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Published: Saturday, 2/20/2010

Hope in Darfur

A COMBINATION of upcoming events could open the way to a resolution of the political and humanitarian problem in Darfur, in the west of Sudan.

In 2003, fighting among ethnic groups over land use broke out in Darfur. Herder forces were spearheaded by the janjaweed, fearsome mounted fighters supported by the government of Sudanese President Umar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir. Thousands of Sudanese were driven from their villages, many of which were then destroyed.

Both sides are 100-percent Muslim. All are poor, although the government in Khartoum helped the groups it supported. The victims driven into camps became, in effect, wards of the international community. Many nongovernmental organizations, funded by Western governments, flocked to Darfur to set up and to care for the Sudanese who were displaced.

Since relief, in the form of food, medical supplies, tents, vehicles, and other articles is fungible, the people in the camps rapidly armed themselves. They also divided into various political movements and militias, eventually numbering more than a dozen. No one of them dominated; none could be called the representative of Darfurians in the camps.

International efforts were made to broker a solution. The African Union sent a few troops. The United States appointed special envoys of the administrations of President George W. Bush and now President Obama.

Not much happened that could be called progress or would cause the camps to be disbanded and the thousands of refugees in them to go home. The residents of the camps now are settled in and relatively safe, fed, clothed, housed, and cared for.

Sudan is scheduled to have a multi-party presidential election in April. Voter registration is taking place at a modest level in the camps, drawing their residents into the Sudanese national political process.

Expressed suspicion of the government's intentions is high, in the camps and in the international community, particularly in those parts of it that are involved in providing millions of dollars in relief aid. Mr. Bashir is under indictment for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The next step in Sudan after the presidential election is a referendum on the future of the south of the country, pursuant to a 2005 agreement that in principle ended the north-south civil war.

It will be a test of the alleged beneficial effects of democracy and negotiated agreements to see whether the election and referendum can lead to an improved situation - perhaps even a return to their farms and villages - for the potential Sudanese voters of Darfur.

We are free to hope so.



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