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Horror in Sudan

How will Obama respond to a new round of atrocities?

It seems that widespread atrocities are yet again taking place in Sudan. Of course, there is much we do not know about precisely what is happening; but the reports coming out of the country are nauseating, and they sound all too similar to reports that emerged from South Sudan during the 1990s or from Darfur during the early days of that genocide. Could it be that we are witnessing the early stages of yet another slaughter perpetrated by the government in Khartoum?

The roots of the current killing go back decades, to the long civil war between South Sudan and the central government in the North. That war was brought to a formal close in 2005, when the Bush administration helped to negotiate a peace treaty between the two sides. One stipulation of the agreement was that the South would eventually be able to hold a referendum on independence. A vote was finally held this past January, and South Sudanese opted by an overwhelming margin to form a new country. The date for the South to declare independence was set for July 9.

Then, several weeks ago, the North began an assault on Abyei, located along the North-South border. The town is home to Ngok Dinkas, an ethnic group that has historically been allied with the South. The Sudanese military first fired into the town, and the next morning troops began to move in. There were reports of killings and rapes. Following the attack, according to a U.N. report obtained by Foreign Policy, the town of Abyei was “virtually empty and deserted”—over 30,000 people had fled. A significant portion of the town has been destroyed.

But Abyei was just the beginning. Next came a Sudanese military assault on South Kordofan. This area is located in the North, but its inhabitants are Nuba and they too have traditionally been aligned with the South. The Sudanese military has begun to move into Kordofan amid what U.N. officials call “a growing sense of panic.” It has blocked aid workers from entering the region and destroyed local airstrips. Perhaps 500,000 Nuba have been displaced; another 3,000 have disappeared. “They take the young men,” a U.N. official told the Guardian. “Are they going to detain them and feed them and give them water for months? I don’t think so.” Recent reports from the area tell of at least two new mass graves around South Kordofan’s capital; one was filled with nearly 1,000 bodies.

Because of the limited information coming out of Abyei and Kordofan, we do not have a complete picture of the situation. We also realize that it does the cause of human rights no benefit when observers cry genocide following any outbreak of violence. At the same time, we cannot ignore the history of this regime. We know the cruel techniques that the government in Khartoum has long used to preside over its fractious country. Whenever an outlying region of Sudan has launched a rebellion, the government has responded not only by fighting the rebellion itself, but by using genocidal tactics against the ethnic groups to which the rebels belong. These campaigns killed millions in the South and hundreds of thousands in Darfur. We may not know whether this is the start of a similar episode, but we know it is a possibility.

This is not an easy moment for President Obama. With the United States already engaged in three wars, going to war in Sudan is not a realistic option. But doing nothing in the face of these serious crimes is not a moral option. This is one of the most difficult situations a president can possibly face. There are no simple solutions to this dilemma, and we do not envy President Obama having to confront it. We would only say this: Throughout his presidency, Obama has often appeared to give the problems of Sudan short shrift, despite the extraordinarily evil nature of its regime. Moreover, during the crises that have engulfed the Middle East over the past several months, Obama has often taken the right steps but taken them too late. He has been content, in Washington’s phrase of the moment, to “lead from behind.”

These patterns must not repeat themselves in Sudan. Whatever Obama decides to do, he must be at the forefront of efforts to bring this killing to a halt. Whether it is arming the South Sudan government with surface-to-air missiles—as the Enough Project, an anti-genocide group, has proposed—or leaning on China, a close ally of Sudanese leader Omar Bashir, to use its influence to stop the violence, Obama must take this unfolding crisis seriously. Otherwise, the worst could very well happen once more.

This article originally ran in the July 14, 2011, issue of the magazine.