The Darfur Region of the Sudan

Cate Malek

July, 2005

Since this article was written, the situation in Darfur has continued to deteriorate. We urge our readers to do whatever they can to help address this unfolding tragedy. For current information on the situation and things that can be done to help, we recommend:

Hamid Maraja Hassan remembers a cracking sound, "like wood being split," coming from the far end of his village. That was the signal the Janjaweed had come.

The attackers swept through, burning homes and shooting people. Hassan fled with his family and his livestock, but realized too late that his oldest son was not with them. He went back to find Ibrahim lying in a field with a gunshot wound in his back.

"There was no hope, so I stayed there with him while he died," Hassan said. "But I didn't have time to bury him. That is still hard for me to think about, but the Janjaweed were coming and I had other children who needed me, so I had to leave him there." [1]

Hassan's story is one of thousands from the Darfur region of Sudan. The refugees pouring out of the area tell of an organized campaign of terror in which villagers have been killed, raped and tortured by roving militias and their homes bombed or burned to the ground. Villagers have been driven into refugee camps where tens of thousands have died from disease and starvation. At this writing, over 70,000 people have died and over one million are homeless. [2]

Despite the reports, neither the Sudanese government nor the international community has intervened. Instead, as Australian reporter Edmond Roy said, "while the United Nations talks about resolutions and sanctions, Darfur sinks into a mire of killing, rape and starvation, as the world looks on, increasingly, it seems, unable [or unwilling] to stop the violence." [3]

Why doesn't the world stop the violence? What makes the Sudan such an intractable conflict? Darfur provides a window into a larger problem. Similar conflicts have erupted in Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia. In all of these cases, a relatively powerless group has been mercilessly slaughtered. The government has not only been unable to prevent the bloodshed, but has sponsored it. Any taboos against violence have been broken, leading to deeply disturbing stories of massacres and torture. Genocide is a loaded and very specific term, but in Rwanda and Bosnia there was a clear intent to exterminate an entire ethnic group. Darfur has not yet reached these proportions of violence, but many see another Rwanda lurking in Darfur's shadows.

The Beginning

The one thing almost everyone in Darfur can agree on is the fighting was started by a drought.

Darfur, which is about the size of Texas, is made up of both desert and lush grasslands. Most Darfurians are Muslim and appear indistinguishable to outsiders. However, the people of Darfur divide themselves into two basic identity groups, "Arabs" and "Africans." The Arab groups tend to be nomads while the Africans are usually farmers. Arabs and Africans have always competed over water and land, but tribal councils have traditionally been able to resolve these disputes.[4]

This changed in the 1980s when the government replaced the tribal councils with government programs. Because Arabs dominated the government, it soon became clear how any dispute between Arabs and Africans would be decided. At the same time, Darfur was hit by a severe drought. Disputes over resources increased and there was no legitimate system for resolving them. Skirmishes between the two groups became violent. The tribes grew more polarized.

The breaking point came when a minority group of African farmers calling themselves the Sudan Liberation Army rebelled. Tired of the government's pro-Arab prejudice, the SLA attacked the airport, destroying fighter planes and killing around 100 soldiers. Trying to save face, President Omar al-Bashir suppressed the rebels. However, rather than using the army, al-Bashir sent in the Janjaweed. Instead of subduing the fighting, the Janjaweed escalated it out of control. Sudanese general Ibrahim Suleiman explained, "When the problems with the rebels started in Darfur, we in the government of Sudan had a number of options. We chose the wrong one. We chose the very worst one." [5]

Although Sudan is a dictatorship, it has failed as a police state because its army is too small to control the country, which is the size of Western Europe with few roads, bridges, or other infrastructure. The government relies on militias to supplement Sudan's professional army. One of those militias, called the Janjaweed, is made up mostly of Arab nomads. The Janjaweed are by no means representative of all Arabs in Darfur. In fact, the Janjaweed have attacked some Arab tribes as well. However, because of the ethnic conflict in Darfur, this group is already prejudiced against the farmers. When President al-Bashir armed the Janjaweed, the conflict spiralled out of control.

Devils on Horseback

New York Times reporter, Scott Anderson describes his meeting with a member of the Janjaweed:

He sat warily on the very edge of his chair, his mouth set in a steady, nervous grin. He would not use his real name -- Bashom, he called himself -- out of fear that he would be arrested for crimes he had committed as a Janjaweed in his native state of West Darfur -- Bashom claimed to have parted company with his band of knights several years ago, well before the marauding and massacres that have devastated Darfur and drawn international condemnation. Nonetheless, he was worried his past could come back to haunt him.

"Because we did many bad things on these raids, you know?" he said. "And if the government is serious now about moving against the knights, well, maybe they will come for me."

When I asked what these "bad things" were, Bashom wouldn't elaborate. Instead, he fixed me with his unsettling grin, and his voice, already a whisper, became even softer: "Everything you can think of. Maybe some other things too." [6]

In English, Janjaweed means "devils on horseback". Although the militias were small, less than a few thousand soldiers, they were capable of wreaking vast amounts of destruction. Very little has been done to disarm them. The Janjaweed rode through Darfur killing with impunity, raping women, and burning villages and food supplies. Their victims fled into neighboring countries. The conflict escalated into war.

The Janjaweed profited immensely from the conflict. Reporter, Dan Connell describes them as, "a mob of armed thugs cashing in on the opportunity to loot at will" [7] Connell believes that it was greed more than ethnic hatred that started the killing spree. Some of the Janjaweed leaders are notorious criminals. Still, ethnic tensions allowed the roving gangs to dehumanize their victims, provoking atrocities such as burning children alive and using women as sex slaves.

The International Response

The rate of casualties in Darfur has been staggering. It is equal to more than three World Trade Center bombings every month for seven months. The world has taken notice.

Reports of atrocities in Darfur "leave me with a deep sense of foreboding," said UN secretary general, Kofi Annan. [8] Speaking on the tenth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, Annan went on to say that the world could not stand by and watch events unfold as it had in Rwanda. Others echoed his sentiments. The disturbing images from Rwanda's genocide, which claimed almost one million lives, were still fresh in many minds.

However, despite the good intentions, the Sudan conflict is incredibly complex. Humanitarian aid workers have established refugee camps. But they also have had to wrangle with Sudan's government, which effectively blocked Darfur off from the rest of the world.

UNICEF aid worker, Sacha Westerbeek, describes traveling through Darfur looking for victims who had been unable to make it to the refugee camps. She decribes sleeping in dry riverbeds in order to avoid the government's regular bombings. On August 28th she wrote, "For the first time I feel really vulnerable being out here. Not because I'm the only woman and there are many armed men who are sleeping not too far away from me, but because of the planes. I stay awake and try not to think about what might happen." [9]

Because of the government's unwillingness to address the crisis, some have suggested a peacekeeping intervention, which would send armed troops into the area to protect refugees. A peacekeeping mission would hopefully avoid a repeat of Rwanda when thousands of refugees were slaughtered trying to reach safety. Although soldiers had been originally sent into Rwanda, they were pulled out after ten Belgian soldiers were tortured and killed. In one particularly troubling case, 2,000 civilians were sheltered in a school protected by Belgian UNAMIR soldiers. When the U.N. ordered the soldiers to pull out, the civilians left behind in the school were massacred.

Like Rwanda, any peacekeeping operation sent into Darfur would face extreme risks. The Darfur region is vast and remote, making it difficult for soldiers to carry out operations. Furthermore, the world's major military powers, the United States and Britain, are already tied up in Iraq and are reluctant to get involved in another direct confrontation with a largely Muslim country. Sudan has played upon that fear, hinting that military aggression may lead to regional instability.

Even more sobering is the fact that the conflict in Darfur is minor compared to the larger war going on in Sudan. The war is, very basically, a battle between the Islamic North of Sudan and the Christian/Animist South of Sudan. The Sudanese have been fighting on and off since the end of colonization in 1956. The current phase of the war began in 1983 when the government tried to impose Islamic Sharia law across Sudan. This provoked a rebellion in the south, which is largely inhabited by black African Christians and Animists. Complicating the issue is the fact that both sides want access to Sudan's large oil reserves. [10] Sudan will never produce as much oil as Saudi Arabia or Iraq, but, if developed, this industry "could be a godsend to a country as poor as Sudan, where the annual per capita gross domestic product is an estimated U.S. $ 424." [11]

After almost two million deaths, Sudan is on the verge of a peace agreement. The Sudanese government and the rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), signed the agreement in June 2004, agreeing on a cease-fire and a power-sharing agreement. However, further talks will be needed to work out the implementation of the agreement. [12] The Darfur region was not originally represented in the North/South talks, but in October 2004, the government opened new talks, now focusing only on Darfur.

Many fear that an intervention in Darfur will slow progress on the North/South peace agreement because it will give the negotiators something new to fight over. On the other hand, some argue that without peace in Darfur, the violence will be a nagging source of conflict that will doom the fledgling agreement to failure.

So far, the only military intervention will be from the African Union, which promised to send more that 3,000 troops to restore security to Darfur. [13] The European Union has donated $125 million to the AU mission and the United States has contributed $2.5 million. But this falls far short of the $220 million the AU requested for the mission. It remains to be seen whether this small, under-funded force will be enough to protect Darfur's residents from further violence.

Additionally, the United Nations Security Council threatened the Sudanese government with sanctions limiting the sale of Sudan's oil. Once again, it remains to be seen if the Security Council will follow through on the sanctions, and if they do, how effective they will be.

All this wrangling has left Darfurians with a bleak future. Farmers like Hassan and his family find themselves in limbo, living in refugee camps with inadequate food and medicine, but unable to return home. After the death of his son, Hassan took his family on an arduous journey to a refugee camp in Kas. He has no hope of returning to Darfur:

"So this is why I say we will never go back," he said. "How can we? Those of us who were there, who lived, we know that it was the Arabs and the government together who did this. Even if we could go back, what is left there now? Only the Arabs." [14]

What Can Be Done

The situation in Darfur is discouraging. Darfur seems to provide a problem for every solution.

While there are no easy or guaranteed answers, it may be possible to transform the violence in Darfur into something more constructive.

There is common ground between Darfur's residents. In fact, the nomads and the farmers have traditionally depended on each other for survival. Nomads relied on the farmers' land and water and farmers relied on the nomads' herds to fertilize their land and carry their crops to market. But now neither group can see a path to reconciliation.

In situations like this one, where a powerful group victimizes a relatively powerless group, peacekeeping troops are almost always necessary to stop the bloodshed. The African Union troops are a good first step, but they need to be well armed and well funded. If these troops could set up safe havens for the refugees and provide them with enough food and medical treatment, they could stop the immediate crisis caused by the everyday violence and terror in Darfur. The next step would be a peacemaking process in which representatives from the government, the Janjaweed, and the SLA would negotiate the terms for a permanent ceasefire.

However, simply ending this round of violence will not be enough to create stable peace in Darfur. After the violence ends, there are a whole new round of problems to deal with.

The first is the question of the refugees. The homeless Darfurians will need help returning to their land, which is now barren with many of the fields and houses burnt. The return of over one million refugees is likely to rekindle the same tension that started the conflict in the first place, except now those disputes will be laced with fear and distrust.

One solution that many countries recovering from violent conflict have used is a truth commission. These are independent bodies used instead of or in addition to trials to bring about some form of reconciliation through restorative justice. Truth commissions are especially useful in cases of state-sponsored terror to rebuild trust between the government and the people.

In addition, many of the victims are probably traumatized by the violence they have witnessed. Trauma can damage the victims' mental state and they may need help to heal and rebuild their lives.

Once the victims have been addressed, the perpetrators will also need attention. Simply punishing those who have committed war crimes will not create a lasting peace. If the only future the Janjaweed have to look forward to is unemployment and jail, then they will be unlikely to go along with the peace agreement. The Janjaweed need to be reintegrated into society and offered an alternative to killing and looting.

In addition to dealing with the perpetrators, peacebuilding will be needed to address the deepest roots of the conflict, eventually paving the way for reconciliation. In the case of Darfur, drought relief will be a key beginning. Darfurians may need to be provided with food until they can find a viable way of supporting themselves. Perhaps training farmers and nomads to live with less water by building canals or other systems would be helpful as well. In fact, if drought relief had been instituted early on, it may have been able to prevent the current crisis in Darfur. Darfur will also need help with reconstruction, building the roads, schools and medical clinics the Darfurians need to conduct their everyday business. Finally, the Darfurians will need trustworthy conflict resolution systems to resolve future disputes non-violently Whether these systems are tribal or government-sponsored, they must be unbiased and efficient.

New civil society programs and person-to-person programs to try to rebuild trust between the warring groups will also be important.

Finally, there is the question of Sudan's larger war. Progress on this larger conflict will be vital to keeping the peace in Darfur. Furthermore, the peace negotiations have focused on the conflict between the North and the South, largely ignoring the Darfur region. If violence resumes in Darfur, it will threaten the North/South peace agreement and vice versa. The whole country needs to work together to prevent another crisis like the one in Darfur.

None of these suggestions guarantee peace in Darfur. Sudan is a country faced with intense poverty, environmental challenges, and a bloody history of injustice. However, hopefully these changes can help the people of Darfur start the process of transforming their conflicts into something more constructive than violence.

[1] Scott Anderson, "How Did Darfur Happen?" The New York Times. October 17, 2004. 2&oref=login

[2] "Q&A on Sudan," BBC, October 18, 2004. ica/3496731.stm

[3] Edmond Roy, "Kofi Annan Backs Oil Sanctions Against Sudan Over Darfur Violence," ABC Local Radio, September 17, 2004. rldtoday/content/2004/s1201669.htm

[4] Samantha Power, "Dying in Darfur," The New Yorker, August 30, 2004. t/content/?040830fa-fact1

[5] ibid. Anderson.

[6] ibid. Anderson.

[7] Dan Connell, "Politics of Slaughter in Sudan," The Middle East Report, October 24, 2004. m/article.php3?id-article=6135

[8] "Annan Calls for Action on Sudan," BBC, April 7, 2004. stm

[9] Sacha Westerbeek, "Darfur Aid Worker's Diary XIX," BBC, September 17, 2004. ica/3665954.stm

[10] "Q&A: Peace in Sudan," BBC, May 27, 2004. ica/3211002.stm

[11] Jemera Rone, "Sudan, Oil, and Human Rights," Human Rights Watch, September 2003. eports/2003/sudan1103/8.htm#_Toc54492556

[12] "Sudanese Flesh Out Final Deal," BBC, October 7, 2004. stm

[13] "'70,000 Darfur Dead' Since March," BBC, October 15, 2004. ica/3747380.stm

[14] ibid. Anderson.


Francis M. Deng, "Mission to the Sudan — The Darfur Crisis," United Nations Economic and Social Council
Available at: cts/idp/20041109-deng.pdf
This is a thorough report on the Darfur crisis from the UN representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons. He finds the situation in Darfur "acute" and recommends possible action to take to address the crisis.

Images 4/02/26/darfur.jpg stm ica/3540126.stm