aid, as well as disarmament of the Janjaweed, is vital.

Unlike the North-South conflict, in which primarily Christian and animist insurgents faced off against the Muslim government in Khartoum, the ethnic cleansing in Darfur has no religious component; perpetrators and victims are both Muslim. Some Christians in the United States—who pushed hard and successfully for the U.S. government to force Sudan to negotiate with Southern rebels—will be tempted to care less about a group with whom they do not share a common religion.

But for anyone who believes that all humans are made in the image of God, mass murders are not acceptable, period. And the question remains: If this campaign of murder, rape, and looting were happening in Europe rather than Africa, would it not have been front-page news for months now?

THE GOVERNMENT first began arming the Janjaweed in response to a February 2003 insurgency in Darfur by two rebel organizations drawing from three non-Arab ethnic groups. Within months, the militias and government had adopted a scorched-earth policy of attacking not rebel bases, but civilian towns. The attacks escalated sharply in December and continued even after an official ceasefire was signed between the rebels and the government in April.

Instead of enforcing that ceasefire, which promises security for civilians and access for humanitarian workers, the government of Sudan continues to collude with the Janjaweed, to deny that there is a problem, and to use the Southern peace process as leverage to demand that the world ignore atrocities to the west.

President Bush issued a statement about Darfur, a congressional subcommittee held hearings, and a U.S. diplomat walked out of a meeting in which Sudan was, incredibly, elected to a seat on the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. These are good but inadequate steps. The United States should impose immediate new economic sanctions and should send high-level officials to press for justice, and the U.N. Security Council should authorize serious peacekeepers to provide security for civilians and for the humanitarian workers trying to help them. (In June the African Union began to deploy 120 ceasefire monitors—completely inadequate for a region the size of France.)

After horrendous events like Rwanda, the world beats its breast and claims that it will never again allow such a tragedy to occur. Sudan tests not only that resolve, but in a real way our very humanity. Do we turn our heads, once again, from unspeakable horrors because they occur so far away, on a continent that the West routinely treats as unimportant? Or will we stand up and say that those who suffer in Darfur, like all victims of brutality, are our neighbors, and we will not abandon them?

Elizabeth Palmberg is assistant editor of Sojourners.

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