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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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.