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Hourglass of blood

Friday 11 May 2007, by Ramzy Baroud

The Darfur crisis in Sudan is perhaps the most politically convoluted conflict in the world today. Its underpinnings involve local, regional and international players, all selfishly vying for power and economic interests. Alliances shift like quicksand, reminiscent of Lebanon. Neither the interest of the people of Darfur, nor the sovereignty of Sudan seem to be a major concern to any of those involved: a regime fighting for survival, rebel groups readily playing into the hands of foreign powers, a superpower eager to create a distraction from its blunders elsewhere, European players coveting the region’s oil wealth with growing keenness, and so forth. Meanwhile, the refugees continue to perish, dying at an alarming speed, often in the most inhumane ways imaginable. What is to be done?

A crowd of a few thousand gathered at Downing Street for "Global Day for Darfur", on 29 April. They were largely Sudanese, mostly from Darfur. They gathered in London’s hotspot for protests with a seemingly decisive and uncompromising demand: intervention. They called on Britain — as tens of thousands rallying simultaneously in 36 cities called on their respective governments and the international community — to intercede to end effective "genocide" in Sudan’s eastern province. Though a UN investigative team denied that killings in Darfur were being carried out with genocidal intent, the fact is that an uncountable number of people are unnecessarily dying, mostly due to starvation and disease, but also murdered with impunity. Two million live in refugee camps, still targeted mostly by Janjaweed militias, but also by rebel fighters. Even those who cross into Chad (200,000 refugees are now living along the 600-kilometre stretch that separates Sudan from its neighbour to the West) are not safe. The ethnic profile that makes Darfur a testing place for social and national cohesion also exists in eastern Chad; thus similar feuds are carried out across the border.

The Darfur crisis is not black and white, Arabs and Africans. This is nonsense. They are all Africans. They are all Muslims, almost to the last one. Reductions and oversimplification might be useful to the media and to short-sighted or self-serving politicians and governments, but the propaganda is deceptive and simply inaccurate. Even the two main rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, are now fighting one another following the mid-2006 Abuja agreement. Chad is arming Sudan’s rebels and Sudan is doing the same.

But considering that the victims and the aggressors are all Muslim, what have Muslim countries and organisations done to bring the crisis to a halt? As the United States is keenly interested in hyping the tragedy and exploiting it for its own purposes, Muslim institutions in the West appear disinterested in the whole affair, merely paying lip service to fend off accusations. At least this is how I felt when I caught up with Daud Abdullah, deputy secretary- general of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the largest umbrella Muslim group representing over 400 Muslim organisations in the country.

Abdullah spoke at the Darfur rally with unequalled passion, a quality known of this man, a Jamaican-British Muslim who obtained his PhD in modern Sudanese history from the University of Khartoum. He lived in the war-torn country for seven years. He seemed neither apologetic nor bashful to lay the blame where it deserves to be laid; but he was clearly fearful of misguided military adventures like those of the United States in the Middle East.

"Muslims learned bitter lessons from the Kuwait episode when foreigners invaded Muslim lands," he told me, proposing "an internal political settlement within Sudan using African and Muslim resources". When I suggested to Abdullah that such a proposal is useless considering its repeated failures, and considering the urgency of the situation in Sudan, he responded: "Failure on the part of Muslims on more than one occasion shouldn’t negate the notion that Muslims must try to resolve the situation internally and present their own alternatives."

Abdullah knows more than anyone else I know about how Sudan "is prone to fragmentation". He said that the country "was put together in the 19th century [in a political concoction] that has left it in constant struggle and civil war. The country is hardly in need of further fragmentation." "This conflict will be resolved at the negotiation table," according to Abdullah, who is also one of the most well-known Muslim rights advocates in Britain, if not in all of Europe. "There can be no military solution. Muslim countries, civil societies and other parties must strive to bring conflicting parties to talk on the basis of sharing wealth and creating equality, and ending the marginalisation that has defined Darfur for generations."

Rights groups however, suggest that the intensity of the violence has increased since the peace agreement signed last year between the government and the rebels. The rebels’ split led to an internal clash, and the killings are no longer defined according to the simplified media line, Janjaweeds versus Africans.

Abdullah defended the MCB against my suggestion that some Muslim groups seem little interested in direct involvement, and that Darfur has been dropped from their political sphere, for it simply involves no other party than Muslims. "The MCB has been involved in efforts to support political settlement in Sudan. We are in direct contact with Khartoum and are exploring ways to ensure that the central government honours its responsibilities towards the people of that region." He spoke of "some progress" on that front and insisted that the powerful Muslim organisation fully supports the Abuja Agreement. According to Abdullah, the MCB continues to exert all efforts to help bring an end to the conflict.

In such conflicts, when regional control, political interests and economic booty are all at stake, human lives — especially of those deemed of least importance, namely peasants, nomads and defenceless innocents with little clout — become pawns in the hands of those who wish conflict to perpetuate, so long as they find reason. As I left the Darfur rally, the echo of an angry speaker, demanding intervention and justice followed me a long distance from the crowd. My mind was totally consumed with an image of an hourglass of blood. It continues streaming as people continue to die.

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