In the remote Darfur region of western Sudan, a human disaster is accelerating amid uncontrolled violence. The United Nations' undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs has called it probably "the world's greatest humanitarian catastrophe." Doctors Without Borders has observed "catastrophic mortality rates." And yet, so far as most of the world is concerned, it isn't even happening.
There have been what Amnesty International calls "horrifying military attacks against civilians" throughout Darfur by the Sudanese government and its militias. The government has sent bombers to attack undefended villages, refugee camps and water wells. The United Nations estimates that 1 million people have been displaced by war and that more than 3 million are affected by armed conflict.
Yet Darfur has remained practically a non-story in international news media. One big reason is the fact that the central government in Khartoum, the National Islamic Front, has allowed no news reporters into the region and has severely restricted humanitarian access, thus preventing observation by aid workers. The war in Darfur is not directly related to Khartoum's 20-year war against the people of southern Sudan. Even so, military pressure from the Darfur insurgency that began a year ago has been instrumental in forcing the regime to commit to peace talks with the south.
But there are now signs that these talks have been viewed by Khartoum only as a way to buy time to crush the insurgency in Darfur, which emerged, inevitably, from many years of abuse and neglect. Despite efforts by the regime to stop it, a widening stream of information is reaching the international community, from tens of thousands of refugees fleeing to Chad (which shares a long border with western Sudan), and according to accounts from within Darfur. Amnesty International has led the way in reporting on Darfur; one of its recent releases speaks authoritatively of countless savage attacks on civilians by Khartoum's regular army, including its crude Antonov bombers, and by its Arab militia allies, called "Janjaweed."
An especially disturbing feature of these attacks is the clear and intensifying racial animus. This has been reported by Amnesty International, the International Crisis Group and various U.N. spokesmen. The words "ethnic cleansing" have been used by U.N. officials and diplomats. This term, which gained currency during the breakup of Yugoslavia, is another description for genocide. But whatever they are called, the terrible realities in Darfur require that we attend to the ways in which people are being destroyed because of who they are, racially and ethnically -- "as such," to cite the key phrase from the 1948 U.N. Convention on Genocide.
Darfur is home to racially and ethnically distinct tribal groups. Although virtually all are Muslim, generalizations are hard to make. But the Fur, Zaghawa, Masseleit, and other peoples are accurately described as "African," both in a racial sense and in terms of agricultural practice and use of non-Arabic languages. Darfur also has a large population of nomadic Arab tribal groups, and from these Khartoum has drawn its savage "warriors on horseback" -- the Janjaweed -- who are most responsible for attacks on villages and civilians.
The racial animus is clear from scores of chillingly similar interviews with refugees reaching Chad. A young African man who had lost many family members in an attack heard the gunmen say, "You blacks, we're going to exterminate you." Speaking of these relentless attacks, an African tribal leader told the U.N. news service, "I believe this is an elimination of the black race." A refugee reported these words as coming from his attackers: "You are opponents to the regime, we must crush you. As you are black, you are like slaves. Then the entire Darfur region will be in the hands of the Arabs." An African tribal chief declared that, "The Arabs and the government forces . . . said they wanted to conquer the whole territory and that the blacks did not have a right to remain in the region."
There can be no reasonable skepticism about Khartoum's use of these militias to "destroy, in whole or in part, ethnic or racial groups" -- in short, to commit genocide. Khartoum has so far refused to rein in its Arab militias; has refused to enter into meaningful peace talks with the insurgency groups; and, most disturbingly, has refused to grant unrestricted humanitarian access. The international community has been slow to react to Darfur's catastrophe and has yet to move with sufficient urgency and commitment. A credible peace forum must be rapidly created. Immediate plans for humanitarian intervention should begin. The alternative is to allow tens of thousands of civilians to die in the weeks and months ahead in what will be continuing genocidal destruction.
Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College, has written extensively on Sudan.