Thursday, February 10, 2011

A referendum for Darfur?

This week the results of Sudan's historic referendum were announced showing a turnout of 97 percent with 98.83 percent of voters in favour of the region becoming independent. It was a huge achievement not just for south Sudan but also for the US diplomacy, which played a significant role in getting the government to accept the referendum. 

But while all eyes were glued on the referendum, what seemed to be ignored was the growing humanitarian crisis in Darfur as Khartoum increased its offensive there.

The Darfur crisis began in 2003 when guerilla fighting between the government and rebel groups began on a large scale (mostly based on ethnicity) and since then at least five million civilians have been forced to leave their villages. They have moved to displacement camps or fled to eastern Chad. There are also allegations that the Chadian national army and armed groups are employing these ‘displaced’ children to fight their war.

White House recently released a footage West Wing Week: "Dispatches from Sudan" of the situation in Sudan including Darfur as they traveled with the President's Special Envoy, General Scott Gration. One of their objectives was to 'inspect conditions in Darfur and learn about the commitment of the United States to peace in this region after decades of civil war'. In a town called Deribat in the Jebel Marra Mountains, this is what they found...

'The government of Sudan retook this town from rebels recently, a step the government hoped would lead to greater feelings of security among the populace, but we arrived to find an army garrison guarding an empty town. Homes and businesses abandoned, the air eerily quiet.'

Soon, the US officials found themselves answering uncomfortable questions, but this shouldn't be a surprise to the them as the Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been talking about state atrocities in the region since December. Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) rebels have used Jebel Marra as a base throughout the Darfur conflict.

The HRW says, ‘in the first week of October government forces bombed numerous villages on the road from Deribat to Soni, in the Jebel Marra region of Darfur, destroying hundreds of homes. Government troops in the area have also prevented civilians from returning to their farms'. These civilians have fled to rebel controlled areas that are beyond the aid agencies reach. 

Also the UNAMID (United Nations-African Union mission) reports that over 40,000 people were newly displaced in December alone from Dar es Salem, Shangil Tobaya and Khor Abeche in eastern Dafur. The displaced population relies heavily on international aid to survive. 

Children from Goz Mino run from a UN Helicopter (just landed in an official visit) to attend the school. Goz Mino (West Darfur) has 550 housholds, some of them just returned from Chadian refugee camps. Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran / UNAMID
However, according to the Institute of War & Peace Reporting (IWPR), the conditions in Internallt Displaced People (IDP) camps are detriorating with the state consistently delaying food and medical supplies to them. They have also put restrictions on relief workers and peacekeepers. So these agencies are scared to stand up to the government for fear of explusion.

Also the government has made it almost impossible for foreign journalists to get there and if some do they too face tight restrictions. Hence news from Darfur is scarce and hardly makes it on mainstream media anymore.

But a recent report by Tufts University makes a shocking conclusion. It says the population in Darfur is ‘more vulnerable now’ (than at any time since 2003 when the massacres were at its peak) due to impaired relief efforts.

But while south Sudan has sealed its right to independence through the referendum, Darfur is still awaiting the international diplomats to find a solution for its crisis.
While two rebel groups- the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Liberty and Justice Movement (LJM) agreed for talks in January, just yesterday Minni Minnawi (in pic), the leader of the more dominant SLA, urged all the armed movements to step up their struggle against the government. The rebels feel such talks do not address the root causes of the conflict, including political marginalization and refugees. 

Today Qatari state minister for foreign affairs Ahmed bin Abdullah Al-Mahmoud meets the Sudanese President Omar al Bashir and other officials to discuss the Darfur peace process.

Perhaps Khartoum could agree to a referendum in which the people from Darfur could decide their future?

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