UNTIL a few weeks ago, few people had heard of the Darfur region of Sudan. They were unaware that more than a million people had been driven out of their homes by ruthless Arab gangs who rode in on camels and horses, shooting and killing the black African men who lived in the scattered villages of the region, then raping their wives and daughters and kidnapping their children as slaves.
They did not know about the government planes that swept in to mop up the survivors, bombing what remained of the villages, slaughtering those who had sought refuge away from their burning huts. Asked to explain what had triggered such horrors, they would have been quite unable to do so. Darfur barely registered on the international radar; it certainly was not at the forefront of the United Nations’ collective mind.
The attentions of the UN and most of its member states was still focused on Iraq. The foreign pages and the main news pages of most western newspapers teemed with claim and counter-claim about the mistreatment of prisoners. There was no room for a complex new conflict in a little known part of Africa. Meanwhile, the slaughter went on.
Now, all of a sudden, it is impossible to move for stories about Darfur. At last, the true scale of the catastrophe that has been visited on its people has started to play on the minds of a wider audience than the few who had been shouting about it for months. And at long last, even the UN has woken up to the reality that another incipient Rwanda, another Bosnia, has been playing out under its nose. Ethnic cleansing or genocide: people can argue about what has taken place in Darfur, but what is certain is that such things were not meant to happen again. We had learnt the lessons, the statesmen said. Yet once again, the UN has been caught dozing while it was supposed to be on guard.
There is a school of thought that argues that by the time the United Nations Security Council applies its attention to a crisis anywhere in the world, that crisis will already be out of hand, or the moment to intervene effectively will have passed. That is an argument that is particularly apposite in relation to what is going on in Darfur. The same school of thought also contends that when the UN does finally accept that something must be done, it will do the wrong thing, and do it so slowly that it merely compounds an already hopeless situation. And here we have Darfur again. Given the opportunity to act firmly and decisively, for once to present a united front to face down an aggressor and to protect those who cannot defend themselves, the UN has chosen the path of least resistance. It has shied away from using its power for good in favour of mealy-mouthed attitudes and toothless threats of some future, ill-defined, approbation.
So it is no to sanctions, and yes to yet more empty gestures, lest it offends those nations who have much to gain economically by cosying up to the Khartoum regime, and who gain pleasure by thwarting the aspirations of those who backed the war in Iraq, however well intentioned those aspirations may be.
In one sense, whatever the UN had decided yesterday, it was already too late. Although the very nature of the territory, its physical inaccessibility and the reluctance of the Sudanese government to allow in independent observers, makes it hard even now to know for certain the extent of what is, and what has been, going on, it seems likely that the atrocities inflicted on the black African population of the region were at their height in the early months of this year.
The stories that have emerged from those who have visited the camps mostly relate to that period. In early June The Scotsman carried story after heartbreaking story from those refugees camped out along the border between Chad and Sudan, most of whom told of attacks on their villages back in February. All told variations of a similar story: the Janjaweed rode in, there was shooting and killing, animals were stolen, houses set alight, some women and children abducted, the women raped and the children enslaved, and often the arrival of Sudanese aircraft to bomb the survivors and what property they had left.
Yet just because the worst onslaught is apparently over is no reason for the UN not to act.
Only yesterday the president of the African Union said that monitors on the ground reported that the situation had continued to deteriorate even from the woeful situation we were in when the African Union met and discussed Darfur earlier this month. And some of those refugees who spoke to The Scotsman along the border in June told stories of fresh attacks still taking place, of attacks that had happened even while the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, was visiting Darfur to see for himself how much needed to be done. For the UN now to talk of the need to give Khartoum more time to rein in the monster it unleashed when it armed the Janjaweed, is to fail miserably just as it has done so often, to seize the opportunity it has to prevent more deaths and more misery.
This is the crux of the matter. There are plenty of intelligent analysts working in Sudan for western charities who will say that this is far more than a straightforward question of good against evil. They point to the increase in population and the advance of the desert, both of which have placed pressure on limited resources and set the farmers (mainly black African) against the nomads and pastoralists (mainly Arab/Janjaweed). They speak of the opportunism of those political and military groups who seek autonomy for that part of Sudan, and how that has placed pressure on the unpopular Khartoum regime to act to defend itself. But even those analysts who take the most pragmatic approach will admit that the bottom line in all of this, the reason this escalated from small clashes into what has been famously described as the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe is the decision by the Sudanese government to back and arm the Janjaweed militia. Had it not done so, it would not find itself facing the international outrage it now faces.
There are more than 1.2 million people in those camps. They are hungry, they are sick, many have no shelter from the rains that have started to fall across the region.
Many are cut off from any aid at all; no-one knows what perils they face because no-one can get to them. All, even those in the best managed camps, are at the mercy of disease which could cut a swathe through their numbers without warning. And not one of them feels safe enough to go back to the villages they abandoned to try to pick up the pieces of their lives. Those farmers need to go home now to plant crops if they are not to face a hunger crisis next year. But if they venture out of the camps in Darfur, the men risk death and the women risk rape and beatings at the hands of the Janjaweed who still lurk around them.
That is something the UN could tackle.
What is needed is security; the various disparate groups involved in the conflict need to be brought to the negotiating table - and this applies as much to the SLA and the other rebels as it does to the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed - and the people in the camps need to be convinced, through actions, that it is safe for them to go home.
One way, perhaps the only way, to ensure that security is for the African Union to send in a meaningful force of peacekeepers. Not a token force, which will be unable to police the vast area that makes up Darfur, one whose size would not offend Khartoum’s sensibilities, but a fully functioning force the size of which would deter any further attacks by the Janjaweed and convince those in the camps that there is no chance of its government continuing to support the killers in the inaccessible areas from which reports of fresh attacks are still emerging.
Such a force would be expensive; for it to have any chance of succeeding, it would need the financial support of the UN. And whatever General Mike Jackson might say, Britain is unlikely to be able to play a part in such a force for reasons of African politics, and for the more basic reason that it simply does not have enough troops to meet yet another commitment.
There is one more danger here: that the attention that is currently focused on Darfur will just as quickly wane. Perhaps the aid agencies will muddle through. Perhaps they will get lucky and there will be no major outbreak of cholera or some other crippling disease to rip through the camps and produce the mountains of bodies that some might deem such a crisis need to keep it in the public eye. Perhaps Khartoum will stage a few Janjaweed show trials in the hope that when the new UN resolution deadline runs out, it will be extended again without further pressure being applied. If that was to happen, it would be a tragic mistake that the UN would come to regret in just the way it now wrings its hands about Rwanda.
Because this could still get much worse. The Janjaweed are a relatively small group who have had the good fortune to be backed by an oil-rich government with deep pockets, but there are other groups who have not yet entered the conflict. To the south are the Rizaigat; they, like the Janjaweed, are Arab pastoralists worried about access to land for their animals. They have a militia 30,000 strong and a reputation for fighting against the farmers. So far, they have not become involved in the conflict but there is a nervousness among some aid agencies that, as Khartoum loses its grip on Darfur, they too could be sucked in, and the cycle of killing will start all over again.
Khartoum has much to gain from sorting out Darfur; it has just managed to bring to an end the bloody north-south civil war that has crippled the country for decades. For that it should be basking in the warmth of international approval, not skulking around trying to make excuses for creating a new humanitarian disaster. It has vast untapped oil reserves that could enrich its population, if only it could properly exploit them. To do that it needs the help of the big oil companies and international investment. If by threatening to impose meaningful sanctions - and not some vague warning about some unspecified disruption of economic and diplomatic activity - the UN could make Khartoum sit up and pay attention. It is a road worth travelling. Better still would be a stiff resolution to offer full political, financial and logistical support to an effective African Union peacekeeping force that could guarantee the security that those refugees now camped around El Fashir, Nyala and El Geneina, and across the border in Iridimi, Farchana and Mile, and all the others, so crave.
For once, there appears to be the political will among the African nations to do something about a crisis on their own continent. But to make that effective, it needs the UN to flex its muscles. That is something the UN has yet to show it has an ability, leave alone an intention, to do.