Eric Reeves, a professor of English language and literature at Smith College, has written extensively on Sudan.

Are we hours away from yet another bloodbath in Darfur? Sudan's army appears set to launch an attack on Muhajeria, a rebel-held town in South Darfur whose civilian population approaches 50,000. Indeed, as of today, bombing attacks on the outskirts of Muhajeria have already begun. And so the fate of tens of thousands of Darfuri civilians rests with the United Nations-African Union peacekeeping operation, which presently has about 200 personnel deployed in Muhajeria. Wire reports indicate that some 5,000 civilians have fled to the peacekeepers' base in search of security. Sudan's government has forcefully asked the peacekeepers to leave. So far, the U.N. is saying its troops will stay. But will they stand their ground once the fighting starts? And even if they stay, will they prove willing to use force to protect civilians--something U.N. peacekeepers have historically been extremely reluctant to do?

Muhajeria was previously ravaged by Khartoum's forces in October 2007. Here's how The New York Times described what took place then: "[W]itnesses said Sudanese government troops and their allied militias had killed more than 30 civilians, slitting the throats of several men praying at a mosque and shooting a 5-year-old boy in the back as he tried to run away. ... [T]wo columns of uniformed government troops, along with dozens of militiamen not in uniform, surrounded the town around noon on Oct. 8 and stormed the market." Muhajeria subsequently came under the erratic and often tyrannical control of the forces of Minni Minawi, a one-time rebel leader who switched sides in May 2006, signing the Darfur Peace Agreement and allying himself with the Khartoum regime. Several weeks ago, the Justice and Equality Movement--a rebel group that did not sign the agreement and continues to fight Khartoum and its Arab militia allies--seized control of the town from Minawi's forces. The regime regards this as an unacceptable military setback, and is apparently now laying the groundwork for an assault on the town.

Of course, the JEM is not blameless in creating this situation. The group's leadership claims that the town accidentally fell into its hands, but this is hard to believe. Moreover, one year ago, JEM attacks in West Darfur provoked vicious reprisals by the regime that ended up displacing tens of thousands--so you might think that the rebels would have been careful to avoid creating a situation where the same thing could happen again.

But none of this can excuse what Khartoum now appears ready to execute--an assault on the town that will almost certainly claim large numbers of civilian lives. And none of it changes the obligation of U.N.-A.U. troops to stay in Muhajeria and protect its residents through whatever means are available. The U.N.-A.U. force was deployed to Darfur under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, meaning that it has the authority to protect civilians using force and to call for reinforcements as necessary. But so far, much like the U.N. peacekeeping operation that "protected" Rwandans in 1994, it has done tragically little to defend Darfuris from ongoing attacks. (See this October 2008 dispatch for an overview of the force's inability to stop violence against civilians.)

And yet this peacekeeping operation is the only protection that the world has provided the people of Darfur. Now, the residents of Muhajeria are about to find out whether it can offer any real protection at all.

--Eric Reeves