You might have read newspaper articles about the humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur, or seen images on television of refugees languishing in camps, and thought: "What does any of this have to do with me, and besides what could I actually do to help?" After all, these atrocities are taking place 7,000 miles away, and responding to mass violence against civilians is the responsibility of big bureaucratic agencies such as the United Nations, right?
The answer to these questions says a lot about the power that U.S. citizens have to effect change in other parts of the world. If you look closely at the international community's response to the Sudanese government's decision to unleash the murderous janjaweed militias on its own citizens in Darfur, and against civilians in neighboring Chad, you will find that ordinary U.S. citizens are taking some of the most relevant action to stop the violence.
THE DEATH of Sudan's rebel leader-turned-vice-president John Garang has pushed the crisis in Darfur even further off the international radar screen. While the peace agreement that Garang crafted between his southern-based rebels and the Khartoum government has paved the way for a new government of national unity, Darfur is now suffering stage two of the ruling party's brutal counterinsurgency strategy. Stage one was well documented: the wholesale annihilation of the way of life and livelihoods of the civilian supporters of the rebellion. The Bush administration called this genocide.
Stage two, however, occurs largely off camera. The engineers of Darfur's agony are gradually exterminating the survivors of stage one -- the 2.5 million frightened civilians living in hastily erected camps. The rape of women is systematic and relentless, access to humanitarian aid is denied, and vulnerable Darfurians are losing their will to survive.
Paul Rusesabagina visited President Bush at the White House last month. Paul is the hotelier-turned-hero who saved more than 1,200 lives during Rwanda's 1994 genocide, and whose actions inspired the movie Hotel Rwanda. Paul was eager to see the president because he wanted to tell him that Rwanda's horror of a decade ago is happening again — this time, in Sudan's western region of Darfur.
A brutal campaign of state-sponsored violence in Darfur has led to the deaths of up to 300,000 people, and the lives of about 2 million displaced people hang in the balance.
Talking to homeless Sudanese in hiding near their burned villages has a way of clarifying issues. In rebel-held territory of Darfur recently, I heard story after story of people whose fathers and brothers had been killed, whose mothers, sisters and daughters had been gang-raped, and whose livelihoods, built over generations, had been torched by their own government and the militia it supports. And I realized more clearly than ever how much foreign policy comes down to basic choices about priorities.
The failure by the international community to respond to Sudan's killing fields in Darfur may not yet be as dramatic or deadly as its failure in Rwanda, but the excuses ring much more hollow. In 1994, the world had only 90 days in which to act before the killing in Rwanda was over.
While Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary General Kofi Annan of the United Nations, and several members of Congress were in government-controlled areas of Darfur a few weeks ago, I crossed into Darfur's rebel-held territory. This is the part of Sudan that the regime doesn't want anyone to see, for good reason.
I expected to see a depopulated wasteland rife with deteriorating evidence of the ethnic cleansing campaign pursued by the government of Sudan. The regime, in response to a rebellion begun by primarily non-Arab groups in early 2003, armed the Janjaweed militia, giving them impunity to attack.
Last month, in the town of Mershing, South Darfur, there was chaos and carnage. On a scorching day in February, four hundred Janjaweed militiamen attacked, firing indiscriminately on civilians, destroying homes, and looting livestock. Eight hours after the initial onslaught, the Janjaweed returned for a second round of mayhem, assaulting women and children and looting the town's main market.
Following a terror-filled night, the 55,000 residents of Mershing fled for their lives. Thirteen infants were trampled to death and 220 children separated from their families in the exodus. The day after, here in Washington, a senior State Department official told journalists that "there isn't large-scale organized violence taking place" in Darfur.
In this eerily depopulated area of war-ravaged Darfur, a woman named Ayesha explained to me why she and a handful of others refused to become refugees. "We fear another attack," she said, "but we brave the situation and come back to be near our village." Why, I ask. "Because this is where we belong."
Most Darfurians, however -- more than 2.5 million displaced within Sudan and in neighboring Chad -- cannot go back where they belong, because the government still supports the Janjaweed militias, who continue to rape and pillage across Darfur and eastern Chad.
While the Group of Eight (G-8) leaders meet this week to discuss challenges to peace, security and development in Africa, the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, continues unabated.
The international community's response so far to the tragedy of Darfur - where at least 200,000 people have died as a result of the conflict in western Sudan and more than 2 million others have been driven from their homes by government-backed Janjaweed militias - has been largely confined to a small African peacekeeping force with a limited mandate that will take months to deploy fully.
Despite repeated pledges to stop the violence, the Sudanese government has utterly failed to do so. Political negotiations have stalled and, despite the presence of African Union (AU) troops and the U.N. Security Council's demand for accountability and sanctions, Darfur's civilian population continues to be the target of indiscriminate killing, looting, mass rape and displacement.
Negotiating the end of a war is tricky enough. But in the case of Darfur, mediators were also faced with the implicit task of ending what the Bush administration calls genocide, and what nobody can deny have been gross crimes against humanity.
Such a tall order, coupled with an abrupt negotiating deadline, produced an agreement that leaves more questions than answers. And unless a United Nations force is deployed immediately to guarantee its implementation, it will also leave over two million homeless Darfurians vulnerable to further exploitation.