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Understanding Sudan
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Understanding Sudan

Photo Essay View photos by Michal Ronnen Safdie of refugees from the Darfur conflict.

In a June 2004 editorial in the LOS ANGELES TIMES, Samantha Power and John Prendergast said "[i]n order to ameliorate the current humanitarian emergency and address the roots of the crisis, the United States must work far more urgently with the United Nations to stave off famine, reverse the ethnic cleansing, demand accountability and bring peace to Sudan." Samantha Power returns to NOW to discuss the ongoing crisis.

NOW last reported on the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Sudan in late 2004. That was before the UN issued a January 2005 report in which, while condemning the actions of the Sudanese government forces and allies, it stopped short of applying the term genocide to the ongoing conflict. This counters the September 2004 statement by US State Department that genocide was indeed occurring in the region. The UN report urged the Security Council to consider imposing sanctions on Sudan and recommended that the Council send the case to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The United States, while standing by its assessment of a genocidal situation, does not recognize the ICC and has called for a separate court to be established to try criminals from the Darfur conflict. (Learn more about international court system.)

Covering an area of one million square miles, Sudan is the largest country in Africa, located in the northeast just south of Egypt. Around 200 different languages and dialects are used by the 33 million Sudanese people. The country has been in conflict even before it became a nation state in 1956. In 1955, a conflict between the north and south of the country which evolved into an ongoing civil war between the government in the North and the Anyanaya Forces in the South who were seeking independence. The war ended in 1972 with an agreement that granted the South qualified autonomy. But conflict resumed in the 1980s among charges of discrimination by the Arab government in Khartoum against the Christian and Animist south.

In 2005, after long negotiations, a peace agreement was signed between the government in Khartoum and the rebels in the South. Key provisions of the agreement are that both sides will unify into 39,000-strong force if the south does not secede after six years. The South will have autonomy for six years followed by a referendum for secession. Sudan's vast oil wealth will be shared 50:50. However, the peace agreement between the North and South does not solve the ongoing crisis in the Darfur region.


Early in 2003, an armed conflict started in Darfur, a very poor region about the size of France in the west of the country. Warfare erupted when the non-Arab African rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/SLM) — later to be joined by the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) — attacked the Sudanese government forces and ethnic Arab militia. According to a briefing note from the British Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG), both groups have similar demands: "an end to the region's chronic economic and political marginalisation; and protection for their communities against attacks by armed nomadic groups."

However, as Human Rights Watch (HRW) puts it, "[i]nstead of fighting the rebels, the government forces have waged a systematic campaign against unarmed civilians belonging to the same ethnic groups as the rebel groups — mainly the Fur, Masaalit and Zaghawa." An Arab militia known as the Janjaweed (literally "evil on horseback" according to Scott Strauss of FOREIGN AFFAIRS) have joined forces with the Sudanese government as a counterinsurgency force. Human Rights Watch believes that the Janjaweed focus their attacks on looting, burning, and plundering villages and killing civilians, and that they have complete immunity from government prosecution for criminal acts they may commit.

Various humanitarian groups are focusing on the crisis in Darfur in an attempt to attract international attention and action. Many of these groups have compiled statistics and background information on the situation in western Sudan to help those new to this complicated issue better understand the forces at play. The links provided below will lead you to reports, maps, videos, and more on Darfur.


BBC News: Sudan: A Country Divided
This extensive compendium from BBC News provides ongoing, in depth coverage of the crisis in Darfur and the Sudanese peace process. The site also has a Q&A on the Darfur conflict.

Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres
The humanitarian group released a report in February 2005 entitled "The Crushing Burden of Rape: Sexual Violence in Dafur." The report was based on reports by MSF doctors which found that between October 2004 and mid-February 2005, MSF doctors in numerous locations in South and West Darfur treated almost 500 women and girls who were raped. MSF believes that these numbers reflect only a fraction of the total number of victims because many women are reluctant to report the crime or seek treatment.

Genocide Intervention Fund
The Genocide Intervention Fund (GIF), a tax-exempt organization, will combine fundraising for the UN-supported African Union peacekeepers with advocacy efforts demanding government policies designed to improve security and civilian protection in Darfur. The GIF will operate within the framework of the "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) report. The GIF brings R2P to private citizens

Human Rights Watch: Sudan
A collection of the group's studies and position papers on the crisis in Darfur.

Overseas Development Institute (ODI)
The Humanitarian Policy Group at Britain's independent think-tank Overseas Development Institute (ODI) published this report in April 2004. HPG's introduction to the report reads: "Darfur has been described as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. Thousands have died as a direct consequence of violence, and many more as a result of conflict-related disease. This HPG Briefing Note (PDF) draws on a variety of sources and on thematic research by HPG to highlight some of the key issues.

UN Sudan Information Gateway
The official UN Web site on Sudan contains report and information on Sudan's north/south peace process and the crisis in Darfur. You can read the UN's recent report on Sudan and the results of the UN Security Counsel Meeting on Darfur held on March 7, 2005.

Sources: Center for the Advancement of Democratic Awareness in Sudan, Human Rights Watch, Humanitarian Policy Group, International Crisis Group

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