Sudan is the largest country in Africa, located just south of Egypt on the eastern edge of the Sahara desert. Darfur lies in western Sudan and borders Libya, Chad and the Central African Republic.
The approximately 6 million people of Darfur are among the poorest in Africa. They exist largely on either subsistence farming or nomadic herding. The country's major economic resource is oil. But, as in other developing countries with oil, this resource is not being developed for the benefit of the Sudanese people, but instead, for an elite few in the government and society. As much as 70 percent of Sudan's oil export revenues are used to finance the country's military.
The current crisis in Darfur began in 2003. After decades of neglect, drought, oppression and small-scale conflicts in Darfur, two rebel groups - the Sudanese Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) - mounted a challenge to Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir. President al-Bashir's response was brutal. In seeking to defeat the rebel movements, the Government of Sudan increased arms and support to local tribal and other militias, which have come to be known as the Janjaweed. They have wiped out entire villages, destroyed food and water supplies, and systematically murdered, tortured, and raped hundreds of thousands of Darfurians. These attacks occur with the direct support of the Government of Sudan's armed forces.
This scorched earth campaign by the Sudanese government against Darfur's sedentary farming population has, by direct violence, disease and starvation, already claimed as many as 400,000 lives. In all, about 2.3 million Darfuris have fled their homes and communities and now reside in a network of internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Darfur, with at least 200,000 more living in refugee camps in Chad. These refugees and IDPs are completely dependent on the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations for their very livelihood - food, water, shelter, and health care.
Another 1 million Darfuris still live in their villages, under the constant threat of bombings, raids, murder, rape and torture. Their safety depends on the presence of the under-funded and undermanned African Union (AU) peacekeeping force or “AMIS”, numbering just 7,400 troops and personnel. This force, in Darfur since October 2004, lacks a civilian protection mandate as well as adequate means to stop the violence; its sole mandate is to monitor and report ceasefire violations and it has done little more, due to its limited mandate but also because of its anemic capacity.
Visitors to the refugee camps have reported on the dire conditions and the situation on the ground is deteriorating. Humanitarian workers and operations are increasingly being targeted by both government and fragmenting rebel movement elements. Vehicles are being hijacked and robbed; aid workers are assaulted and intimidated while carrying out their work; and offices are broken into and looted. It is remarkable that the people of Darfur have survived for this long, in the face of such overwhelming hardship, and with so little progress toward resolving the underlying cause of their dislocation and insecurity.
In the first two months of 2007, according to the UN, over 80,000 more people entered into the IDP camps, fleeing the ongoing violence. Both the UN and non-governmental humanitarian agencies have warned that their ability to sustain operations is at risk in the face of government harassment and worsening security problems. Any interruption in the flow of humanitarian aid could spark deaths on a scale even worse than that seen to date: UN officials say that the death rate in Darfur could rise as high as 100,000 people per month if the fragile humanitarian life-support system collapses.