- The Washington Times - Monday, May 15, 2006

With the peace agreement signed earlier this month between majorrebel groups and the Sudanese government, there is real hope for Darfur for the first time in the two years of the slow-rolling genocide there. The hope comes not only from the terms of the agreement, but also and chiefly from the fact of agreement. With the deal done in talks in Abuja, Nigeria, thanks to the persistent prodding of Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, the stage has now been set for an international force that can provide the security Darfuris need to rebuild their shattered and burned home.

As in so many international crises, there is a simple version of what has been going on in Darfur as well a complicated version. The simple version begins with the word “genocide” and goes like this: Faced with growing rebel activity in Darfur, an area the size of Texas in western Sudan, the government armed a militia called the Janjaweed that began a campaign of terror against the local population, burning villages, engaging in wholesale killing and rape, poisoning wells and killing livestock, and forcing upwards of 2 million survivors into crowded camps in Darfur and neighboring Chad.

The Janjaweed did their dirty work with the help of the Sudanese military. Helicopters would strafe a village, flushing out residents, whereupon the Janjaweed would move in on camelback and horseback, killing those who fled and looting and torching the village.

The death toll is not known with precision; estimates start at just below 200,000 and range as high as 400,000. More than 2 million people are in camps, where they languish, unable to return to what is left of their villages because of the marauding presence of the Janjaweed. There are innumerable tales of women who ventured out of the camps in search of needed firewood only to be captured and gang-raped by the Janjaweed, who taunted the women that babies conceived of such rapes would be lighter in skin color than their mothers.

The more complex version of the story goes to the question of the rebel forces and the history of tribal conflict in Darfur, including disputes over turf and water resources. The government of Sudan feared that gathering rebel strength would threaten Khartoum’s dictatorial control over Darfur and the country as a whole. Rebel groups in Darfur have attacked the government and civilians sympathetic to Khartoum; in some cases, rebels have sought refuge in and undertaken operations out of camps for civilians.

There is also reason to wonder to what degree the government, having empowered the Janjaweed, still has control over the militias. Meanwhile, in January 2005, a fragile peace agreement finally eased the decade-long conflict in southern Sudan, usually described as a struggle between the Muslim north and the Christian and animist south. Some argue that pressing Khartoum too hard over Darfur might put the north-south agreement at risk. Others from the intelligence community argue that the United States is receiving cooperation from Sudan with regard to al Qaeda; Osama bin Laden was active there prior to relocating to Afghanistan. And to make matters more diplomatically complicated, China has been investing heavily in Sudan’s oil resources.

The term “genocide” itself has also been controversial. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell deployed the term as a description of what was happening in Darfur in 2004, but he proposed no major change in U.S. policy, which raised the question of how seriously one should take the label. A U.N. report last year failed to support a finding of genocide, which further clouded the issue.

As for me, I prefer the basic version of the Darfur story, because it captures the moral issue at hand in a way the complex version does not: The people who are suffering and dying there and have no homes to go back to are the victims of horrendous and massive violations of international humanitarian law, in which the government of Sudan has been fully complicit. You can argue over water rights, but no dispute over water rights justifies killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and driving 2 million people into camps. There are rebels, but the presence of rebels does not permit wholesale targeting of civilians. The peace in the south is important, but the people of Darfur have every bit as much right not to be slaughtered and driven from their homes.

The problem, of course, is that it is difficult to organize an effective response without attending to the complexities. Any time you need the government of Sudan on board, it’s a deal with the devil, but the alternative is a protection mission in Darfur without the consent of Khartoum. That would be OK with me, but if the U.N. Security Council didn’t authorize it (and there is little reason to think it ever would), the term for such an intervention would be “invasion.” What the Abuja agreement does is open the door to a more robust presence of peacekeepers on the ground. Until Darfur gets that, nobody goes home and the killing continues.

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