Quest for Peace


Sword-wielding, camel-riding torturers and rapists burning African villages this is the picture being pushed by advocacy groups as a call to action for the crisis in Darfur. After the genocide in Rwanda, the world said never again.  But despite years of bloody conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region, the international community is only now beginning to respond.

Star-studded public meetings have urged international leaders to act, but the slogans don’t capture the complexities in the larger Sudan. Solving the conflict will take more than outrage.

In the month since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced peace talks between rebels and the Sudanese Government, the violence has escalated. Rebels are calling for structural changes in the Government. They want to bring an end to political and economic inequalities that have angered people in many of Sudan’s outlying provinces for decades. Meanwhile, the Sudanese Government arms and encourages a militia known as the Janjaweed to carry out attacks on Darfur’s civilian population.

A fighter from an SLA faction. Photo by David Martinez

Amnesty International estimates that more than 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million people been displaced since the conflict began in 2003.

As the international community scrambles to find solutions to the question mark that hangs over Sudan’s future, the situation on the ground is now being  complicated by the fragmentation of both rebel groups and the Janjaweed.

Peace talks scheduled to start in Tripoli, Libya, on Saturday look doomed after the leaders of the two main rebel groups Khalil Ibrahim of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and Abdul Waheed of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLA) have said they will not take part. Five other smaller rebel factions are also refusing to participate, and are calling for more time to form a common negotiating platform.

Paul Barker, former Country Director for the humanitarian organisation, CARE, says that Waheed ‘seems to be holding out for unrealistic concessions by the Government before he will be involved.’

Waheed has been in Paris for a number of years and according to Barker is living in relative luxury while his people languish in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. ‘He leads his people to believe that the international community is going to come in with armed forces and bring peace and justice,’ says Baker.

For the last year Barker has run CARE’s international aid delivery effort in Sudan, where the NGO has spent over $US60 million over the past three years, and employs a staff of 600.

But on 27 August, Barker had his visa revoked by the Sudanese Government. ‘I was given a letter which told me I had to be out of the country in 72 hours,’ says Barker from his self-described ‘office in exile’ in Nairobi. He is the third foreigner to be kicked out of the country for political reasons in the last two months.

Barker says the Government was evasive on the reasons for his deportation. According to the Sudan Tribune he has been under investigation for some time and was accused of ‘espionage activities.’

‘Somehow [the Sudanese Government]managed to get copies of some confidential CARE correspondence about the situation in Darfur and the implications for CARE staff safety,’ says Barker. ‘It’s the routine kind of reporting that all the UN and NGO agencies do for headquarters to demonstrate that we are taking safety seriously. They chose to interpret it in a political lens.’

A displaced woman tills the soil. Photo by David Martinez

The Sudanese Government has a reputation for restricting travel to aid workers and cancelling visas without warning. Some aid groups have a complete media blackout, while others are cautious of their words in fear of the Government placing further restrictions on their ability to deliver aid to remote regions.

NGOs remain the lifeline for 2.4 million people in IDP camps, but the fragmentation of armed groups is taking its toll on the humanitarian effort.

‘The rebels simply do not have full control over their troops,’ says Barker.

On 20 September a clearly marked aid convey was attacked in South Darfur. According to World Vision, three staff members were injured. It’s not known who was responsible for the attack.

Some rebel groups have a political agenda, while others are reverting to banditry. There has been a 50 per cent increase in attacks on aid workers this year. One hundred and eighteen aid vehicles have been hijacked, 105 staff temporarily taken hostage, and 66 aid workers have been physically or sexually assaulted since January. ‘It’s a highly tense situation and the threats are real,’ says Baker.

David Drew, a British MP returning from a fact-finding mission in Sudan, says the problem is it’s not clear exactly who the enemy is.

‘You have so many factions. Not just the Sudanese Liberation Army, which has already split. You have the Arabs, the Chadian opposition, local defence forces; they are all fighting one another,’ says Drew. Each group is vying for the upper hand.

According to Drew, with many rebel leaders choosing to boycott the peace process, other rebels are filling the vacuum represented by their absence.

We are seeing aggressive pre-[peace talks]negotiation strategies from all sides in Darfur. We are seeing power grabs from different individuals and groups whenever political space opens up. What is happening in the run to talks is classic land- and headline-grabbing from all sides, with a hope that this will translate into increased leverage in Libya.

Many critics and observers agree that a truce between the multi-faction rebellion and the Government is dependant on the success of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which was signed in 2005.

The CPA is an agreement between the Sudanese Government and Southern Sudan’s former rebel group and present leading party, the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM). The agreement  brought an end to the 20-year civil war in South Sudan that had cost 200,000 lives and forced 4 million people to flee their homes.  It  outlines a broad framework, setting forth principals of governance, a division of resources and the role of State and religion. Under the CPA a power sharing agreement was reached between the major parties, known as the unity Government.

However, the SPLM, announced last week they are withdrawing from the unity Government.

According to Reuters, Sudan’s vice president, Ali Osman Mohamed Taha , has accused the SPLM of building up troops between the Blue Nile and the White Nile in Bahr el-Ghazel, near the north-south border. The SPLM denies the accusation. ‘We are calling on the SPLM to practice self-control and to stop the escalation of the situation,’ says Taha. He maintains that the government is on track in delivering its commitments outlined under the CPA.

Darfur now awaits the arrival of the world’s largest peacekeeping force. 26,000 UN and African Union troops from have been assembled and are awaiting the transfer of land from the Sudanese Government  to be used for  bases. The Security Council has expressed ‘deep concern’ at the delays. US Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who recently returned from Sudan, says, ‘It is creating an outrageous situ
ation. No land for bases means no troops on the ground.’

Meanwhile, photos released last month by Amnesty International show that Khartoum has defied a UN embargo by sending arms to Darfur. Brian Wood, manager of the arms control policy and research at Amnesty headquarters  in London says they continue to bomb villages in the eleventh hour before the arrival of peacekeepers.

In contrast, many rebels are anxious for foreign intervention. However, Shane Bauer, a journalist returning from a month in the rebel-controlled region of North Darfur, says many rebels still have doubts as to whether the international force will ever materialise.

The rebels are concerned that if a peace agreement is realised in Darfur that does not deal with the structural problems in Government, the conflict will only continue elsewhere in Sudan.

It is difficult to reconcile the UN’s vision for achieving peace with the rebel’s intransigent insistence upon regime change. Bauer says that although there are a lot of rebel factions, each with differing views, most see regime change as the only solution.

Congresswoman Jackson Lee, says ‘Any concept of a regime change in my mind generates violent action and overthrow. That may be the only source of action for the rebels, but that would be enormous bloodshed with innocent victims being in the midst of it.’

As armed groups proliferate, newfound warlords seem reluctant to surrender their control over Darfur’s battered civilian population.

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