Sudanese War Refugees Hopeful as Powell Visits Their Homeland

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT


Nairobi, Kenya (CNSNews.com) - Sudanese refugees living in Kenya are optimistic that Colin Powell's visit to Sudan - the first by a U.S. secretary of state in 26 years - will place sufficient pressure on Khartoum to speed up resolution of deadly conflicts in their homeland.

Powell Wednesday assessed the humanitarian situation in Sudan's western Darfur region, where the Arab government and allied tribal militia are waging a war against black African civilians.

The Darfur conflict has been raging for more than a year, even as an older civil war moves towards resolution, thanks to marathon peace talks hosted by Kenya and backed by the U.S.

Before visiting Darfur, Powell warned the government that it risked international action, including action by the U.N. Security Council, if "movement" is not seen soon in resolving the situation in Darfur.

In talks with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, Powell said the U.S. wants Khartoum to provide access for aid to displaced people, end attacks by the militias, and renew talks with two rebel groups in Darfur.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is also in Sudan to follow up the situation in Darfur. Earlier in the year, Annan also warned Khartoum that the Security Council could act if violence continued in the region.

Many refugees who fled Sudan's wars are living in Kenya, their country's southeastern neighbor.

Some voiced hope that the renewed international pressure on the Sudanese government would make a difference.

"The pressure on Khartoum must be sustained," said Peter Riek, a 34-year-old father of two.

"It's like a godsend," added Bor Riek of the Sudanese Youth Development Initiative, a community-based organization helping the refugees, referring to the U.S. interest. "We can see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Jemera Rone, a researcher on Sudan with the Africa Division of Human Rights, urged Powell to compel the authorities to reverse what many groups are calling "ethnic cleansing."

Reflecting widespread concern among humanitarian organizations, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) estimates that 350,000 people from Darfur may die within the next few months if aid is not substantially increased and is able to get through.

International mediation efforts to end the fighting in Darfur have been criticized as "lopsided." For instance, a ceasefire agreement signed in April allowed the African Union to monitor the truce, but it failed to deliver a specific mandate to protect civilians.

Although lightly armed ceasefire monitors from Africa, the U.S. and Europe have been deployed there, atrocities against civilians continue.

The conflict pits the government militias against two rebel groups fighting for political and economic autonomy from Khartoum. Humanitarian bodies estimate that at least one million people have been displaced and thousands more killed in the conflict or died of hunger and diseases since the war started early last year.

Powell's visit, the first by an American secretary of state since 1978 to a nation which remains on the U.S. list of terror-sponsoring nations, also aims to put further pressure on the government to commit itself to a final round of civil war peace talks underway in Kenya between Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).

In a recent major achievement, both parties agreed on modalities for power-sharing government during a six-year transition period, after which a referendum will be held to determine whether the mostly Christian and animist south should form its own state.

The final push for a final, comprehensive peace agreement began in Kenya on Monday.

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