The Magazine

The Darfur Disaster

Up close and personal with the killers of Khartoum.

May 2, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 31 • By JONATHAN KARL
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In a sign that at least one part of the State Department would prefer a less confrontational approach, Steidle was told to keep his pictures to himself. An official on the State Department's Sudan desk named Taiya Smith told him, Steidle says, that releasing the photos would anger the government of Sudan and make it difficult for Americans to get visas to return to the region. Not everybody in Foggy Bottom sees it that way: Condoleezza Rice later thanked Steidle for drawing attention to the issue.

The State Department says the attacks on villages have slowed over the past few months. There's good reason for that. Virtually all the villages have been destroyed. "I think they're nearing completion of their mission," says Steidle. "There's nothing left for them to attack."

Zoellick says the Darfur problem has "layers and layers of complexity." In a sense, he's right. There are about 80 tribes in the region, many with blood rivalries going back centuries. This is hardly the first time that tribal conflicts have flared up, villages have burned, and people have been killed. But the current crisis is dramatically different.

Unlike the ancient tribal conflicts, this disaster started almost yesterday. The roots of the mass killings can be traced to February 2003, when a group of antigovernment rebels launched a series of brazen attacks on government property. Armed with Kalashnikovs and Toyota pickup trucks with mounted machine guns in the back, they scored their biggest hit in April 2003 with an attack on the airport outside the town of El Fasher, destroying several Sudanese military aircraft. The ragtag group of rebels had the Sudanese government worried about large-scale insurrection. The government decided to hit back. The result is the devastation seen today throughout the region.

The rebels come primarily from Darfur's non-Arab tribes, farmers who live in small villages throughout the region; the government responded with a call to arms to the Arab tribes, nomads who survive by herding camels and cattle. Unlike Sudan's long-running civil war between Christians and Muslims, this conflict is not religious. Virtually everybody in Darfur, Arab and non-Arab, is Muslim. The nomads and farmers have clashed before, just as the grazers and farmers in the American west clashed over access to land and water, but this crisis differs in that the government has weighed in heavily on the side of the nomads.

DIPLOMATICALLY, the United States is hardly even on speaking terms with Sudan. The embassy in Khartoum is open, but barely. There hasn't been a U.S. ambassador to Sudan since 1996, and today only a half-dozen Americans work at the embassy. Last July, Colin Powell became only the second secretary of state ever to visit the country. The first was Cyrus Vance, who met with officials during a refueling stop at the Khartoum airport 27 years ago. Powell came armed with satellite images of the devastation in Darfur and a simple message to the government: We know what you are doing in Darfur. His trip, which also included a short stop at the Abu Shouck refugee camp, was quick and high on symbolism.

Zoellick came to the presidential palace in Khartoum, just as Colin Powell did last summer, to press the government to stop the killing in Darfur. But this was no drive-by visit. He spent two full days in Sudan, meeting with virtually everybody who has a stake in the issue: tribal leaders, refugees, the governor (or "wali") of Darfur, the African Union commander, relief workers, and, of course, top officials like Vice President Taha. Everywhere Zoellick took copious notes of potential "action items." His message: The U.S. commitment to this issue goes beyond rhetoric. Zoellick hopes to convince NATO--but, first, the Pentagon--to give the African Union forces logistical support. Beyond that, it's not clear what the United States can do.

Europe, for its part, has economic leverage. European business with Sudan has actually increased as the violence has escalated in Darfur. You can now fly Lufthansa, KLM, and British Airways to Khartoum. European companies have sunk money into developing Sudan's oil reserves. China has done the same, to an even greater degree. The United States has done the opposite, maintaining unilateral sanctions. Americans can't even use a credit card in Sudan. Unfortunately, the sanctions, along with limited diplomatic relations, leave the United States without much leverage over the government in Khartoum.

By meeting with Vice President Taha, Zoellick was taking the case to the man considered the real power in Sudan. Taha is an erstwhile protégé of Osama bin Laden's former host and mentor, Hassan al-Turabi. These days, though, he sports finely tailored Western suits. Eager to develop Sudan's oil reserves, Taha seeks international respect.