Darfur’s violent tragedy – two years on


Universe Column for September 17th 2006

by David Alton

It has been two years since I visited the wretched refugee camps of Darfur. The bewildered people there had fled from the Janjaweed militias who destroyed their villages, stole their cattle and killed as many locals as they could find. Many of the women who survived had been raped and tortured by their attackers.

At the time of my visit it seemed Darfur’s suffering was so terrible that the world would respond promptly by sending peacekeeping troops to protect the civilians.

Two years later, it shames me to say that women are still being raped by the Janjaweed, and the black African civilians of Darfur are still being ethnically cleansed by their own government.

Incredible as it seems, the situation in Darfur is even worse than it was when I was there. The Janjaweed horsemen, armed and paid by the Sudanese government, are now attacking and killing refugees who have found shelter in neighbouring Chad. It is thought that as many as 400,000 people may have died, and there is cholera in the camps, threatening to increase the daily death rate massively. Militias have made the whole area so dangerous that emergency relief agencies are withdrawing to the main towns. An unprecedented number of humanitarian workers have been murdered this summer.

As a result, the United Nations has warned that it cannot reach many of those who rely on the outside world for food. Ominously, we have no idea what is happening to displaced people in large sections of this vast and inhospitable region. As I saw for myself, there are virtually no roads, and the Sudanese authorities make sure the media has no access to the unspeakable suffering of millions of uprooted people.

When I asked the Darfur refugees I met what message they wanted me to take away, they were clear. “We must return to our land so we can plant our crops,” one of their white-robed elders told me. “We are farmers. Please take the guns away from the men who are trying to kill us.”

Since then the UN Security Council has passed resolutions that specifically called for sanctions to be targeted at the architects of this genocide, and a no-fly zone to stop the Sudanese bombing their own civilians. Neither of these measures has been implemented. We are still waiting for the international community to stand up to the Khartoum regime and look as if it means what it says.

Meanwhile the world’s attention has been drawn to the Tsunami and more recently the war in Lebanon, where television cameras were on hand to record the suffering of ordinary families. Thankfully there are now UN peacekeepers in the Middle East.

But for the people of Darfur, there is little prospect of troops to protect them or even television cameras to witness their terror. The Sudan regime has flatly refused to accept UN peacekeepers on its territory, and the international community has meekly chosen not to apply the pressure necessary.

For three members of the Security Council, China, France and Russia, their business relationships with Khartoum are their priority. The other two permanent members, Britain and America, wish to stay friendly with Sudan in case they are given intelligence on Khartoum’s former good friend and fellow Islamist, Osama bin Laden. Sadly, our officials and politicians have forgotten that for twenty years the same skilled leaders in Khartoum led them a merry diplomatic dance while they waged war on the Christians and animists in the south of Sudan, resulting in two million deaths.

Today – Sunday September 17th – with the encouragement of Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who spoke powerfully about the horrors afflicting Darfur after his recent visit there – leaders from Britain’s major faiths will gather at the gates of Downing Street to pray for the people of Darfur. Christians and Jews, Muslims and Sikhs will come together to demonstrate their unity in opposing the genocide in Darfur. They are also asking the Prime Minister to make sure Britain uses its role on the UN Security Council to enforce the resolutions against the Khartoum junta. Our priority must be getting UN peacekeepers into Darfur with a mandate to protect the long-suffering civilians we have neglected all this time.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has written a prayer especially for Darfur. If you wish your parish to participate in praying for Darfur, then go to www.WagingPeace.info or phone 0207 243 0300 to be sent a copy. Tennyson famously wrote that “more things are wrought by prayer than this world ever dreams of.” For the sake of the people of Darfur lets hope that is so.