I’ve been thinking about the conflict in Darfur lately. It’s been a blip on the news radar for a couple of years and yet I still didn’t really know anything about it until doing some research to write this post. Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned.

Darfur is a region covering about the western fifth of Sudan, which is in north eastern Africa (south of Egypt). The region borders Libya, Chad and the Central African Republic (map of Africa). Sudan is Africa’s largest country and its main economic drivers are agriculture and oil. Potable water is in short supply and much of the north is desert.

The current conflict began in February, 2003, between nomadic, Arab gunmen, collectively called the Janjaweed, and non-Arab, mainly agriculturalist peoples. Rebels comprised of non-Arabs had accused the Sudanese government of oppression in favor of Arabs and attacked government installations. The government responded with aerial bombing and attacks using Arab militia, recruited from the Janjaweed (although the government denies any connection to the group). While there is an ethnic dimension to the strife, in that Arabs are pitted against non-Arabs, both groups are comprised of black Muslims. There is also great competition for land and water in the region.

Figures vary but reports are that between 300,000 and 400,000 people have died since 2003, from starvation, disease and violence. Both sides have been accused of human rights violations but the Janjaweed are more heavily armed (and I imagine have a tactical advantage in being mobile to begin with), and seem to have earned the bad guy rep. in the media.

There is controversy over whether to use the term “genocide” to describe this conflict. US officials have called it that, while UN investigators say there was no intent to commit genocide (so, is that “involuntary genocide”?). I wonder what the hesitation to officially use the term is, since clearly an ethnic group is being targeted. Would it trigger some kind of enforcement by peacekeeping troops?

This month, on May 5, the Sudanese government signed an accord with one of the rebel groups calling for the disarmament of the Janjaweed and the absorption of the rebel forces into the army. It was brokered in part by the US Deputy Secretary of State. I do hope this ends the tragedy, but I’m skeptical. The authoritarian government itself has been part of the problem, and continues to put up obstacles to foreign press coverage and arrest staff of relief organizations without charge. Not all the rebel groups were happy about this accord either, and things became more chaotic as they began fighting each other before the pact, in an attempt to gain territory before it was signed. Now these groups are accused of the same crimes against humanity that the Janjaweed have been (razing, killing, looting, raping, etc.). Makes choosing sides a bit harder, doesn’t it? Notice that no matter who the perpetrators are, women and children end up the victims.

So what can be done? It seems we’re stuck between not wanting another Somalia and not wanting another Rwanda. It seems to me that sanctions would just further victimize those we are trying to help. Numerous organizations show up in search results appealing for donations. But with the situation as muddled as it is I wonder what these organizations actually do (and whose agenda they serve).

I just keep thinking of the refrain at the end of Peter Gabriel’s song, Biko:

And the eyes of the world are watching now…

It was about apartheid but there was something powerful about the idea that the simple attention of the world can bring about change.