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Joel Brinkley: Victims of forgotten war need the world's attention


By Joel Brinkley

The forgotten war has just turned 10 years old, but of course almost no one took notice.

Since early 2003, at least 300,000 people have been killed. More than 2 million others have been forced from their homes. And day by day, even now, the problems are worsening.

More people fled to feculent refugee camps in the first two months of 2013 than in all of the previous year. The reason: intensifying aerial bombardments and indiscriminate military raids.

The surviving victims of this terrible, unending conflict are suffering from multiple illnesses, including tuberculosis, malaria, scabies, night blindness, typhoid -- even leprosy, the region's health minister recently declared. The people are especially vulnerable, he added, because of widespread malnutrition -- even starvation. And yet for nearly everyone, health care is unavailable.

Is this Syria or Afghanistan? Maybe Somalia or Yemen?

No, the war no one recalls is in Darfur, Sudan.

Surprised? Almost nothing has changed since Darfur was on front pages in the mid 2000s. Back then, I traveled with the secretary of state when she visited Darfur and talked about the conflict with Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president -- like many world leaders. For each one, Bashir would grin and nod and then, after the visitor left, carry on as before -- slaughtering thousands of his own people.

The United Nations continually passed condemnatory resolutions and even chartered a feckless African Union peacekeeping force. But the worst Bashir really had to face was a lot of talk.

And so it continues: Just a few days ago, Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign affairs minister, issued a statement saying she was "deeply concerned" that, "even after 10 years, fighting and killing continues, and millions of Darfuris are still internally displaced persons or refugees."

In Washington seven years ago, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said: "We're deeply concerned that, despite assurances from the government," the military was still blocking aid deliveries to refugees. That same week, Carol Bellamy, head of the U.N. Children's Fund, said she was "deeply concerned" about "the growing vulnerability of the displaced population."

For 10 years there's been no shortage of sympathetic rhetoric. Beyond that, though, nothing effective has been done. And without question that's only because of one man: Omar al-Bashir.

The conflict in Darfur began on Feb. 28, 2003, when rebel groups attacked government positions, accusing the leaders in Khartoum of ignoring their region. The government struck back with a fury, enlisting local militias to massacre civilians and burn down entire villages.

Back then, the world was slow to react, but in September 2004 the Bush administration declared that the carnage constituted genocide. The West, primarily the United States, brokered two peace treaties between the government and Darfur rebels, in 2006 and 2009. But then, Bashir simply ignored them and continued the carnage.

Then, in 2009, the International Criminal Court indicted Bashir on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and other war crimes. He refused to face the charges, though he is subject to arrest whenever he leaves the country.

Well, by 2009, the world had turned away. The U.S. sidelined the problem by appointing special envoys, one after another "in soap-opera fashion," a Darfur rebel leader wrote in the Africa News a week ago. These people worked more or less out of the public eye, and in recent years they focused primarily on helping to establish South Sudan, the new state that seceded from the north.

Little if any attention was paid to Darfur. Other priorities came along, and Western leaders quietly gave up because they realized the problem could not be solved while Bashir still ruled the nation.

The lack of attention to this decade-long horror is now proving to be a severe problem for aid agencies working to keep millions of Darfuris alive.

Oxfam, the international aid group, noted on the anniversary date that its "sources of funding -- from individual supporters to major foundations -- have turned their attention elsewhere. Our Sudan programs are in jeopardy at a time when the humanitarian needs are once again on the rise."

Even under indictment, Bashir still travels widely, to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Libya, Egypt, Eritrea and other states whose leaders lay down red carpets and greet him with kisses on both cheeks. As the United States Institute of Peace diplomatically put it: the Darfur disaster remains primarily "a product of how officials in Khartoum govern Sudan."

The next time Bashir takes a trip, if someone would simply arrest him, that would save uncounted thousands of lives.

Email: joel.brinkley@stanford.edu


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