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Tribal Warfare Shakes Sudan

CBS News Reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News, who now covers the State Department.

"We are facing in Darfur…the worst humanitarian disaster in the world right now," USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios told reporters this week. No one knows how many have been killed so far but Natsios says there are estimates of as many as 30,000. The United Nations reports at least a million people have been displaced because of ethnic fighting in the Darfur region of Western Sudan.

Ethnic and tribal fighting in third world countries is not new or unusual. In Sudan, which has been in the throes of civil war between its Northern (Muslim) and Southern (Christian and animist) regions for two decades, what may be surprising is that the fighting in Darfur is Muslim against Muslim.

In Darfur the problem is water or, more precisely, the lack of it. The battle, literally, is between the region's farmers and its herders. The area has long been an area of conflict, dating back at least 110 years when the British, who then controlled the region, forced farmers from Southern Sudan to the Western provinces. The brunt of the current fighting pits three tribes of farmers –the Fur, Massaleet and Zagawa against the Jingaweit, a regional militia whose fighters come from other tribes in the area, mostly of Arab origin who are nomadic herders and who are supported by the Sudanese government.

How bad are things today? The United Nations, the European Union and the Bush administration all agree, Natsios says, "…there is a clear pattern of ethnic cleansing."

Among the atrocities being committed, says Natsios, are "…the mass rape, systematic rape of women, many of whom have been branded, according to the Human Rights Watch report are branded after they're raped—and this is done on a systematic basis. This is not soldiers out of control," he says.

A recent UN report talked of "pre-genocide conditions." Sensitive on both humanitarian and political grounds to the ethnic cleansing campaign of the Serbs within the past decade, and to the Rwandan genocide ten years ago, the international community is fully prepared to send in massive amounts of humanitarian aid. The parties have even agreed to a safe passage ceasefire/humanitarian access agreement.

So what's holding things up? At the moment, the government of Sudan has so far refused to issue visas and travel permits to either UN or American aid officials to go to the region and make an updated assessment of the humanitarian needs. In the meantime, According to Natsios, "…400 villages have been burned to the ground; the irrigation systems in those villages are being blown up so people will not be able to return to those villages to grow crops. And we know the pattern is ethnically based…..There are other tribes next door that are not involved in the combat so their—the villages are untouched."

Asked why the government of Sudan, which controls the Jingaweit militia, has not taken steps to stop the fighting since both sides have already agreed to do so, Natsios offers a reason based on reports Washington is getting from human rights organizations who have representatives in the region. "…the Government is in the villages attempting to move mass graves, they are attempting to disguise some of the events that took place the last six months. That's what we're told. But I don't know if that's true."

What we're watching is a political and diplomatic standoff. The international community in general and the U.S. in particular, with all the power and resources to help people in need, cannot act because Sudanese officials, who are already under virtually every international sanction which can be imposed, simply refuse the help being offered to some of its own people.

With the rainy season coming in late May and early June, Natsios says time is running out. By the end of June, it will be too muddy for trucks carrying food and medicine to make their way to villagers in need. So Natsios, resorting to another tool of modern leaders, has gone public. "But we're hoping this press conference will release the visas. That's one of the purposes of our discussion today."

by Charles Wolfson