East African Conflict

Headlines are shouting about the crisis in Somalia. Ethiopian troops, backed by U.S. air strikes, have crossed the border into Somalia in support of the Transitional Federal Government and in a brief violent confrontation, deposed the Council of Somali Islamic Courts. The situation remains fraught with peril, and the future of Somalia remains uncertain.

But it would be a mistake to look at this conflict in isolation and miss the bigger picture: from N'djamena, Chad, to Darfur, Sudan, to Mogadishu, Somalia, circumstances are arrayed in an ominous configuration that looks more foreboding with each passing day. This arc of crisis encompasses the Horn of Africa, stretching for thousands of miles and threatening the lives of millions of vulnerable people.

Pope Benedict XVI has recognized the depth of this crisis. In his address to Vatican diplomats earlier this month, he noted that “the drama of Darfur continues and is being extended to the border regions of Chad and the Central African Republic.” He also said that “The situation in the Horn of Africa has recently become more serious, with the resumption of hostilities and the internationalization of the conflict.” He called for all hostile parties to lay down their arms and enter into negotiations: “I invite all those concerned to act with determination: we cannot accept that so many innocent people continue to suffer and die in this way.”

Problematically, our understanding of the region provided through the media arrives in simple snapshots: brutal conflict in Darfur, Sudan's westernmost region; an increasingly tenuous peace in southern Sudan; rebel movements in Chad and the Central African Republic; a tense border standoff between Ethiopia and Eritrea; and a conflict that has as many as 10 countries nurturing competing interests in Somalia. To view these predicaments separately is to miss the bigger picture of a region linked by porous borders, vast poverty, overlapping conflicts and sometimes shadowy ties.

In Somalia, Ethiopian troops recently crossed the border in support of the Transitional Federal Government, turning over large swaths of the country that had been under the control of the Islamic Courts. Ethiopia, which is trying to repress rebel movements within its own borders, stepped in to back the Transitional Federal Government partly out of concern that the Courts have irredentist aims on the Ethiopia's Somali region (scene of the Ogaden War 30 years ago).

Calls are coming from many quarters for an end to the violence in Somalia. Bishop Giorgio Bertin of Djibouti, who oversees the Catholic Church in Mogadishu, has called for intervention by the international community to help stablize the country and assist in stabilizing the government. But, he said, Somalia must have a voice in its future. “In Somalia there is a proverb that says, 'Only the hunchback knows the position in which he can sleep,'” Bishop Bertin told Catholic News Service. “The same thing goes for Somalis. Only they know what steps are necessary to stabilize the country.”

CRS provides ongoing support to Caritas Somalia in health programs and other activities. CRS has been carrying out contingency planning in Ethiopia and Kenya, and is coordinating with Caritas Somalia and other local partners in Somalia in order to provide support as emergency needs arise.

Meanwhile, thousands of Darfuris continue to flee for their lives in a nearly 4-year-old conflict that now spills regularly into eastern Chad. This spillover feeds rebels interested in toppling Chadian President Idriss Deby, who accuses the Sudanese government in Khartoum of arming the insurgents. Adding to the problems, a recent clash in the southern Sudanese town of Malakal served as a violent reminder of the precarious nature of the peace agreement that ended a decades-long civil war between North and South Sudan just last year. Across this vast region, roughly the size of the United States, these several battles are not isolated events; money, motives, actors and a long, complex history links them inextricably together.

CRS has continued providing shelter, food, clean water, basic supplies, sanitation and education to thousands of people in West Darfur. CRS increased the number of people it is feeding to 150,000 in 35 distribution sites. Across the border in eastern Chad, CRS is providing for the needs of refugees from Darfur at two camps through our sister Caritas organization, known by its French acronym, SECADEV.

In support of the fragile peace in southern Sudan, CRS has reopened its office in Juba, the capital of that conflicted region. CRS is among the earliest agencies to reestablish its presence in Juba, an example of solidarity that the region's nascent government and the Archbishop of Juba have noted.

Our CRS colleagues and the local organizations we work with, particularly our sister Caritas agencies, are working every day to serve the people affected by disruption, poverty and violence resulting from these conflicts.

Please keep them and the people they serve in your prayers,

Ken Hackett

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