Ethnic Cleansing in Western Sudan
Date: April 5, 2004 12:59:33 AM EDT

Dear All,

You and your eight-year-old daughter are tucked away in a bloodied and largely ignored corner of the world. The village that you lived in was burned to the ground, your daughter raped, three cousins executed, and your father and mother beaten. Your eleven-year-old son has died of cholera for lack of sanitation during this strife, and without medicine you and your daughter might also die. United Nations humanitarian agencies are being blocked from coming to your aid. And the rest of the world has chosen not to.

This scenario is real, and is presently unfolding in western Sudan, even as you read this e-mail and go about your day. The bloodshed is the product of a campaign of ethnic cleansing - and possibly genocide - by the government of Sudan and by government-backed militias against African Muslim ethnic groups in the Darfur region of western Sudan. The militia and their government sponsors are burning villages, massacring civilians, and raping women. Yet today, some 60 years after the Holocaust and the pledge of "never again," 10 years since the beginning of the Rwandan genocide when the world observed a mass slaughter from the sidelines, we are again looking away.

Darfur is an impoverished region of western Sudan, bordering Chad, where water and fertile land are scarce. Its inhabitants are a mix of light-skinned Arab Muslims and dark-skinned African Muslims, who belong primarily to three ethnic groups. Scarce natural resources have contributed to tensions in the region between the Arabs (mostly herders) and African ethnic groups (mostly farmers), but Sudan's government ­ first through propaganda and then through financial and military backing of Arab militias - has caused those tensions to erupt into violence. Reports of village burning by Arab militias date back to the end of the 1980s, and periodically during the 1990s and early 2000s, government-armed and financed militias have attacked and looted villages and murdered civilians.

The government's hostility to Darfur's African Muslims appears to be related to fears that they would ally with forces in the South in a 20-year civil war between the government in the largely Muslim North and the Sudan People's Liberation Army in the largely Christian - and African - South. A heavy dose of racism is also feeding what has now become a full-fledged effort to drive Africans out of Darfur. The latest US State Department human rights report on Sudan observes, "[t]he Government and government-supported militias actively promoted hatred and discrimination." ((1))

The crisis entered a new phase when, in early 2003, two rebel groups in Darfur took up arms against the government, evidently to respond to the militias and to prevent their region from being ignored during peace negotiations; historically, Darfur has been economically and politically marginalized. Then, in February of this year, the government and its militias greatly accelerated their offensive against civilians in Darfur, reportedly to eliminate the region's rebel factions as a factor in peace negotiations. (For this and further background information, see (2), NY Times 3/24/04, (3), (4), (5), (6)).

Sudanese military planes and helicopters are bombing villages and government-backed militias are burning them. The militias are also raping and killing survivors, stealing livestock, and driving hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes. Many of those who aren't murdered are dying of malnutrition and disease. The Sudanese government is blocking humanitarian aid for many of the 800,000 people who have been displaced within Darfur. As of mid-March, the United Nations and other relief efforts had only been able to reach about 30% of these people. Relief agencies have had greater access to the more than 100,000 refugees who have fled into neighboring Chad, who are also benefiting from the generosity of Chadian villagers. But even these refugees are not safe. Militias from Sudan are reported to be crossing into Chad almost daily to attack the refugees and steal their cattle. The fighting has killed more than 10,000 people, with about 1,000 more dying each week.

The onslaught against civilians has become, according to a UN representative in Sudan, "the world's greatest humanitarian crisis." (NY Times, 3/24/04) On February 27, 30 villages were burned, more than 200 civilians killed, and another 200 women and girls raped. Last Sunday, militias burned 17 villages, summarily executed villagers, raped women and girls as young as seven, tortured villagers, and denied survivors access to food and water. (Information on the current situation from (7), (8), (9), (10).)

The world's response has been decidedly muted, in part because the United States and the international community do not want to interfere with delicate peace negotiations between the North and South in Sudan. But no doubt there are other factors - in the words of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, "because the victims are African tribespeople who have the misfortune to speak no English, have no phones and live in one of the most remote parts of the globe." (NY Times, 3/24/04; this is the first of three very powerful columns on Darfur by Mr. Kristof)

Looking back to 10 years ago and the genocide in Rwanda, in which about 800,000 people were killed, and the ensuing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has left more than 3 million dead, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that a major reason for the world's silence over the ethnic cleansing in Darfur - the general lack of outrage ­ is that too much of the world has a very high tolerance for death and destruction in Africa. Too common is the profoundly mistaken view that acts of butchery are somehow natural when they occur in Africa, and that they are unstoppable. In fact, in Sudan, as they were in Rwanda, the atrocities are the result of a deliberate, politically-motivated campaign, and they only seem unstoppable because little or no effort is made to stop them.

The question before us now is simple: this time, will we assert our humanity, or will we permit a little of it to perish once again?

The Sudanese government reportedly cares about its image and can be swayed by international pressure, which has yet to be applied in any meaningful way. The United States - and other countries, including in Europe, Africa, and the Arab world - should speak out loudly, publicly, forcefully to demand that the Sudanese government end the violence. The UN Security Council should pass a resolution to insist that happen. So should the UN Human Rights Commission.

Even some modest military intervention might make a big difference. The Security Council could create a no-fly zone over Darfur so that Sudanese planes and helicopters can no longer bomb villages (much like was done in Iraq prior to the war). Multinational security forces could be used to protect aid workers so that they can reach the hundreds of thousands of people in need. Troops could protect villages that have yet to be targeted. If these actions are insufficient, more assertive force could - and I believe should - be used. (For additional thoughts on what can be done non-militarily, see (11) and (12).)

What can do you? Write, fax, or call your Congresspeople (see and the President (; comment line: (202) 456-1111; fax: (202) 456-2461). Urge them to take action to stop the ethnic cleansing in western Sudan. You are not responsible for figuring out how to do this. Let them know that you care, and that you are demanding that your elected officials care as well - and then act to save lives. If you call your Congressperson, generally it is most effective if you ask to speak to a staff member who works on foreign affairs or human rights issues to convey your opinion. Urge your family, friends, and colleagues to make their voices heard too.

We lived through the 1994 Rwandan genocide by effectively ignoring it, by pleading ignorance. The plea was false then, and it would be false now. It's time -- long past time -- for us to resolve that never again will we turn away from unfolding horrors -- and to act on that resolve. Never again, and certainly not today, for the sake of people like us ­ innocents living and dying in Sudan.

Thank you as always,


"I have only dreams: to build a better world, a world of harmony and understanding, a world in which it is a joy to live. This is not asking for too much." -- Yitzhak Rabin

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