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The Worst Years in Darfur, ’03-’04, Brought Relatively Rapid International Response

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This is the fifth in a series, How to Think About Darfur, by James North:

The experts agree: the worst years in Darfur
for mass killing were back in 2003-04.

At that time, two guerrilla groups of Darfuris
had formed: the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the smaller Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). In April 2003, a joint SLA/JEM rebel column attacked the Sudan air force
base at al-Fasher in Darfur, killing 70 troops and destroying 11
planes. "The SLA and the JEM, with their
lightning attacks, were running rings around the army, which had been
humiliated in an unprecedented way." (Flint and de Waal)

The Khartoum regime did not hesitate. It had been fighting a very dirty war in the south for decades. And so it armed the tribal
"Arab" militias called janjawiid, coordinated their efforts with its
army and its air force, and set out to attack the rebel regions. Khartoum used the janjiwiid for two reasons: it did not entirely trust its regular army,
which included conscripted soldiers from both the south and Darfur who might hesitate to murder and rape civilians, and it could
also disclaim responsibility for the militias, attributing the surge in
violence to "ancient tribal enmities."

There is no doubt that the Khartoum regime committed war crimes
in those years and that responsibility goes all the way up to the top.  "Government and Janjawiid forces destroyed
everything that made life possible," Flint and de Waal write. "Human catastrophe was a
deliberate act."

By 2005, the regime had created 2 to 2.5 million refugees. There is
some dispute over the death toll, but it had reached at least 200,000
(Prunier says 280,000-310,000). And the vast majority of the dead were non-combatants.

What is interesting – and encouraging – is that the international
community did not in fact ignore Darfur. 

(The first television station
to report on the killings was Al-Jazeera, the Arab-language network
that gets such a bad press in the U.S.; the Khartoum regime promptly
expelled them.) But starting in 2004, the regime did partly lift its
blockade of Darfur, and by later that year the U.S. government was
already spending $300 million on emergency aid for well over 1 million
people. Other donors – the World Food Program, Europeans – also
contributed. Flint and de Waal, who have spent decades in the region,
note that it was "a far more rapid response
at scale than for most other humanitarian crises," and that "by these
early and unpublicized efforts humanitarian bureaucrats saved tens of
thousands of lives."

By 2005, the absolute worst was over. "[D]uring 2005, mortality rates in Darfur came down to levels comparable
to those before the war – levels ‘normal’ for a desperately poor and
under-serviced region." (Flint and de Waal)

Darfur was in a stalemate. The regime had used terror to weaken the
rebels and their base of popular support; now it backed off somewhat. The millions of refugees would not dare to return to their
villages, but they could survive in the camps, getting some food and
medical aid from outside.

Here, once again, the Holocaust Template is not too helpful. The Nazis herded Jews, gypsies and political prisoners into concentration camps to murder them systematically — while the Sudanese government patrolled its camps, allowing outsiders to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars of aid, year after year.

The Khartoum regime is unquestionably guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. But is this "genocide"? Does the distinction matter? And what can be done now?

James North

James North is a Mondoweiss Editor-at-Large, and has reported from Africa, Latin America, and Asia for four decades. He lives in New York City.

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