Editorial - Darfur: A Promise, Tested Again
“Never again.” Sixty years ago a horrified international community, stunned by the realities of the Holocaust, invoked this statement to banish the specter of systematic killings. But with numbing frequency—after massacres in Cambodia, Iraq, Srebrenica, Rwanda, and elsewhere—it continues to be murmured in memory of those killed. Now, as we watch Africa’s largest country hemorrhage human casualties, we are obliged to instead pose it as a question: “Never again?”
Darfur, a drought-weary section of Sudan, has been mired in violence since 2003, when rebels from several tribes began fighting the predominantly Arab national government for a greater share of national power and wealth. The Sudanese government has devastated rebel areas, empowering roaming militias to assist with the killings. Though an African Union peacekeeping force was dispatched to the region, it has lacked the mandate necessary to effectively intervene.
The result: in a region the size of France, with a total population less than that of New York City, as many as 450,000 people have died. Another 2 million Darfuris have been forced to flee their villages. Women are disproportionately affected, routinely attacked as they struggle to keep their families fed and hydrated.
But there is a backstory to this conflict. For decades, Arab nomads and African villagers alternately skirmished and supported each other as they raised livestock and tended fields, respectively, under resource-constrained conditions. At best, the two groups traded milk and meat for medicines and produce in local markets. At worst, when nomads allowed their camels to over-graze fields, or villagers denied nomads access to water, violence erupted. This delicate balance has been upset by drought, desertification, the increased presence of weapons, and national government pressures. Violence is now the norm.
While the debate over how to legally classify the conflict in Darfur—variously labeled “genocide,” “ethnic cleansing,” “crimes against humanity,” or “war crimes”—is as complex as the history of the violence, the basic facts are undeniable. The international community has failed to prevent 450,000 deaths. Fighting continues. The World Food Programme recently cut food rations in half for lack of funding. For refugees concentrated in camps, who must walk up to six hours to search for fuelwood, the risk of militia attacks makes this the most dangerous part of their day.
We can advocate for changes of many kinds. With the recent conclusion of peace talks in Nigeria, for instance, the time is ripe for countries around the world to support the establishment of a UN peacekeeping force in Darfur.Meanwhile, simple fuel-efficient stoves could improve refugees’ safety while greatly reducing the need for fuelwood. All solutions will be superficial, however, without a firm international commitment to improving both the political and resource-sharing situations for nomads and farmers in Darfur.
Zoë A. Chafe