Advocates keep focus on Darfur: Election, partition may reignite trouble
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Bloodshed in Darfur declined in 2009, but for Valley experts and advocates, this is no reason to relax their vigilance.
With a refugee population in the millions, skirmishes still breaking out in western Sudan, two pivotal elections on the horizon, and oil reserves at stake, the situation in Darfur - officially characterized by the U.S. as genocide in 2006 - is far from resolved.
Local Darfur advocates are attempting to bring focus back to the region in the hopes of quashing violence before it flares up again.
There is fear that the April presidential election and an historic 2011 vote that could give oil-rich southern Sudan autonomy could provoke more violence. More than half of the government's revenues are derived from oil fields, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. These oil resources may no longer be available to the government, whose power is concentrated in the north, should the south secede.
"Unfortunately, this is not coming to a close," said Mohamed Elgadi, an activist and former Sudanese political prisoner now living in Amherst. Elgadi is co-founder of the Western Massachusetts Darfur Coalition and the Darfur Alert Coalition in Philadelphia. Elgadi came to America with his wife about 15 years ago.
"It's a very good positive that there is less violence," Elgadi said, "but unfortunately the status quo continues and people cannot go back to their villages."
Darfur slipped from the headlines in 2009 as violence between the allegedly government-backed Arab Muslim north and the militia-supported black Christian south over scarce resources declined.
Yet, violence continues to plague the region.
From January 2008 through July 2009, close to 2,500 people were killed, according to the most recent data from the African Union Panel on Darfur.
Since violence erupted in 2003, hundreds of thousands of Sudanese have been killed and another 2.5 million have fled their villages, opting for life as refugees, according to Amnesty International. Exact figures on injuries, fatalities and people displaced are difficult to verify because Darfur is a restricted area.
"Violence continues and the threat of violence, which is just as important, continues," said Eric Reeves, a Smith College professor who has been analyzing the situation in Darfur for more than a decade.
Reeves has testified several times before Congress, has lectured widely in academic settings, and has served as a consultant to a number of human rights and humanitarian organizations operating in Sudan.
"It doesn't match the ferocious clashes of 2003 and 2004, but that does not mean that significant violence is not occurring," Reeves said.
April may be a tipping point for violence as Sudan holds its first multiparty presidential election in 24 years. President Omar al-Bashir, who has governed the country since orchestrating a military coup in 1999, could be re-elected. Bashir has been charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Hague-based International Criminal Court for allegedly orchestrating a campaign of murder, torture, rape and forced expulsions in the seven-year-old conflict in the western region of Darfur. An appeals panel this week declared that the ICC had enough evidence to charge al-Bashir with genocide, which it declined to do in March.
In 2011, the Sudanese will vote on a referendum that could give the southern Sudan region autonomy.
Reeves said the south's secession is heavily favored, but the government may be unwilling to allow the area autonomy regardless of the vote.
"There will be violence, either pre-emptive or because the results were not upheld by Khartoum," Reeves predicted.
Williamsburg resident Keith Harmon Snow, however, believes the referendum is less about autonomy for the south and more about control of its resources, namely oil. If the south secedes, both the north and the south would have to agree to a new border that could cut the oil-poor north off from a significant revenue stream.
Snow has worked on the Horn of Africa as a consultant on genocide and humanitarian aid for the United Nations, as well as a genocide investigator for Genocide Watch and Survivors Rights International.
"The south has its autonomy already for the most part," said Snow, noting the area has its own government and flag. "The idea that an election will determine the autonomy of the south is another stage in the conquest of Sudan by western powers."
Snow contends the violence and social upheaval in Darfur is a concoction of many different international players who wish to control or overthrow the Sudanese government in an effort to harvest the country's oil and other natural resources.
United Nations peacekeeping troops, which arrived in Sudan in 2007 along with troops from the African Union, serve private corporate interests over humanitarian ones, Snow said. He also does not believe the situation in Darfur is genocide. The number of people killed has been inflated, in some reports up to 450,000, he said, to manipulate well-meaning interests to apply political pressure.
In anticipation of the elections, Valley sympathizers are working to prevent violence through a campaign of awareness and political pressure.
"We don't know what will happen, the whole country is in chaos," Elgadi said. "No one knows if Sudan will be the same country after all this, but we will know for sure next year."
Reeves, for example, is writing an editorial asking President Obama to make it clear that America will support the outcome of the Sudanese elections. Political pressure of this degree could quash post-election wrangling, he said.
"He has to make the declaration in public that we will support the results of this referendum, no ifs, ands or buts," Reeves said. "If we don't send a clear signal to Khartoum, Bashir will believe it acceptable to resume war or deny the legitimacy of the election."
Reeves said he hopes the article would have the same impact as a piece he wrote for the Washington Post in February 2004, declaring the situation in Darfur genocide and calling for humanitarian aid. The article galvanized public opinion and catapulted Reeves into the center of the Darfur debate.
The Western Massachusetts Darfur Coalition is attempting to follow in Reeves' tracks. The group continues to rally public support by raising awareness of the beleaguered region. Elgadi said the coalition is also reaching out to the two main Sudanese rebel factions, the Justice Equality Movement and the Sudan Liberation Army, calling for them to act responsibly.
Elgadi said these methods are effective. Without grassroots advocacy programs like Western Massachusetts Darfur Coalition, genocide in Darfur would have continued unabated.
"The violence is less thanks to the international grass roots movement, a whole positive thing happened," Elgadi said. "It proves that the pressure on the government of Sudan made some kind of effect."