The recent killing of 10 African Union peacekeepers has made clear, if it wasn’t already, the difficulty in putting an end to the almost incomprehensible suffering and misery in Darfur. Perhaps 2 million people have been driven from their homes over the past three years; some 200,000, or possibly 300,000, have been killed.
Some American politicians have called the violence in Darfur “genocide,” a label sure to provoke a reaction from Jews — and indeed, some of the loudest appeals for peace are coming from American Jewish groups.
Observers are rightly frustrated and angered by the Bush administration’s seeming inability to bring the government and the insurgents fighting it to a meaningful peace. After all, just a few years ago the United States was able to help resolve a 20-year-long civil war between Khartoum and the southern Sudanese.
Many Americans see Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir as responsible for the Darfur violence because Khartoum allegedly armed the nomad Janjaweed militiamen and directed them to attack their farmer neighbors. Why doesn’t Khartoum stop bombing the villages and rein in the militia? Why has Khartoum obfuscated, stalled and blocked the introduction of United Nations peacekeepers? Surely, al-Bashir and his cronies are bad men, villains set on crushing their opponents in Darfur.
That may or may not be the case, but after working seven years with Sudanese politicians, military officers and communal leaders, I’d caution against rendering judgment until we have reviewed some pertinent facts.
The present violence in Darfur, it bears mentioning, is just the latest round of intercommunal strife that has been going on for centuries. Perhaps 300 years ago a sizeable population of Muslim farmers left their traditional homeland west of Lake Chad and moved eastward, some say on their way to Mecca.
In any event, these migrants found rich soil and adequate rainfall in Darfur — “the land of the Fur,” the dominant ethnic group in the region. They settled, built villages and practiced subsistence agriculture. Occasionally, nomadic Arabs would drive their flocks of camels, goats and sheep into the farming settlements, but only in particularly dry periods.
Western Sudan is a vast area, very thinly populated; nomads moved, farmers tilled. Nonetheless, over the generations the farmers came to hate and distrust the Arab nomads, a feeling reciprocated by the men riding camels.
In the early 1980s, then-president Jaafar Nimeiri sought to resolve the nettlesome regional and ethnic pressures for greater political democracy by announcing the formation of regional governments. The two provinces of Darfur were combined into one region, and residents were allowed to elect a legislature and governor. The various factions organized and began jockeying for popular support, but Nimeiri was overthrown in 1985.
The next 20 years saw Darfur ruled by a succession of regional politicians who looked east for direction to Khartoum, rather than to their Fur constituents. By the turn of the millennium, several clandestine Fur groups had formed and seemed ready to take up arms in pursuit of political power.
Into this volatile environment came agents of the Southern Peoples’ Liberation Movement and its military leader, John Garang. Beginning in 1984, the movement fought Khartoum for control of Sudan’s oil reserves and political power in the autonomous southern region.
By 2003, Garang had all but won the contest, and had little reason not to open a second front in Darfur to add pressure on al-Bashir to sign over the south. Advisers, arms and money, probably much from neighboring Libya, arrived in Darfur.
As Garang and the Southern Peoples’ Liberation Movement expected, the Fur insurgents began attacking government police and military posts. Bogged down in the south, and a very long way from Darfur, the Sudanese army requested and was given permission to arm the nomad militias. And so began the raping, killing and burning.
It is worth asking why the al-Bashir government, in the face of great international pressure, has been so reluctant to allow an adequate peacekeeping force to separate the combatants. Maybe al-Bashir is just another petty tyrant unmoved by humanitarian appeals.
Alternatively, perhaps he is a Sudanese nationalist: Maybe he believes that any force supported by President Bush is predisposed to support Fur autonomy over anti-American Islamic politicians sent from Khartoum. Al-Bashir and his friends rightly assume that if peace comes to Darfur and the Fur demand their right to vote in a free election, the outcome will likely be another victory for rebels, as in the south.
Peace in Darfur awaits not Washington’s pressure or international conferences or editorials in learned publications, but rather an artful political deal that disarms both sides while the legitimate interests of the Fur and the nomads are protected.
This political resolution may have to wait for a new administration in Washington, one less ideological and more schooled in the nuances of bilateral relations with an Islamic state. But in the meantime, my experience working with Sudanese officials suggests that a humanitarian resolution is a very real possibility.
Two decades ago in Sudan, Sudanese authorities cooperated in the rescue and movement to Israel of more than 10,000 Ethiopian Jews. Although Khartoum was officially at war with Israel, Nimeiri authorized his State Security to work with the American and Israeli governments to carry out this exodus.
Night after night during November and December 1984, 240 Ethiopian Jews boarded a Boeing 707 in a remote corner of Khartoum International Airport. Each of the 30 flights in and out was shepherded by an Israeli agent sitting in the control tower.
Approximately 40 Sudanese security troops protected the embarkation, drove the four buses from the refugee camps to the airport and provided all ground logistical support. When “Operation Moses,” as the lift was called, was aborted due to a news leak in Israel, the Sudanese government, in the face of massive international publicity, permitted the remaining 480 Ethiopian Jews to leave via “Operation Sheba.”
These Ethiopian Jews were plucked from death and misery and spirited to a new life as free Jews largely because the Sudanese government trusted the Americans who conceived, protected and executed the rescue. Unlike today, in 1984 and 1985 Khartoum was willing to gamble that this humanitarian undertaking would not end up biting them in the butt.
Nimeiri and his people got nothing out of the rescue: No bribes were paid, no special under-the-table deals were made. With more than 500,000 refugees in Sudan, a mere 10,000 was essentially meaningless. And remember, Sudan was officially at war with Israel.
So why did the Sudanese government permit the rescue? The operative word is trust.
Yes, the military officers and politicians of the current regime are different from those of 20 years ago. And yes, China has surpassed the United States as Sudan’s main patron. Yet diplomacy is the art of the possible.
Until Washington begins to see Darfur as a political problem and accepts as legitimate al-Bashir’s perspective, there is little chance that law and order will break out any time soon. It took 20 years to resolve the same set of issues in southern Sudan. Put simply, al-Bashir does not trust Bush not to hurt him.
Washington’s imposition of new economic sanctions will have no influence on Khartoum, since Sudan’s military and economic wherewithal comes from China. Cries of “genocide,” which are historically inaccurate and only trivialize what happened to European Jews, will have no effect except to encourage American politicians willing to manipulate the emotional but poorly informed. And even if Khartoum allows a larger and better-equipped international peace force into Darfur, communal fighting will go on — a lesson all too easily not learned from our adventure in Iraq.
Jerry Weaver served as refugee affairs counselor at the American embassy in Khartoum from 1978 to 1985.