WASHINGTON — Though the world has paid little attention while a civil war has ravaged Sudan for the last 21 years — killing more than 2 million people, most of them Christians and animists — Sudan is finally getting unprecedented media attention because of the impending possible slaughter of 1.2 million of its people in the western province of Darfur.

In what experts say is a primarily racial drive, Sudanese President Umar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir's Islamic government has launched attacks against mainly African Muslims using a group of Arabs called jingaweit or Janjaweed. These militia use the brutal methods of a scorched-earth policy, burning villages, destroying water sources and crops, killing, raping and plundering wherever they go.

Julie Flint of Human Rights Watch, who visited Darfur in March and April, described what she saw at a June 15 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Sudan.

“The terrible humanitarian emergency we are seeing today,” she said, “… is the direct result of human-rights abuses: scorched earth, denial of relief, denial of access — the same tactics the government of Sudan used most recently in its war to depopulate oil-producing areas of southern Sudan; the same tactics it used in the Nuba Mountains; the same tactics it has always used.”

The new crisis comes at the same time Khartoum has nearly reached a deal with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement and Army in southern Sudan to try to resolve the 21-year conflict there. If observed, the deal could prove a boon to the South. However, the government has consistently broken its promises, according to Eric Reeves, an English professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., who writes frequently on Sudan.

For instance, Reeves said, in October 2002 a cease-fire was declared. But Khartoum violated it so many times that in February 2003, an addendum had to be signed, which in turn was plainly violated by the government.

The peace initiative is awaiting final negotiations on how to implement individual peace protocols covering various areas of the country. A final document is expected to be completed within two months.

Bishop Gassis

Much depends on Darfur, however. The region falls within the Diocese of El Obeid, which is headed by Bishop Macram Max Gassis.

“If their rights continue to be violated and they do not receive justice,” he wrote in a February letter to Abdel Aziz Adam El Hilu, governor of the Nuba Mountains region, “their unrest and civil conflict will not only continue to bring further instability and suffering to their areas but also can be sources of instability and suffering to the just and lasting peace” sought for in the South.

“A process of Arabization is under way in Darfur,” Bishop Gassis told Zenit news service in May. “They want to force the people to accept that type of Islam they are propagating in Sudan: Muslim fundamentalism.”

Italian-born Sudanese Bishop Cesare Mazzolari of Rumbeck concurs. He recently told the Milan-based newspaper Il Giornale: “It is stated in the English version of the Sudanese Constitution that Islam is the state religion and that other faiths are tolerated. However, in the Arab version, there is not a trace of such a guarantee.”

Bishop Mazzolari said it is not rogue groups that are applying harsh Islamic law in Sudan.

“It is the state that applies Koranic law most often,” he said. “It cuts the hands and feet off of even non-Muslims and arrests them without evidence.”

So far reports state that 10,000 to 30,000 people have died in Darfur, and 1 million have been displaced. But this is only the tip of the iceberg, according to Reeves. The Janjaweeds' scorched-earth methods have not allowed this year's crops to be planted in time for the rainy season, which is now beginning, he said.

While the United States plans to send approximately $100 million in aid to Darfur, Reeves said the problem is getting it there. Right now, the government is not allowing anyone into Darfur, including international aid workers. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., is heading there along with Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., to evaluate the situation and try to force the government to admit aid workers, a spokesman for Brownback said June 22.

Even if the government does allow aid in, roads become impassable once the rainy season begins. The only railway runs from the Red Sea all across Sudan, Africa's largest country, making aid deliveries vulnerable to attack from government forces or militias, Reeves observed.

Usually, food aid in Africa is given as a stopgap between crop plantings and harvests, Reeves added. So even if food arrives now, more will be needed later to tide people through to the next harvest season because of the failure to plant this year's crops.

This situation sets up more than 1 million people to die within a year, Reeves warned.

Genocide?

Despite the dire reports, U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan said he did not want to be too hasty in proclaiming a genocide in Sudan.

“Based on reports that I have received,” he said June 17, “I cannot at this stage call it genocide. There are massive violations of international humanitarian law, but I am not ready to describe it as genocide or ethnic cleansing yet.”

Nina Shea, director of the Washington-based Center for Religious Freedom and a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said Europe is also underplaying the crisis.

The 25 countries of the European Union have committed only $12 million to Darfur, Shea noted, and Europe has allowed oil companies “to partner with the Bashir regime and funded the regime's ‘human rights' commissions — as if the slave raids and forcible mass starvation were problems of underdevelopment,” she wrote in the June 21 issue of The Weekly Standard.

The Bush administration's response has been more forceful. Secretary of State Colin Powell told The New York Times on June 11 that his department is investigating whether to designate what is happening in Darfur as genocide.

If it is, that would trigger a 1948 treaty on genocide that obligates signatories to intercede. That could include a military response, though Shea said she had been told there would not be an occupation of Sudan.

In fact, a clear warning was issued at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing by Charles Snyder, an official with the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs.

“Our message to the government of Sudan is clear: Do what is necessary now, and we will work with you,” Snyder said. “If you do not, there will be consequences. Time is of the essence. Do not doubt our determination.”

Thomas Szyszkiewicz writes from Altura, Minnesota.