- The Washington Times - Friday, May 28, 2004

WEST DARFUR, Sudan — Village after destroyed village bears witness to the violence that has swept through western Sudan in the past year, and U.S. officials say hundreds of thousands more will die without massive food aid and steps to end the conflict.

One bright spot on the horizon, however, is an agreement reached yesterday for the deployment of international observers to monitor a fragile cease-fire.

African Union Peace and Security Commissioner Said Djinnit said after the deal was sealed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that at least six initial observers from the pan-African body would deploy in Sudan on Wednesday.

Darfur, a Texas-size region of Africa’s largest nation that is home to about 5 million people, has become the scene of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in a remarkably short period, drawing comparisons to the genocide in Rwanda 10 years ago.

The U.S. Agency for International Development says up to 350,000 people could die by the end of the year as the rainy season brings a raft of fatal diseases.

“We are terrified,” said Fatoma Yahir, 30, as she collected grass for sale a few miles across the border in Chad. “There is no safety in all of Sudan.”

Standing amid blackened earthenware pots in what had been a village of straw huts, Mrs. Yahir described how helicopters swooped over her home and armed horsemen drove out its inhabitants, killing three men and stealing 300 cows.

At least 130,000 Sudanese have fled to Chad — Mrs. Yahir among them — and 1 million are internally displaced.

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, has drawn parallels to Rwanda, where nearly 1 million people were slaughtered in 1994 in what has come to be regarded as an unambiguous case of genocide.

“Urgent action is required on several fronts if ‘Darfur 2004’ is not to join ‘Rwanda 1994’ as shorthand for international shame,” the group wrote in a report published Sunday.

The Darfur conflict is separate from the long-running civil war in southern Sudan, and a truce signed this week to end that conflict does not apply to Darfur.

The United States and Libya are discussing possible use of Libya as a transit point for delivering humanitarian aid to western Sudan.

The Bush administration has been undertaking costly airlifts of assistance to the Darfur region and is seeking land routes as an alternative. Libya has a common border with Sudan, as does Chad, with which U.S. officials also have had discussions.

More than 1 million people have been uprooted in Darfur, victims in a 15-month struggle between government-backed Arab militias and regional black tribes.

The conflict turns on a divide that stems from Sudan’s position as a bridge between the Arab-dominated north and the black Africans who live south of the Sahara. Centuries of intermarriage have blurred the physical line between Africans and Arabs in Darfur — their skin color is generally equally dark — and both groups are Muslim.

But Darfurians still see cultural and economic distinctions between Arabs and Africans: The Arabs tend to be nomadic herders, whereas the Africans live in settled villages.

Contending that they had suffered decades of oppression under the Arab-dominated Khartoum government and its Arab allies in Darfur, two groups — the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement — opened a military campaign early last year aimed at forcing the government to negotiate.

Khartoum counterattacked, using its army and an Arab militia known as the “Janjaweed.”

The Janjaweed — an Arabic word describing armed horsemen — remains a shadowy organization, and there are few photos of the militia. Villagers describe the militiamen as Arab nomads in green khaki uniforms like those of the Sudanese army, except for a red patch on the left breast pocket that shows a horse rearing up on its hind legs.

“They look like soldiers,” said Fatima Yagop Idriss, 60, who fled her village three months ago.

Though Khartoum denies having worked with the Janjaweed, peasants speak of close coordination between the two.

Aisha Hamis Hassan, 33, said three army helicopters buzzed over her village one day in February, and she heard the sound of helicopters hovering over other areas some miles away.

The next day, the Janjaweed thundered into her village on horses and camels just before her morning tea, forcing her and her husband to flee with just a few kitchen items.

Other peasants described how the Janjaweed and government pilots used hand signals to communicate during attacks.

In villages toured by The Washington Times, the Janjaweed had left the inhabitants no means of sustenance or shelter, a potentially fatal blow in Darfur’s Saharan climate.

In each case, fighters burned the shoulder-high earthenware urns in which the residents stored millet and sorghum to feed themselves.

In most cases, they also torched the straw fences that protect villages from harsh sand-laden winds, leaving only neat rectangles of ash. Further inside Sudan, according to rebel soldiers, the Janjaweed ignited entire villages.

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