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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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."