The National Catholic Review
John H. Ricard
A first-person account
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My recent visit to Sudan corresponded with the first Sudanese bishops annual meeting in Khartoum in nearly 20 years that included both northern and southern bishops. The bishops, separated by a long civil war, were again united, and the joy was palpable. After a jubilant open-air Mass, nearly 5,000 people gathered outside the church to express affection for the bishops, hugging them and kissing their hands. Young dancers and drummers from every major tribe in southern Sudan entertained the crowds with music, singing, dancing and prayers. The festivities inspired audience membersincluding nuns, priests and a bishopto jump up and dance with their tribes. The celebration felt like a real turning point, as if the people were removing the last restraints of war and feeling free to express their faith and joy. I pray that the people of Darfur in their turn will have opportunities to dance euphorically.

Darfur Revisited

I first went to Darfur, Sudan, in 2004, just a year after a dire conflict erupted across the region, overturning the lives of millions of people. Traveling with Ken Hackett, president of Catholic Relief Services, I heard about whole desert communities forced from their villages; those who survived the violence made their way, shell-shocked, to meager camps where agencies like C.R.S. scrambled to meet their basic needs. We hoped the conflict would be a short-lived clash.

At that time, Sudan was a few steps away from signing a historic agreement to end the separate, two-decade civil war between north and south. Having visited Sudan several times before, I understood the entrenched north-south divide, and the encouraging implications of the accord. The brutal fight in Darfur, Sudans westernmost province, was a stark reminder that peace is fragile, but optimism about the countrys future ran high.

When I returned to Darfur this summer, I found a conflict that is far from resolved, a mature humanitarian response from agencies that have learned to work within alarming constraints and a dogged hope that recent peace efforts will bear lasting results. For millions in Darfur, survival is still not possible without additional help. Optimism is strong, but so is a pervasive sense that peace is a delicate, tenuous thing throughout Sudan.

A Broader View

Understanding the current situation requires one to step back to take a broader view of the region. The Comprehensive Peace Accord that ended the countrys north-south civil war in 2005 brought relative stability to southern Sudan, but many of its provisions still have not been met, either in letter or in spirit. Rebels from northern Uganda move back and forth across the border with Sudan, jeopardizing the sustainability of peace in both countries. And Sudans own conflicts have spilled across borders, destabilizing sections of Chad and the Central African Republic. For now, the accord is holding, but there are concerns about whether it can withstand these pressures.

International attention has centered on Darfur in recent years, but it is only one large piece in a complicated puzzle. If the process of implementing the C.P.A. stalls, Sudan could again be drawn into civil war, snuffing out Darfurs hope for peace. And without attention to the smaller, less notorious conflicts in other parts of the region, the chance of sustainable peace diminishes. The connections between Darfur and the rest of the country may require peacemakers to look closely at the Comprehensive Peace Accord and evaluate how to make it truly and nationally comprehensive.

A Way Forward

In June, Sudan accepted a robust force of peacekeepers from the United Nations and the African Union, and more boots were to arrive in Darfur in coming months. But solving the crisis requires more than troops. Without a peace deal, what peace would they keep? First, there must be a durable cease-fire, an initial step to a reinvigorated peace agreement, ensuring that all relevant parties are at the negotiating table. In Darfur, this includes the government, a wide array of rebel groups, people displaced by the violence, host communities that have taken in the displaced, women, nomadic Arabs and others. Each of these groups is a stakeholder in the process, and buy-in from each will be required to ensure that any agreement holds.

The Sudanese government has already signed one peace accord to end the conflict in Darfur, but only one prominent rebel leader joined as a signatory. This rendered the agreement ineffective. The rebel groups, however, largely splintered into separate factions in the past year, recognize the need to come together if peace talks are to have any meaning and weight. At a recent meeting in Tanzania, most factions agreed on a general, common platform as part of an ongoing process designed to lead disparate groups back to the negotiating table.

But setting that table may take serious diplomatic attention. President Bush appointed a special envoy to the area last year. The high-level attention is appreciated, but more is needed before this nuanced diplomacy can have the necessary effect. Through the United Nations and other channels, the United States has immense diplomatic pull. Though the Sudanese government may not be swayed by our voice, other nationssome with greater influence in Sudanmay be.

Securing the Comprehensive Peace Accord required years of difficult negotiations, but that process provides key lessons on what it will take to bring peace to Darfurnamely, strong U.S. leadership, tough regional diplomacy, a unified negotiating process rather than scattered efforts and intense focus. The longer the conflict in Darfur festers, the more damage it will inflict on peace across the region and the harder it will be for families and communities to heal after it ends.

Darfurs Humanitarian Crisis

Darfur is the recipient of one of the most extensive humanitarian efforts in the world, in response to one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world. On the positive side, the aid community is making great strides. Malnutrition is being addressed. Children are being vaccinated. Aid is reaching more people than it has in the past. But serious challenges remain. The presence of armed militias keeps humanitarian aid from reaching all vulnerable communities.

Groups like Catholic Relief Services have been on the ground in Darfur for years, and the complexity of their responses shows it. One camp I visited has the air of a planned community, with streets and homes plotted out before residents arrive. Each family receives a demarcated area and has access to water and other services at central points. C.R.S. is also building schools for children in these camps and providing training and materials to teachers. Though the countrys brutal civil war interrupted the education of southern Sudanese childrensometimes for yearsaid agencies hope students in Darfur will be able to continue their studies, making it easier for them to resume their normal lives when peace arrives.

But as humanitarians try to impose order and stability on a violent, chaotic situation, needs continue to grow. After fleeing from their villages, these families traveled more than 30 miles to homes constructed by C.R.S.in El Geneina.

But they found crowded conditions when they arrived. With nowhere else to go, they erected improvised shelters on a flood zone on the outskirts of the camp. As the seasonal rains approached, it was clear their shelters were in jeopardy and new quarters were needed. Without the new structures, they could have watched their lives be washed awayagain.

Aid groups have found ways to address the needs of people displaced by this long conflict, but that does not make the massive disruption easy for affected families to bear. The ability of agencies to provide services (housing, food and clean water) is constantly jeopardized by insecurity on the ground. That leaves displaced communities with few assurances of protection or comfort.

The Most Rev. John H. Ricard, S.S.J., is bishop of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla.