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A Tragedy That Defies Definition

August 15, 2004|Sue Horton

There's no consensus over what to call the situation in the Darfur region of western Sudan. Physicians for Human Rights and the U.S. Congress call it "genocide." The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees uses the less harsh term "ethnic cleansing." The Khartoum government prefers the term "conflict." But whatever the situation is labeled, Darfur is in crisis. More than 30,000 people have been killed and an estimated 50,000 more have died of illness or starvation. An additional 1.2 million are refugees after having been driven from their homes. Villages have been burned to the ground, the men killed, the women raped. Refugee camps along the Chad border are filled beyond capacity, and relief agencies have found it extremely difficult to get food and water to the area.

Question: Who's involved in the conflict?

Answer: The Darfur region is populated by both African tribal groups and Arabs. Both are black African Muslims who have lived in the region for centuries. The tribal groups speak African dialects and live in villages, where they farm millet and other crops. The Arabs are nomads who roam the region seeking places to graze their livestock. They speak Arabic. The groups have until recently lived together fairly harmoniously, although tensions have risen in times of drought when natural resources are scarce. The two groups are quite similar, although the Arabs take great pride in what is, after centuries of intermarriage, a rather dubious Arab ancestry.

Q: And which group is the aggressor?

A: Most of the atrocities have been committed by bands of Arab militiamen known as janjaweed. The term is most likely taken from the Arabic for spirits (jinn) on horses (jaweed).

Q: What sparked the current crisis?

A: There is no single cause, but two factors have played significant roles. In recent years, some tribal villagers in the region have joined anti-government rebel groups in opposition to the policies of Khartoum, which they say has ignored their needs. In response, the government began in early 2003 to arm loosely organized Arab militias, ostensibly so they could fight the rebels. Instead, says Sean O'Fahey, an African history professor at the University of Bergen in Norway, "the nomads used their weapons against the farmers in order to control the wells and grazing lands. The decision to arm the nomads was a disaster; out of this disaster has grown the janjaweed."

Q: So is this genocide or isn't it?

A: The U.N.'s Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as acts of violence "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." Whether that's happening in Darfur depends on whom you listen to. Pieter Feith, who visited Sudan to analyze the situation for the European Union, said last week that "we are not in the situation of genocide there.... But it is clear there is widespread, silent and slow, killing going on, and village-burning on a fairly large scale." Human Rights Watch has said there is insufficient evidence to draw a conclusion, but it would like to see a commission of inquiry established to investigate allegations of genocide. Physicians for Human Rights, however, concluded that the pattern of attacks on villages clearly indicated that non-Arabs were being targeted for elimination from the region. Whatever you want to call the situation, though, it's clear that widespread pillaging and mayhem are being carried out on a daily basis.

Q: Why hasn't the United Nations -- or someone -- intervened?

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