WASHINGTON -- Reflecting the growing urgency of what international observers are calling a desperate situation in western Sudan, Human Rights Watch (HRW) charged in a new report released today that the The National Islamic Front (NIF) government is complicit in crimes against humanity committed by government-backed Arab militias Darfur.
The report, "Darfur in Flames: Atrocities in Western Sudan," accused Khartoum of recruiting and arming over 20,000 Muslim militiamen, called Janjaweed, or "men on horseback," to carry out attacks on civilians from the Fur, Masaalit, and Zaghawa ethnic groups who, while also Islamic, are of African origin and make up the majority of the region's settled population.
Government forces have also carried joint attacks with the militias against the civilian population, systematically destroying villages, the report said, adding that the military has also engaged in indiscriminate and massive bombing of civilians targets.
Fighters of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army, some of them fresh recruits, train at a base in Sudan's Nuba Mountains region. (AFP/Anthony Morland)
Approximately one million people have been uprooted since fighting began 14 months ago. More than 800,000 people remain displaced within Sudan, while about 110,000 have fled across the border into neighboring Chad, one of the world's poorest countries.
"The Sudanese military and government-backed militias are committing massive human rights violations daily in Darfur," said Georgette Gagnon, deputy director of HRW's Africa division. "The government's campaign of terror has already forcibly displaced one million innocent civilians, and the numbers are increasing by the day."
New York-based HRW called on Khartoum to immediately disarm and disband the militias and allow humanitarian groups free access to provide relief to needy people to whom only very restricted access has been permitted to date. The government, which declared a ceasefire to be in effect last month, is reportedly continuing offensive operations, however.
Even as U.S.-backed peace talks between the government and a southern rebel group to end a 21-year-old civil war continue in Kenya, the situation in Darfur has grown into a humanitarian crisis of catastrophic proportions, according to rights groups, including both HRW and Amnesty International, international relief organizations, and key UN agencies that monitor the region.
"The only difference between Rwanda and Darfur now is the numbers involved," the UN humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, Mukesh Kapila, told the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) last week, in a reference to the genocide in Rwanda that broke out exactly ten years ago next week and killed between 500,000 and 800,000 people, the vast majority of them members of the Tutsi ethnic group.
"This is more than just a conflict," said Kapila who was present in Rwanda at the time of the genocide. "It is an organized attempt to do away with a group of people," a description that comes remarkably close to the words of the 1948 Genocide Convention, as noted by Sudan activist, Smith College Professor Eric Reeves, who wrote in the Baltimore Sun Thursday that "[a]nother African genocide is gathering pace in the far western Darfur region..."
The current conflict dates back to early 2003 when two loosely allied rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), launched attacks against government military installations to protest continuing raids by the Janjaweed against their communities, as well as the Khartoum's failure to invest in the region's economic development.
The government, however, responded by greatly increasing its support for the Janjaweed and carrying out its own offensives, sometimes alongside the militias, against the region's settled population
The two groups were also concerned that any peace agreement reached between the government and the southern Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement/Army could effectively sideline the interests of non-Arab populations.
As described in another report issued last week by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), "Militia attacks and a scorched-earth government offensive have led to massive displacement, indiscriminate killings, looting and mass rape..."
In its report, HRW said several thousand Fur, Zaghawa and Masaalit civilians have been killed to date, while the Janjaweed have "routinely raped women and girls, abducted children, and looted tens of thousands of head of cattle and other property." Hundreds of villages have been burned, while water sources and other agricultural infrastructure have been destroyed, threatening the region's basic food production even if the fighting stopped now and the displaced were able to return home.
"The militias are not only killing individuals, they are decimating the livelihoods of tens of thousands of families," said Gagnon. "The people being targeted are the farmers of the regions, and unless these abuses are stopped and people receive humanitarian relief, we could see famine in a few months' time."
The report detailed how government forces have permitted the Janjaweed to operate with total impunity, even failing to protect unarmed civilians when they have appealed to the army and police to protect their villages when an attack was imminent. The military and Janjaweed have also obstructed the flight of civilians who have tried to escape to Chad and even carried out bombing and other raids on the other side of the border.
The report said the military's tactics were very similar to those it has used, also with the help of Arab militias, against the southern civilian population, although the Darfur campaign has been carried out with more rapid displacement and devastation than in the south.
In its report, the ICG warned that the campaign risks inflicting irreparable damage on the existing ethnic balance of the seven million people who live in Darfur and indirectly threatens the regimes in both Chad and Sudan itself due to its potential to inspire other latent or active insurgencies in both countries, particularly if the current peace talks in Kenya between Khartoum and the SPLA/M or stalemate.
Khartoum has agreed to take part in peace talks in Chad over the situation in Darfur but wants them confined strictly to humanitarian issues. According to the ICG, however, the current conflict raises important political issues that that must be addressed and should include, as in the Kenya talks, a wider circle of outside actors, including the UN, the European Union (EU), and the U.S.
HRW also called for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to ask the High Commission on Human Rights to immediately dispatch a mission to Darfur so that it can report back to the UN Commission on Human Rights before its current annual session adjourns April 23. The Commission, according to HRW, should appoint a special rapporteur to monitor the situation in Darfur and press all sides to abide by international human rights law.
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