Last May, amid considerable fanfare, the Darfur Peace Agreement was signed in Nigeria. Brokered by the United States and the African Union, it was meant to end three years of ethnic oppression and warfare in western Sudan that had left at least 180,000 dead and two million displaced and often hungry.
This was a conflict that had scarred the conscience of the world: and yet, despite enormous outrage, there was neither will nor means to give protection to people terrorised, even in their refugee camps, by campaigns of murder, rape and wilful destruction.
It’s not over. What posed as a peace deal has proved to be little more than a reshuffling of military alliances inside Sudan, and so in the past eight weeks the terrorisation and murder of civilians in the remote region has resumed. The rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), which signed the deal, has split and the factions are openly at war, preying on each other’s subject populations. The Khartoum government, meanwhile, has returned to the offensive against the regrouping rebels.
The headline-grabbing fighting in Lebanon had been under way for about two weeks, absorbing world attention, when the Sudanese government showed its contempt for the peace deal by throwing bombers and helicopters into an assault on rebel positions near the Chadian border, forcing hundreds of civilians to flee.
So complex are the politics and so chaotic is the conflict that its victims don’t even know who is attacking them any more. When I visited the northern town of Korma people were in fear after spotting armed men on camels nearby. Who were they? “God knows,” said the nazir, or district head. “G19? The National Redemption Front? Or bandits? A week ago they killed a man, stole 40 cows and a donkey.”
G19 and the National Redemption Front, or NRF, are ex-SLA groups opposed to the peace, and they are linked with the Justice and Equality Movement, a long-standing rebel army. Backing the peace deal, at the same time, is an SLA faction under Minni Minnawi, now in alliance with the Khartoum government and its notorious friends the Janjaweed.
Whether it makes any sense or not, the surge of fighting around Korma alone has pushed 7,000 more people to seek refuge in the al-Salam refugee camp outside El Fasher, which was already sheltering 25,000 people. And inside the camps the political tensions are at work, with violence often close to the surface.
Once again the delivery of humanitarian aid is in jeopardy because it is becoming too dan gerous, so essential supplies to many thousands of desperate people are in doubt. In July alone eight aid agency staff were killed as fighters repeatedly ambushed them to steal food and vehicles. Even the African Union peace force has become a target, so its workers now visit places such as Korma only by helicopter.
Even when the Darfur conflict made headlines the rest of the world did little to protect its victims. Now, as those behind the renewed fighting know well, we are not even paying attention.