Last month, in the middle of a hot, dusty refugee camp in eastern Chad, we witnessed hundreds of men from Darfur, clad in immaculate white robes, crowding around a small generator-powered television. They were watching the news about a new member of Sudan's leadership: John Garang, longtime leader of the country's southern rebellion against its northern government. Now he was being sworn in as first vice president in a new "government of national unity" meant to end Sudan's long civil war.
To be sure, few of the refugees really knew much about "Dr. John," except that he was not a member of the Khartoum-based Arab elite that has orchestrated a campaign of murder and rape to drive them and more than 2 million other non-Arabs from their homes in Sudan's western region of Darfur. But given their desperation to return home and reclaim their former lives, his swearing-in was enough to create palpable excitement. For many of the estimated 200,000 Darfurian refugees in Chad, the new government represents hope of returning home.
We feared then that they were grasping at straws; with the death of John Garang in a helicopter crash a few weeks ago, our fear may have become reality.
It's been more than a year now since we witnessed some of the bleakest sights we'd ever seen in Chad. Thousands of refugees were scattered over the barren landscape, huddled under straggly trees that offered no protection from the furnace-like heat and unforgiving desert winds. The few animals they had brought with them were dying from lack of water and fodder, the carcasses being burnt in large heaps to avoid the spread of disease. Even the refugees in U.N.-sponsored camps suffered from inadequate water supplies and inconsistent food distribution as relief workers struggled to catch up with this man-made emergency.
Conditions have improved since our last trip to Chad. The refugee infrastructure has developed into well-organized camps that seem to meet the basic needs of many who now have been away from their homes for more than two years. Yet tensions between the refugees and their Chadian hosts are rising, principally because of competition for resources. We were told of women in one camp who have had to walk as far as 10 miles to find firewood for cooking -- putting themselves in danger of being assaulted -- because the area near the camp had been stripped bare. One man told us about a refugee family that sought to supplement its insufficient food rations by growing vegetables. Family members finally found some land to cultivate miles away from the camp, but then their 13-year-old daughter was abducted by local bandits and raped repeatedly.
Even as acts of violence in Chad mount, however, the refugees there are still safer than the approximately 2 million people who remain displaced inside Darfur. Thousands have been raped there and are still subject to attack in camps where they have sought refuge. With their homes and livelihoods already shattered, their lives and dignity remain at risk. Reports of large-scale attacks on villages by Sudanese military forces and their Janjaweed militia allies have diminished, perhaps because there are so few non-Arab villages left to destroy. But this hardly means that the process of destruction has stopped.
The overall security situation remains dire. Moreover, the sweeping destruction of homes, community structures, wells, crops, livestock and personal assets has devastated a way of life for non-Arab Darfurians. Their civil society, a cultural identity tied to their villages and the very fabric of their social structures have been virtually eliminated. They have been driven en masse into a desolate and hostile desert death trap where they have little hope of surviving without international assistance.
The great tactical advantage that the perpetrators of this genocide have had throughout the crisis is that their focus has been intense and relentless, while high-level attention from the international community has been only episodic -- a photo-op visit here and there for the most part. The risk now is that what look like positive developments -- fewer attacks on villages, creation of the new government, an expanded African Union monitoring force -- will cause international attention to become even less consistent. And meanwhile, the suffering of the surviving Darfurians drags on.
The demise of the targeted victim groups will proceed through attrition, a steady grinding down of their lives and identities. The 7,700 African Union monitors expected to be in place by the fall are unlikely to be enough to protect all 2 million displaced Darfurians, let alone to create secure conditions for them to return home and rebuild their lives.
The refugees we interviewed were unanimous in saying that the African Union alone cannot provide the type of security they need to go back. A more robust and sustained international presence is crucial to complement it.
The refugees we met in Chad refuse to reset their watches to reflect the hour's time difference between Sudan and Chad. They wait and wait, living on Sudan time. But time is not on their side.
Jerry Fowler is staff director of the Committee on Conscience at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. John Heffernan is a senior investigator for Physicians for Human Rights.