Saturday, February 19, 2005


Reality in Darfur


(Seamus Farrow is a UNICEF youth ambassador and is currently on deferral from Yale Law School.)

In recent weeks, we have seen the world unite in the face of one humanitarian catastrophe. But another has slipped quietly off the radar. A new wave of violence is convulsing Darfur. For its victims, there is no relief. Continuing attacks on villages by rebel factions, the Sudanese army and government-backed Arab militias known as Janjaweed, have left more than 70,000 dead and sent 2 million fleeing. Last week, eight villages in south Darfur were burned to the ground. In the north, another was bombed by government aircraft. Half of Darfur's population is homeless, living in 137 swollen refugee camps and countless makeshift settlements.

Both camps and villages are utterly defenseless. It is clear that the international community's current policy on Sudan is not working.

This fall I crossed Darfur as part of a UNICEF team. Plans had to be continually adjusted as outbursts of fighting severed access to refugee camps. Currently, more than half are inaccessible to relief workers. In every camp I reached, women told me of their dread of going out to gather firewood, which they need for cooking and trading. Men who leave the camps are killed. As months pass, women must walk farther and farther to find wood. It is on these missions that they are raped. When I asked who their attackers are, the women answered, variously, "Janjaweed," "Arab soldiers," "men in uniform." They are indistinguishable. Every day the women of Darfur face a terrible dilemma: Who will get the wood?

Fatima is 16, my own age. She described the burning of her village. Janjaweed killed her father and two brothers, she said. They tied her mother's wrists while Fatima was gang-raped. Alone, she walked for weeks across the desert to reach the camp outside of El Geneina where we met. She never saw her mother again. Now Fatima is eight months pregnant. She showed me a blue plastic sheet neatly folded in a Ziplock bag, provided for the birthing of her baby. She whispered that she is taunted by the women around her. In an Islamic culture where the victim of rape is often held culpable, no one welcomes these births. And even Fatima must gather wood. There will be no safety for her or her child....
At African Union headquarters, a sandy barracks at the outskirts of El Fasher, I met with Brig. Gen. Festus Okonkwo, a charismatic and affable Nigerian, who is the commander of the AU cease-fire commission for Sudan. I asked about protection, about the people in the camps. "We do not have the capacity," he told me. With only 790 troops patrolling an area the size of Texas, his forces were overstretched just trying to monitor the cease-fire.

I asked how many troops he would need to protect the refugees. A trace of frustration crossed Okonkwo's face. "Protection is the responsibility of the Sudanese government. We are only to intervene within the resources available to us and the areas we are in," he said, quoting the mandate nearly verbatim. Behind Okonkwo, a large map of Darfur illustrated precisely what he was referring to. Six tiny circles, areas under AU defense, were scrawled with arrows and numbers indicating troop activity. But more notable was the vastness of the unmarked area: no arrows, no AU presence.

Poor, forgotten. Caught up in a squabble that involves oil, religious sects and political strength, and possibly just gangbanging for the fun of it, a mess created and continued by a government that's pretty sure nobody cares enough to make it an international issue.

Don't forget. Don't let these people suffer for realpolitik and corruption. See the sidebar for more information and links.

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