Worldwide Protests Aim To Raise Awareness Of Crisis In Darfur

Little-known but brutal war has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

Demonstrators from New York to Rwanda gathered by the tens of thousands on Sunday to draw attention to the brutal war in the Darfur region of Sudan, which has killed more than 200,000 people to date and displaced more than 2 million.

The war — which has led to what is widely considered to be one of the world's worst humanitarian crises — has been raging for more than three years between Africans and government-backed Arab militias in the Western regions of Sudan, a nation of 37 million that is the largest country on the African continent. It has drawn calls by everyone from President Bush to actor George Clooney for immediate action by the United Nations to bring stability to the chaotic region.

In New York on Sunday at one of the "Global Day for Darfur" events held in more than 40 cities worldwide, a crowd in excess of 20,000 gathered in Central Park to demand that the U.S. put pressure on the Sudanese government to stop the murders and abuse of its citizens and allow United Nations peacekeepers into the country, according to a Reuters report.

"The world must act and it must do so now, because time is not on our side," former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said at the New York rally. Canadian Justice Minister and Attorney General Irwin Cotler had stronger words, comparing the genocide in the country to the Holocaust. "This genocide was preventable, and we did not act," Cotler said, according to The Associated Press. "Just as we are not acting today in Darfur. Let us resolve that we will never again be indifferent to evil. We will speak and act." A candlelight vigil was also held in Cambodia to remember Darfur victims and religious leaders gathered outside the British prime minister's residence at Downing Street in London to pray for a resolution.

Western leaders have asked Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to accept a United Nations resolution to deploy more than 20,000 peacekeepers in Darfur, but he has so far refused. Bashir reiterated over the weekend that he would not allow U.N. forces into his country. "We don't want the United Nations back to Sudan no matter the conditions," he said. The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to meet about Sudan on Monday (September 18) to discuss the issue.

The mass slaughters and displacements are the result of a conflict that began in 2003, when African tribes staged a revolt against the Arab-led government, which they felt had long marginalized African Muslims politically and economically. After several major victories by the rebels against state forces in early 2003, the government reacted by funding a militia of vicious Arab fighters known as the Janjaweed, who took up arms against three main ethnic groups: the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa.

"When the insurgency began to get very successful, the military command structure decided not to confront it straight up, but to switch to a genocidal counterinsurgency strategy," said Smith College professor Eric Reeves, a Sudan researcher and expert.

Since they began their campaign, Reeves said the Janjaweed militiamen are accused of perpetrating mass rapes and murders and destroying more than 400 villages — between 80 and 90 percent of the region's non-Arab villages — in an attempt to cut off support to the rebels. A peace agreement signed by the government and one of the largest rebel groups was signed in May, but was quickly followed by months of brutal battles between the rival factions.

In addition to the deaths, Reeves said that an estimated 2.5 million people have been displaced in Darfur and that more than 4 million are being affected by the fighting. A U.N. study found that 350,000 people in the region could die of disease and malnutrition by the end of this year if more international aid is not flown in. "They're getting some assistance, but it's diminishing rapidly as humanitarian groups find they can't operate in such an environment," Reeves said. Currently, half of the 3.8 million people affected by the fighting have poor access to assistance and 1.5 million have none at all, which means they've been living without food, seeds or agricultural implements for months after having their cattle slaughtered and food stores looted or burned.

Oscar-winner George Clooney attempted to use his star power to bring attention to the conflict on Friday when he spoke to the U.N. alongside Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Nazi death camps during the Holocaust. "After September 30, you won't need the U.N. You will simply need men with shovels and bleached white linen and headstones," Clooney warned, according to AP, in reference to the cut-off date to send the U.N. replacements for the African Union's 7,000 peacekeepers in Darfur.

"The United States has called it genocide," Clooney told U.N. council members. "For you it's called ethnic cleansing. But make no mistake ... it is the first genocide of the 21st century. And if it continues unchecked it will not be the last." Clooney and his father, a former newscaster, spent five days in Darfur in April, gathering stories of the death and suffering the war has unleashed in the region.