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The government of Sudan is responsible for “ethnic cleansing” and crimes against humanity in Darfur, one of the world’s poorest and most inaccessible regions, on Sudan’s western border with Chad.  The Sudanese government and the Arab “Janjaweed” militias it arms and supports have committed numerous attacks on the civilian populations of the African Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups.  Government forces oversaw and directly participated in massacres, summary executions of civilians-including women and children—burnings of towns and villages, and the forcible depopulation of wide swathes of land long inhabited by the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa.  The Janjaweed militias, Muslim like the African groups they attack, have destroyed mosques, killed Muslim religious leaders, and desecrated Qorans belonging to their enemies.

The government and its Janjaweed allies have killed thousands of Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa-- often in cold blood, raped women, and destroyed villages, food stocks and other supplies essential to the civilian population.  They have driven more than one million civilians, mostly farmers, into camps and settlements in Darfur where they live on the very edge of survival, hostage to Janjaweed abuses.  More than 110,000 others have fled to neighbouring Chad but the vast majority of war victims remain trapped in Darfur.

This conflict has historical roots but escalated in February 2003, when two rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) drawn from members of the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa ethnic groups, demanded an end to chronic economic marginalization and sought power-sharing within the Arab-ruled Sudanese state. They also sought government action to end the abuses of their rivals, Arab pastoralists who were driven onto African farmlands by drought and desertification—and who had a nomadic tradition of armed militias.

The government has responded to this armed and political threat by targeting the civilian populations from which the rebels were drawn. It brazenly engaged in ethnic manipulation by organizing a military and political partnership with some Arab nomads comprising the Janjaweed; armed, trained, and organized them; and provided effective impunity for all crimes committed.

The government-Janjaweed partnership is characterized by joint attacks on civilians rather than on the rebel forces.   These attacks are carried out by members of the Sudanese military and by Janjaweed wearing uniforms that are virtually indistinguishable from those of the army.

Although Janjaweed always outnumber regular soldiers, during attacks the government forces usually arrive first and leave last.  In the words of one displaced villager, “They [the soldiers] see everything” that the Janjaweed are doing.  “They come with them, they fight with them and they leave with them.”

The government-Janjaweed attacks are frequently supported by the Sudanese air force.  Many assaults have decimated small farming communities, with death tolls sometimes approaching one hundred people.  Most are unrecorded. 

Human Rights Watch spent twenty-five days in and on the edges of West Darfur, documenting abuses in rural areas that were previously well-populated with Masalit and Fur farmers.  Since August 2003, wide swathes of their homelands, among the most fertile in the region, have been burned and depopulated.  With rare exceptions, the countryside is now emptied of its original Masalit and Fur inhabitants.  Everything that can sustain and succour life – livestock, food stores, wells and pumps, blankets and clothing – has been looted or destroyed.  Villages have been torched not randomly, but systematically – often not once, but twice. 

The uncontrolled presence of Janjaweed in the burned countryside, and in burned and abandoned villages, has driven civilians into camps and settlements outside the larger towns, where the Janjaweed kill, rape, and pillage—even stealing emergency relief items--with impunity. 

Despite international calls for investigations into allegations of gross human rights abuses, the government has responded by denying any abuses while attempting to manipulate and stem information leaks.  It has limited reports from Darfur in the national press, restricted international media access, and has tried to obstruct the flow of refugees into Chad.  Only after significant delays and international pressure, were two high-level UN assessment teams permitted to enter Darfur.  The government has promised unhindered humanitarian access, but has failed to deliver. Instead, recent reports of government tampering with mass graves and other evidence suggest the government is fully aware of the immensity of its crimes and is now attempting to cover up any record.

With the rainy season starting in late May and the ensuing logistical difficulties exacerbated by Darfur’s poor roads and infrastructure, any international monitoring of the shaky April ceasefire and continuing human rights abuses, as well as access to humanitarian assistance, will become more difficult. The United States Agency for International Development has warned that unless the Sudanese government breaks with past practice and grants full and immediate humanitarian access, at least 100,000 war-affected civilians could die in Darfur from lack of food and from disease within the next twelve months.

The international community, which so far has been slow to exert all possible pressure on the Sudanese government to reverse the ethnic cleansing and end the associated crimes against humanity it has carried out, must act now.  The UN Security Council, in particular, should take urgent measures to ensure the protection of civilians, provide for the unrestricted delivery of humanitarian assistance and reverse ethnic cleansing in Darfur.  It will soon be too late.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>May 2004