Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Run for Darfur

The following is a piece written by my husband, Andrew Aldrich. Andrew is fundraising for a "run for Darfur" on September 13, raising $3,900 for Darfur relief on his 39th. birthday. His example reminds me of the power of one person motivated by compassion and generosity to make a difference.

Since early 2003, Sudanese government forces and ethnic militia called “Janjaweed” have engaged in an armed conflict with two rebel groups called the Sudanese Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). As part of its operations against the rebels, government forces have waged a systematic campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the civilian population who are members of the same ethnic groups as the rebels. The count of those killed since 2003 is estimated at 300,000; total deaths since the beginning of this 2-decade conflict are unfathomable.

Between 2003 and 2005, the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed militias burned and destroyed hundreds of rural villages, killed tens of thousands of people and raped and assaulted thousands of women and girls. As of 2006, some 1.8 million live in camps in Darfur and approximately 220,000 have fled into Chad, where they live in refugee camps. In addition to the people displaced by the conflict, at least 1.5 million other people need some form of food assistance because the conflict has destroyed the local economy, markets and trade in Darfur.

Thousands of women and children have been abducted and/or raped and hundreds of villages destroyed and relatives still missing; yet, not one perpetrator of war crimes or crimes against humanity is known to have been brought to justice in Sudan.

The Sudanese people therefore need the help of the international community.

In early 2005, the number of government attacks on civilians dropped, partly because the vast majority of rural villages were already destroyed and their inhabitants displaced from the rural areas. As of 2006, however, the situation has dramatically worsened and the fighting has increased. Janjaweed forces with Chadian rebels are conducting attacks over the border into Chad. Janjaweed militias are also continuing to attack civilians and humanitarian aid workers, and are even attacking the camps for internally displaced people in Darfur.

These people, who have been driven from their homes, now face death from starvation and disease as the Government and militias attempt to prevent humanitarian aid from reaching them. The same forces have destroyed the people of Darfur's villages and crops, poisoned their water supplies, and continue to murder, rape and terrorize.

The African Union mediated an April 2004 ceasefire and sent in a ceasefire monitoring team in May 2004. As violence against civilians continued in 2004, the African Union force (AMIS) expanded and received funding and equipment from the European Union, the United Kingodm, the United States and other partners. The African Union is also mediating negotiations in Abuja, Nigeria for a peace agreement between the Sudanese government and the rebel movements.

The U.N. already has a peacekeeping mandate for southern Sudan. The U.N. mission in Sudan, known as UNMIS, will eventually deploy 10,000 troops to monitor and implement the north-south agreement. There are no indications that the U.S.—or any other Western country—is preparing or planning to send troops to Darfur. NATO does not have any troops on the ground in Darfur and has publicly stated that it does not have plans to send troops to Darfur.

In the first few years of the conflict, the Sudanese government regularly described the situation in Darfur as “tribal clashes” and consistently refused to acknowledge its responsibility for systematic attacks on civilians. It also tried to limit media access to Darfur and detained the Al Jazeera correspondent in Khartoum for several weeks in 2004 after the broadcast agency transmitted reports about Darfur. Khartoum has also accused international journalists and human rights groups of “fabricating” the Darfur situation, despite the overwhelming evidence of the Sudanese government’s responsibility for the crimes.

The Arab League has been largely silent on the atrocities in Darfur. The Arab League did send a fact-finding mission to Darfur in May 2004 but although its report concluded that serious atrocities were taking place, the Arab League has yet to publicly condemn or criticize the massive human rights abuses in Sudan.

The UN Security Council is divided on Sudan because different member states have divergent interests. Russia and China have often supported the Sudanese government due to their economic interests--the Chinese, for instance, import 5% of their oil from Sudan.

The majority of the displaced people in Darfur—1.8 million—are now living in camps where they are almost entirely dependent on international humanitarian assistance. They cannot leave the camps because they continue to be attacked by the militias and women are raped on a daily basis when they try to collect firewood outside the camps.

People cannot return to their homes due to the continuing presence of government-backed militias in the rural areas. Those that do escape the camps and attempt the trek through the desert find themselves faced with the harshest conditions – extreme heat, no water, no food and falling prey to militia forces or animals seeking their own source of food.

The situation in Darfur is dire. The choice we face simple. Act now to help save lives and stop the genocide, or watch as another chapter of injustice, cruelty and tragedy is added to human history. Let's learn the bloody lessons of Rwanda, the Holocaust, and Armenia. Let us make sure that 2006 is not a year that we remember and regret.

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