The Magazine

Dead End in Darfur?

Robert Zoellick's frustrating mission to end the genocide in Sudan.

Dec 12, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 13 • By JONATHAN KARL
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Nyala, Sudan


THE NEGOTIATING TABLES had been set with green tablecloths in an open air room at one of the finest hotels in Nairobi. Each setting included a glass of water, a microphone, and a headset for translation. There were seats for the rebels, some of them dressed in desert battle fatigues and stylish camouflage turbans. There were also seats for the United Nations, the African Union, the European Union, and even Canada: a coalition to warm the heart of the most fervent multilateralist. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick came in ready to deal, but by the time he took his seat, the rebels, unable to agree on who their leader was, had walked out.

And there sat Robert Zoellick, alone.

For thirty minutes he waited quietly, taking notes and, one assumes, wondering how he ended up with one of the most thankless jobs in American diplomacy: head of the U.S. effort to stop a humanitarian crisis in Sudan that the United States has labeled genocide.

The rebels were from the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) of Sudan's Darfur region. This is the antigovernment group that launched a few attacks on police stations and government warplanes in Darfur in early 2003. Those attacks provoked the massive counterattack by government forces and government-supported "Janjaweed" militias that has caused the current crisis. Zoellick believes the only way to fix Darfur is to get a peace agreement between the rebels and the government. But there's a problem: The rebels are now fighting amongst themselves, leaving two factions that claim to lead the SLA. The two groups so detest each other that they refused to be together in the same room.

And so, Robert Zoellick sat alone.

Zoellick's patience paid off, sort of. After half an hour, the rebels walked back in and took their seats. The leader of one faction declared he was simply coming back to make a statement, and then to leave again. Zoellick insisted that everyone stay until the meeting was over. He made it clear his patience was running out: "While you are bickering," he said, "your people are dying." It was the first time Zoellick became visibly angry on his latest trip to Africa, but it would not be the last. Before heading back to Washington, Zoellick would blow his top. More on that later.

Zoellick has been to Sudan four times this year. "I haven't been to any other country this year four times," he says. "I haven't even been to New York four times." Unfortunately, he has little to show for the effort. In fact, the situation in Darfur has actually gotten worse since Zoellick made his first trip here in April. In recent months, a new front has opened in the war on civilians. The people who fled to refugee camps when their villages were destroyed now find themselves under attack inside the refugee camps.

A high-ranking African official who did not want to be identified told me the rationale for this sick new phase in the war on civilians: Elements of the Sudanese security forces and the Arab militias they have armed believe the rebels are using the camps as a safe haven and a fertile recruiting ground.

After flying into Darfur with Zoellick, I broke off from his entourage to spend some time at the Kalma refugee camp. I didn't see any signs of rebel activity, but I did hear intense anger toward the government of Sudan.

A LITTLE OVER TWO YEARS AGO, Kalma was nothing more than a five-mile strip of sand. Now, over 85,000 people live here in what is the largest refugee camp, and one of the most dangerous, in Darfur. Virtually everybody I spoke to had stories about violence against people in the camp. A tribal sheikh was killed the night before I arrived; another was kidnapped that morning.

People showed me their wounds and their scars. One man showed me a bullet wound in his back, next to his shoulder blade. The bullet traveled through his body at an angle, exiting his chest. It's a minor miracle he survived; the reason he did is that the gunman, who had attacked his village and murdered the rest of his family, left him for dead.

These refugees may not have much, but they are eager to document the atrocities committed against them. Another man brought me a bag full of bullet shells. He told me where he had gathered them and said they were from an October 23 attack in which Sudanese security forces swept into Kalma and arrested the top tribal sheikh for allegedly plotting against the government.

Earlier I had spotted an elderly blind woman making her way to a tattered shelter. In one hand she held a long walking stick. With her other hand, she balanced a bowl of mud on her head. After she dumped the mud in front of her shelter, she told me her name was Khadija and she was 76 years old. Khadija explained to me that she was using the mud to make walls inside her tent. She needed the walls, she told me, to protect herself from the gunfire at night. Khadija had been working on the walls for almost two months, but progress was slow. The walls were uneven and unsteady. They stood only about three feet tall. They wouldn't protect her from anything.

I heard stories from the young and healthy as well. Two women named Fatima and Marium invited me into their shelter. They had built comparably formidable mud walls for the same reason: to protect themselves and their children from gunfire. Fatima has six children; Marium one. Both were young widows. Fatima told me she had been raped when she ventured out of the camp to gather firewood. Marium said she had also been raped. Three times. They said their rapists were Janjaweed--the Arab marauders who unleashed the terror here two years ago with weapons supplied by the government and who now continue to terrorize the refugees.

Fatima, Marium, and the others I spoke to at Kalma camp were tough, self-reliant people. Before all hell broke loose in 2003, they lived as people in Darfur had for centuries, as farmers in small villages. Now they find themselves stuck in a vast slum of shanties. They hate it here, they said, but they are afraid to go back to their decimated villages. Only now that the camp has come under attack, they are also afraid to stay.

"We have nobody to protect us here in Darfur," Fatima told me. "Just the foreigners and God."

Fatima would have had no way to know about it, but only a day before in Khartoum, Zoellick had made it clear that foreigners--U.S. or otherwise--were not coming to the rescue. The forum was a policy speech at the University of Khartoum. In a speech laced with references to Sudan's rich and bloody history, Zoellick outlined a "road map" to peace. Zoellick's road map is based on the U.S.-brokered peace agreement that ended one of Africa's longest-running and bloodiest civil wars: the 21-year conflict between the Muslims of northern Sudan and the Christians and Animists of southern Sudan. The north-south peace agreement is an unheralded triumph of American diplomacy that ended a war that had killed at least 2 million people. Under the deal, which took several years to negotiate, rebel leader John Garang was brought to Khartoum and made vice president of the very government he had spent most of his life trying to destroy. If fully implemented, the north-south agreement would make the former rebels in the south partners in the federal government and give them a high degree of autonomy.

In his speech, Zoellick said the first step to putting Darfur back together is to get a similar peace agreement between the government and the rebels in Darfur. Clearly the speech was written before those rebels walked out on him in Nairobi.

During the Q & A session, somebody in the audience demanded to know how peace could be achieved if the African Union peacekeepers now in Darfur--which are technically only an observer force--are not empowered to disarm the government-sponsored militias that have inflicted so much terror. Zoellick was about to lose his patience again. Before answering, he rephrased the question. "Will the outside world come and clean this up?" His answer: "I don't think we can clean it up." He continued: "It's a tribal war that has been exacerbated by other conditions and, frankly, I don't think foreign forces ought to get themselves in the middle of a tribal war of Sudanese."

A tribal war? That sounds like a drastic departure from President Bush's stark portrayal of the crisis in Sudan as genocide. Tribal conflict has been a fixture of life in Darfur, and most of Sudan, for a long, long time. In fact, tribal war was a defining characteristic of this land for generations as the British tried to run Sudan under the legendary colonial leader Gen. Charles "Chinese" Gordon in the late 19th century. Gordon sent a 22-year-old officer named Rudolf Slatin to be governor of southwestern Darfur in 1879. A year later, Slatin was named governor-general of all of Darfur. His memoir, Fire and Sword in Sudan, has been out of print for more than 100 years, but it's a great read if you can find it. Slatin writes at length about his attempts to mediate conflicts between various tribes "who were constantly on the verge of war." Slatin had some successes, but ultimately fared little better than Gordon, who was famously beheaded when Islamic rebels stormed the presidential palace in Khartoum in 1885. For his part, Slatin was kidnapped by the Islamists and held hostage for 13 years before making a dramatic escape, first to Cairo, and then back to Europe.

Winston Churchill, borrowing heavily from Slatin, wrote a history of Sudan called The River War in 1902. "The situation in the Soudan for several centuries," Churchill wrote, "can be summed up as follows: The dominant race of Arab invaders was unceasingly spreading its blood, religion, customs, and language among the black aboriginal population at the same time it harried and enslaved them."

But in its centuries of conflict, Darfur has never witnessed anything like the widespread, orchestrated terror campaign of the last two and a half years. When Churchill wrote, Darfur was a land of farmers, who lived in small villages, and nomadic herders. The herders and the farmers often clashed over access to land and water, but the Darfur of two and a half years ago looked a lot like the Darfur of Churchill's and even Gordon's time. In the violence of the last two years, many of Darfur's villages have been wiped off the map, replaced by vast slums like the Kalma refugee camp. More than two million hardened and independent people have been bombed and burned out of their homes and made almost completely dependent on relief agencies. In the process, more than 200,000 have been killed. You can debate whether or not this is genocide, but this isn't just another in a long series of tribal wars.

WHEN ZOELLICK FIRST TOOK ON the Sudan assignment near the beginning of this year, he scored some successes. Thanks in part to his cajoling--and transportation provided by U.S. Air Force C-130s--the number of African Union peacekeepers in Darfur more than tripled, from 2,000 in the spring to almost 7,000 today. The peacekeepers, even with their limited numbers and limited mandate, have succeeded at deterring some attacks.

More important, the government of Sudan agreed in February to ground the warplanes that had been firing on villages. The resulting cease-fire meant an end to the wholesale bombing, burning, and pillaging of villages. There wasn't much left to bomb; most of the non-Arab villages in Darfur had already been destroyed. Nevertheless, the violence decreased. The north-south peace agreement also brought hope for a change in Darfur, because America's man in the south, John Garang, would now be part of the government. Before Garang went into the bush to lead one of Africa's most feared guerrilla movements, he had earned a BA from Grinnell College and a doctorate from Iowa State University. He was somebody the Americans could deal with, and there was reason to believe he could change the long-distrusted government in Khartoum.

That moment of hopefulness is gone. On July 30, Garang was killed in a helicopter crash. Bad weather seems to have been the culprit, but the Khartoum government is so hated in the south that almost everybody there believes Garang was murdered as part of a government plot. The incident has cast a tremendous shadow over the peace accord, a shadow made even darker by the government's failure to meet its commitments to make the south a full partner. Instead of positive change in Khartoum, there is fear that the accord will fall apart. Garang's successor, Salva Kiir, is still talking peace, but his military commanders expect war. In the southern capital of Juba, Lt. Colonel Albino Akuei of the southern army told me he is convinced that it's only a matter of time before there is war again. "These are bad, bad people," he told me, referring to the government in Khartoum. "They are looting us. I want to be independent of these useless people."

And in Darfur, the violence started to flare up again in September. The State Department's assistant secretary for African affairs, Jendayi Frazer, puts the blame on a mix of general banditry, rebel forces, and Arab militias who, she says, may be supported by the government. Oddly, the head of the African Union peacekeeping force, Baba Gana Kingibe of Nigeria, is much tougher on the government of Sudan.

In a remarkable statement released on October 1, Kingibe accused government security forces of making four specific "coordinated offensive attacks" against civilians using Arab Janjaweed militias in the month of September. In a particularly brazen attack, Janjaweed gunmen invaded the Aro Sharow refugee camp on September 28, killing 35 people and injuring many others. Kingibe said that while the Arab gunmen attacked Aro Sharow on the ground, Sudanese Army helicopters flew overhead in what he called an "apparent air and land assault" on the camp. Although most of his criticism was directed at the government, Kingibe said the rebels are responsible for some of the violence. "There is neither good faith nor commitment on the part of any of the parties."

The government adamantly denied Kingibe's allegations. Some officials called for his removal from Sudan. A week later, the African Union itself came under assault. Unidentified gunmen attacked an African Union patrol, killing four Nigerian soldiers and two contractors. The peacekeepers are now having a hard time protecting themselves.

Zoellick has made a sustained effort to clean up this mess, which makes the recent setbacks especially frustrating. He has studied the history and taken time to get to know the players, the politics, and the policy. Before his latest trip to the Sudan, he invited Garang's successor to Washington. Kiir met with Vice President Cheney and then went to the State Department, where he spent nearly three hours with Zoellick.

Officials who bother to visit Darfur usually drop in for a quick photo-op and leave, but Zoellick has used his time here to see, and to try to understand, the worst of this crisis. He visited the town of Sheria just two weeks after violence that killed 81 people. The violence in Sheria is a microcosm of the whole crisis. It started as an attack on government offices by the rebel Sudanese Liberation Army. The rebels briefly took over the town, prompting a massive counterassault by the Sudanese security forces. Once the town was back in government control, the government-backed Janjaweed militia exacted revenge by torching the homes of civilians in a neighboring village suspected of supporting the rebels.

Zoellick came to hear the story firsthand. He sat through the official government version, which placed all of the blame on the rebels and denied any government attack on civilians. Next, Zoellick planned to talk to the victims in the village that had been attacked, but the local official in charge of Sheria insisted on going with him. Zoellick knew the people would be afraid to speak truthfully with a government official present. He bluntly told the guy to leave.

This led to a full-scale diplomatic blow-up. Weary from days of discussions with uncooperative rebels and lying Sudanese officials, Zoellick flew into a rage, threatening to report the man to Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir. The threat clearly didn't scare this official. This wasn't your typical diplomatic dialogue:

Zoellick: Either you go or I go to [Sudanese] President Bashir and tell him . . .

Local Official: I am Bashir here!

Zoellick: Give me your name, sir.

Local Official: I am Bashir here!

Zoellick: Give me your name.

Local Official: I am Bashir here!

Zoellick: Give me your name and we'll write President Bashir and tell him--

Local Official: I am Bashir here!

At this point, Zoellick looked a bit like an irate baseball manager arguing with an umpire over a bad call. When the Bashir threat didn't work, Zoellick stuck his finger in the official's face and yelled, "Out! Out!" To which the official responded, "Not out!"

"Why do you ask me not deal with you here?" the official demanded.

"Because you are emphasizing [one side] and I can't trust your government."

"I am a commissioner! I am a commissioner!"

Finally, Zoellick said, "Okay, you stay here." Then Zoellick himself left.

It's not clear if writing President Bashir would have done much good anyway. After meeting with Zoellick in Khartoum, Bashir was quoted by the official Sudanese news agency saying, "We don't need Zoellick to resolve our internal problems. The solution to the root causes of the problem lies with the people of Darfur themselves."

Such was Zoellick's fourth trip to Sudan. Will he be back for a fifth? He won't say. During the trip, he was often asked if he was optimistic that the Darfur crisis could be resolved. With each new setback, the answer seemed increasingly obvious, but Zoellick dodged the question.

He chooses to say only, "I am persistent."

Jonathan Karl is senior foreign affairs correspondent for ABC News. He has traveled to Sudan three times this year.