Darfur and The Devils on Horseback

Only once have I fainted in my life, but last week I nearly did it again.

I read with horror, anger, disbelief and hopelessness reports from an Egyptian journalist friend about the situation in Sudan’s Darfur region.

How could this happen?

Darfur was a proud independent Muslim kingdom for many centuries. It only joined Sudan in 1916. Darfur had many different ethnic tribes inhabiting the rugged mountainous region in Western Sudan.

Since Sudan’s independence in 1954 Sudanese governments have favored Arab tribes for government jobs and ignored much of the resentment and discontent among the black population at large.

Sudanese opposition parties even accused the central governments in Khartoum of deliberately fanning the fires of ethnic conflict and tribalism.

But in February of last year the situation in Darfur turned violent; opposition groups in Darfur took up arms against Sudanese government forces. The Sudanese government retaliated by launching heavy aerial bombardment of the civilian population.

Meanwhile, the local Janjaweed (devils on horseback) militia sided with government forces -” sowing fear, especially among the hapless refugees and displaced black African peoples of Darfur.

Sudanese opposition Umma Party leader and former Sudanese Prime Minister Sadek Al-Mahdi, living now in exile in Egypt, recently visited Darfur. He said he was horrified by the scenes he witnessed of utter destruction and deprivation.

"The government’s reaction to armed resistance was heavy-handed and brutal," he said. "The authorities enlisted the support of the Janjaweed who unleashed a reign of terror on the civilian population of Darfur and who fled the countryside in droves heading towards the outskirts of towns where they congregated in makeshift camps, living under deplorable conditions. Others fled across the border into Chad."

Al-Mahdi explained that the people of Darfur are victims of domestic politics; the former speaker of the Sudanese parliament Hassan Al-Turabi -” now under house arrest by the government – had a large following in Darfur. Many of Al-Turabi’s supporters in Darfur stood by him when he broke ranks with Sudanese current President Omar Hassan Al-Beshir.

Al-Mahdi and other opposition leaders also believe that the Sudanese government grossly mismanaged the crises thinking that the West had sympathized with the southern Sudanese people in their long violent straggle against the central government only because they are predominantly Christian. The government could not foresee that the West would also sympathize with the people of Darfur because the inhabitants of Darfur are overwhelmingly Muslim.

The Sudanese government was partly right : a Muslim -” Muslim conflict in Sudan will not motivate any one to care soon enough. The UN and Western governments did not react until very recently.

Today international humanitarian organizations estimate that some 30,000 villagers from Darfur have been murdered in cold blood by the Janjaweed. Women have been raped, and villages burned.

The United Nations says 1 million people have been forced to flee their homes and an estimated 2.2 million people are in urgent need of food, medicine and shelter.

Where do we go from here?

The Sudanese government and rebel negotiators will hold talks in Nigeria starting August 23. Previous talks to end the 18-month conflict fell apart on July 17 after rebels walked out, accusing the Sudanese government of ignoring existing peace agreements.

A UN resolution has threatened economic and diplomatic action against Sudan if the government doesn’t act within 30 days to rein in the Janjaweed militias. The Sudan’s government must also create safe areas for civilians in Darfur within 30 days.

But what is most needed -” for a long term solution to the problem – is a framework for political reform in Sudan. And this is where Canada can help.

The deplorable security situation in Darfur must be resolved politically and not through military means.

Opposition and government backed militia must disarm. Massive humanitarian aid must be supplied through international aid organizations. Political reform must pursued in parallel.

This includes allowing opposition parties to participate in the country’s political life. The two main opposition groups in Darfur, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) should be allowed to form political parties.

I hope and pray that armed opposition and government backed groups in Darfur will soon be part of Sudan’s history – and yesterday’s nightmare.

Related Link:

Darfur Information