WASHINGTON -- Since well before Darfur's nightmare erupted over a year ago, a much deadlier war has raged, taking 30 times as many lives as the Darfur tragedy.
This two-decade war between the government in Khartoum and an insurgency based in southern Sudan, when combined with the Darfur conflict, points to the central problem in Sudan: a regime at war with its own people throughout the country and willing to retain power by any means. A two-day extraordinary session of the U.N. Security Council beginning today in Nairobi, Kenya, could help change that dynamic if it stops avoiding this central factor.
We have each been to Darfur's killing fields and spoken to victims of some of the most appalling atrocities you can imagine. It was a chilling experience, but we returned to America deeply motivated to take action to help save the people of Darfur.
Today, the University of California Board of Regents can play a critical role to staunch Darfur's bleeding when it votes whether to divest the university system from the companies that cut lucrative business deals with accused war criminals in Sudan's capital, Khartoum. In doing so, the UC system would join other universities and state legislatures that have taken similar bold action to help end this humanitarian catastrophe.
For a country like Sudan, where nearly 2.5 million people have perished as a result of war during the last two decades, it is hard to imagine that one more death could have such enormous consequences. But last week's death of rebel leader-turned-peacemaker John Garang in a helicopter crash will send shock waves through Sudan for decades.
Garang had just been installed as vice president of a new national unity government, which was the cornerstone of a peace deal between the Islamist ruling party in Khartoum and Garang's rebel group, based in southern Sudan. The international community had high hopes that Garang would turn his considerable diplomatic skills to the longtime conflict in the western Sudanese region of Darfur.
The Bush White House has made 10 grievous mistakes that have only made matters worse.
I just returned from rebel-held areas of Darfur on a trip with Scott Pelley of CBS's 60 Minutes, and I found that the crisis is spiraling out of control: Violence is increasing, malnutrition is soaring, and access to life-saving aid is shrinking. The Bush administration has made some noise about Darfur over the last two years, but it has made a series of deadly mistakes that have served only to make matters worse.
Imminent peace in Sudan is supposed to be one of the few positive stories in international affairs in recent months. Indeed, the strong multi-national effort supporting talks between the Sudanese government and the insurgent Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) was one of last year's more noteworthy successes for the international community.
The 20-year civil war between the government and the SPLA is now closer to its conclusion than ever before, having claimed over two million lives. The two parties have signed a series of protocols that will form the basis of a comprehensive peace agreement, expected soon. A few difficult issues remain, but progress has been remarkable.
As we sat in a refugee camp in Chad listening to Fatima describe how most of her family was killed by Sudanese government-sponsored Janjaweed militias, we found it incomprehensible that the world could not muster the political will necessary to protect her surviving family members or to hold the killers accountable.
Since returning from our visit to Chad and Darfur in late January, we have pored over the rationales the U.S. government has used for its tepid response, and have found no fewer than 10 lame excuses.
Last month, four days after the Darfur Peace Agreement was signed, the desperate and angry residents of Kalma camp in South Darfur lashed out against the African Union (AU), the regional body charged with observing a failed 2004 ceasefire and brokering the latest deal. Demonstrators looted an AU police post and brutally killed an unarmed Sudanese translator. Anger at the peace deal and the forces behind it is not limited to Kalma. Similar post-agreement violence has erupted in numerous other squalid displacement camps across Darfur.
You might have read newspaper articles about the humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur, or seen images on television of refugees languishing in camps, and thought: "What does any of this have to do with me, and besides what could I actually do to help?" After all, these atrocities are taking place 7,000 miles away, and responding to mass violence against civilians is the responsibility of big bureaucratic agencies such as the United Nations, right?
The answer to these questions says a lot about the power that U.S. citizens have to effect change in other parts of the world. If you look closely at the international community's response to the Sudanese government's decision to unleash the murderous janjaweed militias on its own citizens in Darfur, and against civilians in neighboring Chad, you will find that ordinary U.S. citizens are taking some of the most relevant action to stop the violence.