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Sudan Facing Worst Humanitarian Disaster in the World

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Tens of thousands of black Africans have been slaughtered and some one million have fled their homes in Sudan’s western Darfur region after attacks by Arab militias armed by the Sudanese government. We speak with independent journalist Julie Flint who recently published a report on Sudan for Human Rights Watch and we go to Darfur to speak with UNICEF worker James Elder.[includes transcript]

The US-occupation of Iraq is daily headline news around the world. But one conflict that is rarely mentioned, especially by the US media, is Sudan which faces the worst humanitarian disaster anywhere in the world.

In what the United Nations calls “a campaign of ethnic cleansing” tens of thousands of black Africans have been slaughtered and some one million have fled their homes in Sudan’s western Darfur region after attacks by Arab militias armed by the Sudanese government.

On Saturday, Sudanese president Omar Hassan Bashir finally agreed to mobilize the country’s military to disarm all illegal armed groups in Darfur, including the Arab militias–known locally as Janjaweed. The announcement came amid mounting pressure from the international community. Last week, the US State Department threatened the Sudanese government in Khartoum with possible economic sanctions and visa denials unless it took steps to stop the killing in Darfur. The current conflict began in February 2003, when two different groups of black rebels took up arms against the Sudanese government in an effort to gain political power. In response, the government reportedly gave the Janjaweed free reign to retaliate against black villagers in Darfur. These militias have killed between 10,000 and 30,000 people and displaced more than 1 million refugees, many fleeing to neighboring Chad.

A ceasefire was agreed in April, but attacks on villages continue and refugees are facing a devastating shortage of humanitarian assistance.

  • James Elder, UNICEF Communications Officer in Darfur, Sudan.
  • Julie Flint, independent journalist who led a recent Human Rights Watch trip to Sudan. Her report for Human Rights Watch, “Darfur Destroyed” was published in May. She testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We go directly to Darfur, to James Elder, the UNICEF communications chief. Welcome to Democracy Now!

JAMES ELDER: Hi there, thanks very much, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you for joining us. Can you describe what is happening in Darfur?

JAMES ELDER: Look, the situation is dire, but not impossible. As you said, we’re talking about more than one million people who have been displaced. What that means is they have violently uprooted from their homes, their families and their live livelihood. So, now in what we call I.D.P. camps, which is internally displaced people camps and the scenes are pretty ghastly. There are thousands of grass shacks, no cupboard and they’re not prepared to handle rain and it’s starting to rain in sheets now and most of these houses hold five, six, seven family members and the near-by vegetation has been stripped to provide fuel for cooking. Thousands of children are malnourished. Women are frightened, a lot of them have been attacked. As you said the situation of rape has occurred and does occur. Of course, many of them have lost fathers and brothers. So, the conditions are bad. They’re not impossible. The improvements are being made as we speak. UNICEF is covering itself across water and sanitation, health and nutrition and education. But the simple fact is, because agencies such as UNICEF had their access restricted for such a long time, that it’s really an uphill battle and with the rains coming, and the risk of an outbreak of water-borne diseases is, of course, very real this. Really is a race against time.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s James Elder, speaking to us from Darfur in Sudan. We’re also joined by Julie Flint, an independent journalist, wrote a human rights watch report, just finished a trip the Sudan. Her report is called Darfur destroyed. She testified before the senate foreign relations committee last week. Can you give us the context behind what we are seeing unfolding in the Sudan now, Julie?

JULIE FLINT: Yes, I can. I was in Darfur and with refugees from Darfur for 25 days and documented many, many attacks that destroyed villages and the striking thing that I discovered was that all these attacks, with the exception of two, early last year before this war really geared up, were carried out by the government army and the Janjaweed militias together. The soldiers came together, they fought together, they left together. And often the government gave them their support. Planes would come and bomb before the Janjaweed militias attacked. And, of course the militia don’t have planes. For me, this is clear cooperation between the government and the militias to empty the countryside of all African life, of all African tribal life.

AMY GOODMAN: Then can you respond to the Sudanese president, Omar Hassan Bashir, saying he will agree to mobilize the country’s military to disarm the militias, if you’re saying they’re one?

JULIE FLINT: Yes. I would like to see the Arabic of what he said. The English is actually quite confusing. He’s basically saying that he is going to go after all outlaw groups, militias and rebels. Well, of course, there’s a cease-fire. But the basic thing about this is the Sudanese government promises time and again, a long time ago it promised unrestricted access. UNICEF as your interview from UNICEF well knows, they have to be tested in Sudanese laboratories. They promise one thing, they do another. Without the presence of independent monitors on the ground, it will be impossible to see whether the government is disarming a single Janjaweed. And in the case, how do you know who is Janjaweed? You probably wouldn’t know, they wear the same uniforms as the Sudanese army. Their generals wear the same stripes as the Sudanese army. They carry for same light weapons as the Sudanese armies. They live in government garrison towns. How would you tell who is Janjaweed and who is soldier? And in the last few weeks since the cease-fire was agreed early in April, we’ve had many, many reports, absolute definite reports of Janjaweed being incorporated into the police and the army. So, people who were Janjaweed two months ago are now soldiers and policemen. This is extremely difficult not to untangle it and cannot be done without the presence of independent monitors on the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Julie Flint, independent journalist, wrote a Human Rights Watch report called “Darfur Destroyed,” she’s speaking to us from Sudan, she just came back from Beirut, Lebanon. And James Elder, UNICEF communications officer in Darfur. Can you tell, James Elder, what — who is militia, and who is Janjaweed government/military?

JAMES ELDER: Look, I think, Amy, as I’m sure Julie will attest, it is important to say from the start that I can’t put UNICEF work in jeopardy by talking politics. Certainly these attacks are clearly occurring on ethnic lines, it is Arab militia attacking African farmers with devastating results. It is important to note that this is not just another African tragedy. These were farming people who really proudly survived. In one world’s most unforgiving environments. They managed to live in that environment quite brilliantly. But nothing could have prepared them for the ferocity and extent of these attacks. These attacks still go on. The number of displaced people is still rising. I was in a camp just the other day where the host population, meaning the town, had a population of 5,000 and that has swelled to 65,000. You can imagine we’re talking about desert and savannah. The stress that puts on local resource, on water and on fuel and on whatever basic health and nutrition was whatever there is quite severe. So, it’s really at a time for the Sudanese government must leave. There is no doubt on that. Equally the international community must now step up to help provide these people with really some basic rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Julie flint of Human Rights Watch, the report “Darfur Destroyed,” backed by the Sudanese government, Janjaweed militias are launching assaults across the border to attack. These are reports, into Chad attacking and looting Chadian villagers as well as refugees from Darfur confirm you talk about the broadening conflict?

JULIE FLINT: Yes. I’d actually quite like to personalize this. I spent some time in a village in Chad. I won’t name it because it will bring more reprisal on the village. But I met many refugees in this village. After I left, Sudanese security and Chad army went into the village and detained eight people. They were looking for the commander who took me to Darfur the rebel commander. They detained eight people, including his father. All eight were extremely badly beaten. Four are still held. A few days ago, I’m told it was Janjaweed and Sudanese army and prepared to believe it was just Janjaweed. But people there tell me it was definitely the Janjaweed and Sudanese army, went back into the village, looted and killed three more people. This is just one village. It is happening every day all way up and down the Chad border and it’s extremely destabilizing on a regional basis.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you describe this as ethnic cleansing, would you describe it similar to what happened in Rwanda 10 years ago?

JULIE FLINT : I wasn’t in Rwanda. I can’t make that comparison. All I can tell you is that — and I don’t like the comparison in any case and I don’t like this debated about terms, is it genocide, is it ethnic cleansing? I don’t like this. That doesn’t help the people at all. The facts speak for themselves. You have a massive tragedy in just a year a million people displaced in a year. Those are huge numbers. 30,000, we’re told, dead. The numbers absolutely huge. The potential for 350,000 people to die this year. I don’t give a damn whether you call it ethnic cleansing or genocide. The international community has to do something about this, lead preferably by the U.N., because the U.S. Stock internationally is very low as a result of everything that’s happened in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: In the last month, the U.S. Has taken Sudan off of the list of countries that are not cooperating in the war on terror. Can you talk about the U.S. relationship with the Sudanese government?

JULIE FLINT : I think that was a big mistake. It was massive. And I don’t know that it was or that it wasn’t. I haven’t followed the terrorist issue. It sent all the wrong signals. I am pretty confident that if there is not strong U.N. Action, and I don’t think there will be because there’s not — ideally, we would like a security council resolution authorizing intervention in Sudan to stop the death, even if the Sudan government doesn’t want it. At least five members of the security council would not support this. So, I think realistically we have to say it is not going to happen. I would put money on the u.s. Taking quite aggressive action of some sort. I’m not talking militarily. Basically to put the fright ness on the government of Sudan. Perhaps presenting lists of people who might be tried for war crimes. I don’t know what exactly, but certainly actions that will make the Saddam government realize it is absolutely serious that Washington is absolutely furious and the Janjaweed has to be disarmed. I have never seen people so frightened as the people of Darfur are of the Janjaweed, even when they are in Chad. They live in terror and as long as they are roaming about fully armed with complete impunity, people will not go back to their homes. If they don’t go back to their homes, they will die. The U.N. Should do something. If it doesn’t, the u.s. Must take the lead.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see this happening right now? Do you see the response of the world right now to what is happening in Sudan, anything near what it needs to be? Julie flint?

JAMES ELDER: I’m sorry. I didn’t get you there.

AMY GOODMAN: No, I’m asking Julie Flint.

JULIE FLINT: Sorry. The line faded.

AMY GOODMAN: You response. Do you see the world’s response adequate right now?

JULIE FLINT: It’s — it’s too late for starters. This war began in February 2003. And from the minute the rebel movement emerged to basically counter a 20-year campaign by government supported militias against the African people of Darfur, from that minute, when you knew this war would develop, the Sudan government is using ethnic militias and starvation and rape as weapons of war as it did in the oil fields of southern Sudan. How has this war has developed was completely predictable. We did nothing for 12 months and now we’re doing too little it is unacceptable to say that a best-case scenario is 350,000 deaths. That is unacceptable. There has to be a way of saving more lives than that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Julie Flint for joining us, consultant with Human Rights Watch, did the report “Darfur Destroyed” speaking to us from Lebanon and James Elder, a UNICEF special. That does it for today’s program. The latest news out of Nigeria, the largest epidemic of polio can’t has broken out in years, spreading across central and western Africa, threatening 74 million children with the paralyzing disease and jeopardizing hopes of eradicating it from the world by the end of the year. That does it for today’s Democracy Now! [captioning made possible by Democracy Now! And the U.S. Department of Education] Democracy Now! Is looking for feedback from people who appreciate the closed captioning. E-mail your comments to outreach@democracynow.org or mail them to Democracy Now!, P.O. Box 693, New York, New York 10013

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