At last, the catastrophe in the western Sudanese region of Darfur, a quarter of whose six million people are now displaced by war and whose lives are at serious risk, has gained some international attention. In July, Secretary of State Colin Powell and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan visited Darfuri refugee camps to pressure the regime in Khartoum into stopping what has become a frenzy of destruction. Their pressure has so far failed. Moreover, the promises of humanitarian aid for internally displaced and refuge-seeking Darfuris come desperately late. As the Sudanese government places obstacles in the way of the international relief organizations, the death toll from deliberate, war-induced famine is headed for the hundreds of thousands.

For well over a year, with all eyes on peace talks between Khartoum and the mainly southern Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M), the long-simmering conflict in Darfur has been at a boil. After Darfuri militants, mostly under the new banner of their own "Sudan Liberation Army," announced their rebellion in February 2003, the government embarked upon a scorched-earth campaign reminiscent of its assaults on the southern Sudan and the Nuba mountains during the 1990s. Deploying bombers, helicopter gunships, "People's Defense Force" paramilitaries and regular armed forces, the regime also encouraged raids led by local tribal militias known as the janjaweed. These irregulars have now been linked directly to Sudanese security services by documents publicized on July 20 by Human Rights Watch. The scorched-earth campaign produced the greatest single exodus of refugees in the world in 2003, and is sustaining the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today.

Estimates of the human cost in Darfur vary greatly. But even the most conservative tallies state that at least 10,000 villagers are dead, with the expectation, voiced by Andrew Natsios of the US Agency for International Development, that 350,000 more people could die even if adequate humanitarian aid arrives. In addition, there are perhaps 1.2 million internally displaced persons and upwards of 200,000 refugees in Chad as a result of the war. Meanwhile, the international response is characterized by a collective reluctance to acknowledge the severity of the crisis. Washington's ambassador-at-large for war crimes, Pierre-Richard Prosper, has said that there are "indicators of genocide" in Darfur. Visiting Sudan in July, Powell warned that events were "moving towards a genocidal conclusion." Yet no action commensurate with these dire warnings has been taken, due partly to the disquiet of the US and other powers over the implications of using the word "genocide" to describe what is occurring in Darfur. As the disaster deepens, the Security Council is again dallying over a US draft resolution calling for mild intervention.

RESOURCES AND RACE

Darfur, a region the size of France, was an independent sultanate until 1916. It stretches from desert in the north to savannah in the south, interrupted midway by the Jebel Marra volcanic plateau, which boasts more rainfall and more fertile soil than the other areas. The region's people include farmers growing sorghum, millet, groundnuts and tomatoes who are mostly of black African stock and outlook, and nomadic pastoralists (raising camels in the north and cattle further south) who mostly regard themselves as ethnic Arabs. Since the 1970s, climate change has accelerated desertification, adding pressure on northerners to move southward. The tribes who now supply fighters to the janjaweed were once known as the murahilin (migrants).

Conflicts in Darfur between settled farmers and nomads migrating in search of water and pastures have been commonplace for centuries, but traditionally solutions were reached by negotiation. During the 1980s and 1990s, however, these conflicts intensified, aggravated by drought and the government policy of selectively arming tribesmen while removing the weapons of the farmers, the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa. Because livestock is Darfur's main export, the pastoralists have more influence in this region than in places where Khartoum favors settled communities.

Though originating in resource competition, the war is now heavily overlaid by race. Rape as a weapon of deracination, increasingly widespread in Darfur, has been accompanied by racist verbal abuse of the "African" women victims. Ethnic identities, once somewhat fluid, have hardened as the regime promotes its favored groups. Pastoralists and farmers have a long history of economic interdependence, as well as intermarriage. Baggara, the term for Arab pastoralists, means "cattle herder," and it was once possible for members of the Fur and other ethnic groups with sizable numbers of cattle to assimilate into Baggara clans. Now the ethnic lines are drawn more sharply. For over a decade, two dozen tribes, "Arabized" by the regime's conscious encouragement of that identity, have been engaged in what they call a "war on the blacks."

Darfur's people are all Muslim, but the settled communities such as the Fur and Masalit have cultural idiosyncrasies that reflect their African roots. For example, like the southern Sudanese and Nuba, they brew marissa, a beer high in B vitamins and protein that in various strengths forms a staple part of the diet. The farmers did not consider that marissa was serious alcohol forbidden by Islam until the advent of Islamist politics brought by regimes in Khartoum. The first post-independence attempt to ban alcohol in Sudan was in south Darfur in the mid-1970s. The governor appointed by then-President Jaafar Nimeiri tried to set an example a decade before Nimeiri's embrace of Islamist ideology led to countrywide imposition of a crude version of shari`a law. "African" Darfuris, devout Muslims already, did not accept being told how to follow their religion. Darfuri women, too, have traditionally been less constrained, and can be seen carrying loads of bricks and building houses, a sight inconceivable in parts of central Sudan.

ON THE PERIPHERY

Darfur has long been a reservoir of cheap male labor for the agricultural and industrial projects of central Sudan, and the major source of lower-ranking soldiers in the army. In response to their peripheral status, like the inhabitants of other regions of the country where successive governments have been embroiled in civil war, Darfuris have called for greater autonomy from the central government in local administration, education, tax systems and resources. But successive governments in Khartoum have played the ethnic card as one tactic for dividing their multiple opponents on the periphery. Starting with the elected government of Sadiq al-Mahdi which lasted from 1986-1989, the authorities in Khartoum have armed proxy militias -- often from the "Arab" Baggara and Rizeigat of Darfur -- as a low-cost way to fight not just the mainly southern Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), but also a number of "African" Sudanese outside the south, such as the Nuba in southern Kordofan.

The National Islamic Front, which seized power in a 1989 military coup, made political inroads into Darfur by promising to end the marginalization and exploitation that had so far been the region's lot. After the 1989 coup, the Islamist regime first attempted to recruit the Fur and other non-Arab tribesmen before deciding to continue arming groups of Arabized people in Darfur, mainly to keep on fighting the southerners but also to break the remaining political opposition in the region.

From early on, these regime tactics had dire consequences. Suleiman Baldo and Ushari Mahmoud, two Sudanese researchers who produced a landmark report on the 1987 al-Daein massacre, were detained and interrogated by security forces when their book was published in Khartoum. The researchers had uncovered the reemergence of slavery, which was linked with the freedom given to the unpaid Arabized tribal militia to seize human "war booty" in their raids on southern villages. "Arab tribal groups were also armed in Darfur against the Fur and Zaghawa, of whom thousands have been killed," the Sudan Human Rights Organisation Workshop, based in Cairo, pointed out in November 1992. Throughout the 1990s, there were reports of armed militias -- the now notorious janjaweed -- raiding villages of "African" tribes in Darfur, causing thousands of people to cross the border into Chad. The dehumanization thus encouraged by regime policies now appears in the form of the killings, expulsions, rapes and abductions being reported in Darfur.

The current government has exacerbated matters by assigning land ownership to Arab occupiers of properties whose original owners had been killed or driven away by the janjaweed. In early 1998, Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Hussein, Sudan's interior minister, told the media that "fifth columnists" had killed all the Arab chieftains in western Darfur. This untrue and inflammatory remark provoked many more Arab tribesmen in the region to join in the conflict than might otherwise have done so.

REBELLIOUS REGION

Since 2001, Darfur has been governed under central government decree, with special courts to try people suspected of illegal possession or smuggling of weapons, murder and armed robbery. The security forces have misused these powers for arbitrary and indefinite detention. Anyone suspected of criticizing the government can be and often is arrested without charge for months.

These factors, coupled with ethnic conflict, an increase in armed attacks and despair at Darfur's continuing marginalization, led to the formation of two resistance movements, the Sudanese Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and the smaller Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). The former, born out of an earlier Darfur Liberation Front, is secular, while the latter seems to be led by, if not composed of, Darfuri Islamists disillusioned by the continuing lack of a fair deal from the regime. JEM members are believed to have authored a survey of inequality of distribution of Sudan's wealth, known as the "Black Book," which was published in 1999. In the late winter of 2003, frustrated at the exclusion of Darfur (as well as other center-periphery conflicts) from the US-sponsored negotiations between Khartoum and the SPLA, the two movements took up arms. The regime responded by unleashing the janjaweed, as well as its own forces, on the whole of the rebellious region.

INDICATORS OF COMPLICITY

For months, Khartoum deflected international attention to the increasingly grim news from Darfur by claiming that the militias were rogue elements outside its control. Eyewitnesses have long reported, however, that government helicopters are involved in supplying militias and that security and military chiefs are directing their activities. The involvement of the air force would be clear evidence of high-level approval. Human Rights Watch has obtained what appear to be Sudanese government documents that confirm the regime's deep complicity in the militias' activities. The documents, which have been seen by Middle East Report, support the eyewitness accounts. One directive from February 2004, evoking the authority of President Omar Bashir, calls upon Darfur security heads to step up "the process of mobilizing loyalist tribes and providing them with sufficient armory to secure the areas." Another document from the same month instructs local officers to "allow the activities of the mujahideen and the volunteers under the command of Sheikh Musa Hilal [an identified militia leader] to proceed in the areas of [North Darfur] and to secure their vital needs."

As with the ongoing war in southern Sudan, Darfur's manmade disaster reflects a combination of high-level planning by the Sudanese authorities, and the consequences of using as a retaliatory force a militia whose commanders have been given freedom to do as they see fit on the ground as long as they get rid of the target villages. The Sudanese security apparatus is the real source of power in the country, and is notorious for its role in setting massacres in train. Now its fingerprints are on the Darfur operation, to the extent that some senior army and air force officers have reportedly refused to take part, for example, in the aerial bombings.

Several ceasefires have been announced and promptly breached by the government, and peace negotiations -- moved from neighboring Chad to Ethiopia in July 2004 -- have gotten nowhere. In June 2004, the government was finalizing the "modalities" of a peace deal with the mainly southern SPLA. It was also due to take delivery of eight MiG-29 attack aircraft, completing a total of 12 bought with as much as $370 million of oil revenue. The first of these MiG-29s was seen in the skies of Darfur in January, augmenting the Antonov bombers and Mi-24 helicopters whose aerial raids on villages in western Sudan are coordinated with attacks by the janjaweed militia. Meanwhile, the international community was struggling to raise an equivalent sum for relief for the people displaced by those raids.

The regime protests that there is no danger of famine and that they have curtailed the militias' rampages -- claims both roundly denounced as prevarications by UN officials on the ground in Sudan. On July 20, the government announced that it would repatriate thousands of Darfuri displaced persons to their villages, where they could fall victim to still more janjaweed raids. Still, the first US draft resolution at the Security Council diverted blame from Khartoum, for instance "welcoming the commitment by the government of Sudan to investigate the atrocities and prosecute those responsible." The resolution would have imposed sanctions only on janjaweed figures. A second draft resolution, reportedly somewhat stronger, is being discussed -- but the willingness of the Security Council to implement effective measures remains to be seen.

DANGER OF DELAY

The definition of genocide in Article II of the 1948 Geneva Convention is "acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group." All of these definitions seem to fit the situation in Darfur. The number of killings is less important than the repetition and intent, and the wholesale elimination of a particular ethnic group is not necessary for a crime to count as genocide.

Effective and timely action in Darfur, however, requires the broadest possible international coalition applying pressure upon the Sudanese government, and there is a danger of fatal delay in hair-splitting arguments over semantics, as happened in Rwanda and Bosnia. The official label of genocide, while it may be correct, may be too difficult to establish as a legal matter in the time available. It is also not an essential prerequisite for urgent measures. The evidence of crimes against humanity in Darfur is already sufficiently strong to provide the basis for the UN to authorize, under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, armed units of peacekeepers to protect the civilian population and aid convoys, supplied by airlifts from Europe and the US. This step is achievable.

On July 22, Kofi Annan said that "the Sudanese government doesn't have forever" to rein in the janjaweed, but declined to set an "artificial deadline" for Khartoum to comply with his demands. So far, the international community's excuse for such a muted and dilatory response has been that nothing should jeopardize the peace talks with the SPLA. But if the regime in Khartoum gets away with politically motivated massacre on the staggering scale of Darfur, what value will there be in its promises over southern Sudan?