As another wave of ethnic cleansing, rape and killing sweeps Darfur, those following the dramatic events in the Middle East and North Africa should reflect on the fate of six million civilians trapped in Sudan's bloody sideshow.
This might sound familiar: eight years ago, on April 25th 2003, a group of rebels rose up against the corrupt and brutal Arab regime that had oppressed and impoverished them for decades.
The regime in question was Sudan's National Islamic Front (NIF). The rebels attacked a military airfield at El Fasher in Darfur, humiliating the NIF which reacted by systematically slaughtering defenseless civilians, village by village.
The United Nations estimates 300,000 people died as a direct consequence of this act of defiance. According to Human Rights Watch, the NIF government, aided by their proxies, the Janjaweed militia, destroyed ninety per cent of non-Arab villages in Darfur.
However, there was no concerted international response; no jets were dispatched to bomb government tanks and protect civilians. Instead, survivors fled from their ruined homes, salvaging what they could carry, trying to reach refugee camps, where they remain to this day. The UN believes there are still two and a half million displaced Darfuris.
You might not guess it from the lack of media interest, but the violence in Darfur has continued since 2003, and is increasing once more. The NIF has rebranded as the more post-9/11 friendly National Congress Party. However, it is still bombing Darfur's villages, resulting in the displacement of at least 140,000 people since mid-December, according to Sudanese sources.
As recently as April 19th the regime's Antonov planes bombed the village of Um Ajaba near El Daein in Darfur, killing four and wounding fourteen, according to Radio Dabanga. Locals say the latest violence follows days of attacks by government forces. It is part of a pattern pointing to a new regime surge: burning villages systematic rape, and destroying local water sources, all aimed at forcing the local ethnic groups to leave. The government, based in the capital, Khartoum, denies targeting civilians, as it always has, and continues with impunity.
Even the cautious UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that 270,000 more civilians were displaced during 2010, and another 66,000 have fled their homes because of the surge in violence since the beginning of 2011 putting strain on already over-crowed refugee camps.
War has also raged for months in the Jebel Marra region of Darfur, but it takes place in a vacuum. The media cannot get access, the work of humanitarian agencies is restricted and many have been expelled by the regime, and the international monitors stationed there are powerless because they have neither the resources nor the international community's political will behind them. Consequently atrocities go unreported, attacks are not investigated, and victims receive little help.
As long ago as 2006 Oxfam International warned that as much as a third of Darfur, which is an area the size of Texas or France, was 'out of bounds.' In other words, we have no idea what horrors have unfolded there. In the words of a humanitarian worker who insisted on anonymity, 'One day they're going to find mass graves all over this place.'
Waging Peace's March 2011 summary of violent incidents and attacks runs to thirty-five pages.
Even the perennially toothless African Union recently expressed anxiety about the 'absence of security' in Darfur leading to 'a loss of lives and negatively affecting the humanitarian situation.'
The West's inaction on Darfur cannot be dismissed as another manifestation of our double standards. As Darfur has ground on, diplomats from the US, UK and Norway have applied sustained and effective pressure on Khartoum to stop slaughtering the citizens of South Sudan. Their clarity of purpose resulted in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed by Khartoum, enabling a secession referendum last January. Consequently, in July South Sudan will become an independent nation.
It has suited the Khartoum regime that Darfur has remained a sideshow, and it is no coincidence that as the international community has focused on South Sudan, the violence has surged in Darfur. To use the current jargon, the fate of Darfur has been 'de-coupled' from the rest of Sudan. The reason for this is simple: the Western powers had so much invested in making sure the South Sudan referendum passed off successfully, we offered the architects of the bloodshed incentives for good behavior, turning a blind eye to Khartoum's serial breaches of the 2005 deal.
For those who are concerned about the universality of human rights the task now is to ensure that Darfur is not forgotten. Rumors abound on both sides of the Atlantic that Sudan will be removed from the state-sponsor-of-terrorism list as early as this summer, provided Khartoum allows South Sudan its independence.
The Africa Confidential newsletter also reports that diplomats are considering invoking the UN's Chapter 16 to suspend the International Criminal Court's indictment of Sudan's President Bashir for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity: a timely signal to Colonel Gaddafi and the other regional tyrants that they can carry on murdering their own civilians without fear of the consequences.
As they mark the eighth anniversary of this disastrous episode in their history, the people of Darfur must wonder why American's relations with those responsible for their misery are being 'normalized'. Surely they deserve better than this.
Rebecca Tinsley is the founder of Waging Peace (www.WagingPeace.info). Her novel about Darfur, "When The Stars Fall To Earth" is available through online bookstores.
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