"The only difference between Rwanda and Darfur now is the numbers involved," says Mukesh Kapila, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, who was in Rwanda when the 1994 genocide occurred.
The conflict in Darfur, an independent kingdom annexed to Sudan in 1917, started in the 1970s as a low-key dispute between migrant Arab nomads and local African farmers over grazing lands in this drought-prone region. By February 2003, the dispute had turned into a full-fledged civil war.
According to Kapila, the fighting in Darfur is comparable in character, if not in scale, to the Rwandan genocide. "It is more than just a conflict. It is an organised attempt to do away with a group of people," he says.
Enraged, the Sudanese government issued a statement, describing Kapila's remarks as a "heap of lies". The ministry of foreign affairs said in Khartoum that Kapila had "deviated from the virtues which a resident representative should have, that is neutrality, and transcended to open political work."
But the government of President Omar Hassan al Bashir does not appear keen to find a political solution in Darfur. It has chosen the path of war and has co-opted horsebacked Arab nomads, known as 'Janjaweed militias, to fight the rebels.
The crisis in Darfur has been further compounded by the fact that the government has prevented aid agencies from delivering food to what it calls "bandits". The government is working on legal documents to have the leaders of the rebel movement extradited from Europe, the Middle East and North America to face terror charges in Khartoum.
The government believes it can win the war. In February, President Bashir announced that the Darfur rebellion was over. His army had crushed the rebellion, he claimed. But two days later, the rebels hit back--in vengeance--apparently to prove that they were still in control and a force to reckon with.
The president reacted by sending more reinforcements to Darfur to pacify the region. But the Darfur war, which has its roots in an age-long rivalry and underdevelopment, will be difficult to end by military means.
Darfur remains one of the most underdeveloped and poorest regions of Sudan. And most of its people, especially those in the rural area, have not benefited from the country's oil boom, and hence most do not consider themselves as Sudanese. When this writer visited Geneina, a small town on the border with Chad, some years back, an old woman wondered whether I had come from the neighbouring Sudan. "Are you from the Sudan?" she asked pointedly.
Diplomats and aid workers have accused the government in Khartoum of carrying out systematic "ethnic cleansing" in Darfur. Abubakr Hamid Nour, the coordinator of the smaller Darfur rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), told journalists in January 2004 that government jet fighters were bombing around 20 villages in Darfur everyday.
According to rebel sources, more than 5,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed and over 110,000 have trekked across the border into Chad. Another 700,000 civilians have been displaced internally.
The conflict in Darfur took a political dimension after the publication of the Black Book: Imbalance of Power and Wealth in Sudan, by anonymous writers from western Sudan in 2000.
The book chronicles the disparity between the Arabs, who make up 39% of Sudan's population, and its African peoples. The book shows that only three ethnic groups--the Shaigia, Jaaliyeen and Danagla--all Arab speakers from the north, have dominated Sudan's political and commercial life since independence from Britain in 1956.
Since independence, not a single president has come from outside of the northern region. …