What I Saw in Darfur

An African Union soldier in the El Salam camp in Darfur. (By Zohra Bensemra -- Associated Press)

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By Ban Ki-moon
Friday, September 14, 2007

We speak often and easily about Darfur. But what can we say with surety? By conventional shorthand, it is a society at war with itself. Rebels battle the government; the government battles the rebels. Yet the reality is more complicated. Lately, the fighting often as not pits tribe against tribe, warlord against warlord.

Nor is the crisis confined to Darfur. It has spilled over borders, destabilizing the region. Darfur is also an environmental crisis -- a conflict that grew at least in part from desertification, ecological degradation and a scarcity of resources, foremost among them water.

I have just returned from a week in Darfur and the surrounding region. I went to listen to the candid views of its people -- Sudanese officials, villagers displaced by fighting, humanitarian aid workers, the leaders of neighboring countries. I came away with a clear understanding. There can be no single solution to this crisis. Darfur is a case study in complexity. If peace is to come, it must take into account all the elements that gave rise to the conflict.

Everything I saw and heard convinced me that this is possible. And we must succeed. Outside El Fasher, the largest city in North Darfur, I visited the El Salam camp, which is sheltering some 45,000 internally displaced people. My heart went out to them. I felt their hopelessness and frustration. I saw children who had not seen life outside the camps. I wanted to give them a sign. I promised that we would do our best to bring peace and to help them return to their villages.

We have made a good start. The U.N. Security Council has authorized the deployment of 26,000 multinational peacekeepers, jointly conducted by the United Nations and the African Union (A.U.). In going to Darfur, I saw the difficult conditions our forces will encounter -- and saw, too, that our logistical preparations are underway.

No peacekeeping mission can succeed without a peace to keep. We need to push, hard, for a political settlement as well. Indeed, that was the principal purpose of my trip.

In Khartoum, the government of President Omar al-Bashir renewed its unqualified commitment to support the peacekeeping mission as well as comprehensive peace talks. We agreed that negotiations should begin in Libya on Oct. 27, under joint A.U.-U.N. leadership. The government also confirmed its pledge to an immediate cessation of hostilities, as the rebel groups did last month in Arusha. Within hours of my visit, however, there were reports of tensions, clashes and bombings in the northern Darfur town of Haskanita. It is important that both parties exercise restraint and create conditions conducive to the talks.

In dealing with Darfur, we must look beyond it. In Juba, the capital of South Sudan, political leaders are worried that Darfur could deflect attention from the peace agreement signed two years ago, ending a long civil war. As we tend to Darfur, we must not neglect this fragile situation, lest a broader war break out anew and undermine all our efforts.

Any peace must have deep roots if it is to endure. In Juba and El Fasher, I heard about the importance of listening to the voices of a broad range of society -- tribal leaders, representatives of independent political movements, women's and refugee groups, local and national officials. We need a social contract for peace.

When I met Libya's leader, Col. Moammar Gaddafi, in his tent in Sirte, he generously offered to host the peace talks and assured me that he would do his utmost to help make them a success. "It is now or never," he said, emphasizing the widespread view that these negotiations must be final.

During my visit, I was shown Gaddafi's Great Manmade River: hundreds of miles of pipeline carrying millions of gallons of fresh water from beneath the Sahara. In a region where water is so scarce, this is remarkable. Flying over Lake Chad -- a vast inland sea that has shrunk to one-tenth its original size -- the previous day, it was obvious that this region's future also depends on supplies of water.

In N'Djamena, Chad, President Idriss Deby told me that without water, there can be no economic development. Without the prospect of economic advancement, he went on, the quarter-million Darfuri refugees living in the eastern part of his country might never go home. Security and development, he said, go hand in hand. In this regard, the international community can play an important role.

All this underscores the need for a comprehensive approach to the conflict in Darfur. Solutions cannot be piecemeal. The crisis grew from many causes. We must deal with all of them -- security, politics, resources, water, and humanitarian and development issues.

Dealing with complexity makes our work more challenging and difficult. Yet it is the only path to a lasting solution.

The writer is secretary general of the United Nations.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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