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Darfur is the westernmost province of Sudan. A remote region whose concerns were long eclipsed by the civil war in South Sudan, Darfur became a center of international concern when a new civil war emerged there in 2003. The war was fought between nominally “black” ethnic groups and Arab militias called Janjaweed who, with support from the Sudanese government, killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. The violence had roots in economic underdevelopment and long-standing conflicts over land, but became far more destructive as external political influences grew and as conceptions of ethnic identity changed.
Evolution of the Conflict
The name Darfur is Arabic, meaning “home of the Fur,” one of the territory’s largest tribes, but the province is home to at least three dozen distinct ethnic groups and many more subgroups. Today, nearly the entire population of Darfur is Muslim, owing to a policy of Islamization carried out in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when Darfur was an independent sultanate.
The terms Arab and black (or, alternatively, African) are broad categories used to identify the general affiliation of smaller tribes. The terms do not necessarily relate to physical appearance, and they have not always been decisive in determining political alignments. Arab groups are generally herders, whereas most (but not all) of the black tribes are sedentary farmers. These differing types of agriculture can produce disputes over land use, which in some cases leads to violence between tribes. Until the end of the twentieth century such conflicts in Darfur were generally contained and limited; although intergroup conflict has long been a feature of Darfur’s history, it existed alongside considerable constructive economic and social relationships. Intermarriage was common between Arab and African tribes. Cattle herders and sedentary farmers traded for agricultural products such as grains and milk, as well as for grazing rights from farmers. Prosperous sedentary farmers sometimes invested in cattle, further blurring the distinctions between the groups.
Darfur contains rich agricultural land, but the entire region has been threatened by desertification since the 1970s. It experienced a famine in 1984. Dwindling fertile land combined with the lack of alternative economic development increased the potential for conflict at a time when forces from outside began to intervene. Also in the 1970s the Sudanese government began to dismantle the Native Administration system that had been set up by British colonial authorities, by which tribal chiefs were granted considerable autonomy and were often able to mediate intergroup conflict. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Chad’s civil war increased the flow of arms in the region, and increased the interests of both Chadian and Libyan governments in the politics of Darfur. In the mid1980s the Sudanese government began arming militias of Arab tribes in Darfur, fearing that the civil war in the south might spread. These external influences encouraged groups in Darfur to identify themselves as Arab or black and to make this the defining distinction in determining their political affiliation. Along with the influx of weapons from outside, this shift in ethnic identity helped to broaden conflicts that might otherwise have remained isolated.
From 1987 to 1989 a dispute over grazing land erupted between the Fur and some cattle-herding tribes in northern Darfur. The conflict quickly escalated. A new organization called the Arab Gathering emerged, organizing twenty-seven smaller tribes and asserting a platform of Arab supremacy. The Fur conflict also marked the first prominent appearance of Janjaweed fighters, bands of armed men riding horses and camels who attacked Fur villages. By its end, the Fur-Arab conflict killed around 3,000 people and destroyed hundreds of villages.
In the mid-1990s the Sudanese government split Darfur into separate administrative regions, a policy that effectively transferred control of much land to Arab-oriented tribes. In 1996 violence erupted again, this time between Arab militias and the non-Arab Masalit tribe. Masalit villages were burned by Janjaweed attacks, and more than 100,000 Masalit fled into Chad and other neighboring countries.
In the late 1990s Masalit exiles based in Egypt began publishing some of the first international warnings about accelerating ethnic cleansing in Darfur, alleging that attacks on the Masalit and other black groups were planned by Sudanese military leaders. These allegations were initially disregarded by western governments and major human rights organizations, who cast the Darfur conflict as local tribal violence or did not report on events there at all. The United Nations refugee agency refused protection to many asylum seekers from Darfur, arguing that either they were not credible or were not sufficiently at risk.
2003: Darfur Erupts
After 2000 two major opposition organizations emerged among the black population. The first was the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which had an Islamist ideological orientation and maintained links with religious leaders who had split from the Sudanese government in the 1990s. Another group, the Sudanese Liberation Movement/Army (SLA) modeled itself on the southern Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement/Army (SPLA), and offered a secular platform. In February 2003 the JEM and SLA launched successful military assaults on government targets in Darfur.
With the outbreak of full-fledged civil war, the government adopted what the International Crisis Group called a “scorched-earth” strategy to defeat the rebels. This relied heavily on the Janjaweed to attack the civilian populations that might support the rebellion, backed up by government air strikes. The Janjaweed attacks included mass killings, rapes, whippings, cattle theft, and the burning of hundreds of villages. A small force of 7,000 African Union soldiers entered Darfur in August 2004, but failed to stop the violence. Survivors fled, especially to Chad, and by late 2005 fighting began to cross the border. By the beginning of 2006 up to 2 million people were displaced from their homes and at least 180,000 were dead, most of them members of non-Arab/black tribes.
After 2003 debate grew about whether the Sudanese government and the Arab militias were guilty of genocide, a label that would increase the pressure for strong international intervention. But the complex origins of the violence and the fact that the worst abuses were committed by diffuse Janjaweed bands rather than by government troops fed the dispute about how the atrocities should be described.
On July 23, 2004, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution calling the Darfur conflict a genocide, a position later adopted by the Bush administration. On January 25, 2005 a UN Commission of Inquiry confirmed that “government forces and militias” may be guilty of crimes against humanity in waging a violent campaign to defeat the rebellion. But the commission concluded that the violence could not be labeled genocide because the government’s intent was not to destroy any particular ethnic or racial group, the essential legal criteria for applying the genocide label.
On March 29, 2005, the UN Security Council asked the International Criminal Court to investigate the Darfur atrocities. In May 2006 the government of Sudan signed a peace accord with the SLA, but the JEM rejected the agreement, as did splinter factions of the SLA. The UN reported that violence in Darfur actually increased in the months after the accord; divisions among the rebels coupled with the difficulty in disarming Janjaweed militias posed major challenges to restoring order.
- Flint, Julie, and Alex De Waal. 2005. Darfur: A Short History of a Long War. London: Zed Books.
- International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur. 2005. Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the United Nations Secretary-General Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1564 of 18 September 2004. Geneva: United Nations.
- International Crisis Group. 2004. Darfur Rising: Sudan’s New Crisis. Nairobi and Brussels: Author.
- Prunier, Gerard. 2005. Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Salih, Dawud I., Muhammad A. Yahya, Abdul Hafiz O. Sharief, and Osman Abbakorah. 1999. The Hidden Slaughter and Ethnic Cleansing in Western Sudan: An Open Letter to the International Community. Cairo: Representatives of the Massaleit Community in Exile. http://www.damanga.org/1999hiddenslaughter.html.
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