Background Briefing

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Since early 2003, the people of Sudan’s western Darfur region have experienced a brutal government-coordinated scorched earth campaign against civilians belonging to the same ethnicity as members of two rebel movements, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). The government’s campaign has combined two key elements with devastating consequences for civilians.  One is the systematic use of indiscriminate aerial bombardment in North Darfur and to a lesser extent in West and South Darfur. The second is the deployment and coordination of ethnic proxy forces known as “Janjaweed” militias who have been recruited from landless Arab nomadic tribes, some of whom have been involved in past clashes with the farming communities branded as supportive of the rebels.

Almost all of Darfur’s population has been affected by the conflict, either directly through attacks on villages, killings, rape, looting and destruction of property and forced displacement, or indirectly through the near total collapse of the region’s economy. An estimated two million people have been displaced in less than two years of conflict. An accurate estimate of the total number of conflict-related civilian deaths—including mortality from violence as well as from disease and malnutrition related to displacement—is unavailable, but is likely to surpass 100,000.4

In the south of Sudan, a twenty-one year conflict between the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) has been settled by a peace agreement signed on January 9, 2005. The conflict in Darfur broke out after the southern peace talks commenced, and was not included in those negotiations. African Union-sponsored peace talks between the Sudanese government and the two main rebel groups in Darfur, the SLA and the JEM, have made little progress and the ceasefire signed by the government of Sudan, the SLA and the JEM on April 8, 2004 has been repeatedly violated by all sides.

As of early January 2005, prospects for an imminent end to the violence in Darfur remain bleak.  Despite agreements between the Sudanese government and the rebel movements in Abuja, Nigeria, on November 9, 2004, including commitments by the government to “refrain from conducting hostile military flights in and over the Darfur region,” and to “expeditiously implement its stated commitment to neutralize and disarm the Janjaweed/armed militias,”5 the government’s promises proved to be of little value shortly after they were made. In December 2004, the government launched an offensive on civilians and SLA targets in South Darfur, including through helicopter bombardment, prompting the African Union to issue an unusually harsh reprimand.6  Increasing ceasefire violations by rebel groups were also reported by the U.N. and other sources.7

Several “African”8 ethnic groups—namely the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa9 -- have been specifically targeted by repeated joint government-militia attacks in Darfur. Many of the abuses against these groups amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes, as the attacks are deliberately and systematically directed against civilians on account of their ethnicity. Some abuses stand out for the extraordinary level of brutality shown by the perpetrators, suggesting an intention to destroy the civilian group targeted in a given locality.10  All these incidents should be investigated in depth, and prosecuted as exceptionally serious international crimes, including potentially the crime of genocide.

Based on investigations by Human Rights Watch in Darfur in 2004,11 this paper describes events leading up to and details of two specific incidents in south-western Darfur in March 2004—the summary executions by government forces and their allied militias of more than 200 Fur men in the Wadi Saleh area of West Darfur and the attacks on and detentions of thousands of Fur civilians in the neighboring Shattaya locality of South Darfur. The government’s military offensives in late 2003 and early 2004 in this area were characterized by extremely high levels of violence against Fur civilians, the predominant ethnic group in the area.

Dar Fur: Wadi Saleh, Mukjar and Shattaya localities

Deleig and Mukjar localities (mahalias) in West Darfur state and neighboring Shattaya locality in South Darfur state are in the central belt of Darfur12. This area, which includes the Jebel Marra mountains and the land around it, is among the most fertile agricultural areas in Darfur. Historically, the area is part of the dar or homeland of the Fur tribe, from which Darfur takes its name and whose sultanate ruled most of Darfur for several hundred years before the British captured the area in 1916.

Some of the key towns there--Deleig, Garsila, Mukjar, Shattaya and Kailek—are located in a U or semi-circle shape around a cluster of hills or small mountains (jebel) called the Sindu Hills, which straddle the border between West and South Darfur. The Fur tribe is mainly agricultural and rural village-based, although many communities also own livestock and some are semi-nomadic or transhumant.13 The larger towns, such as Garsila and Mukjar, are administrative centers and have a greater ethnic mix due to the presence of merchants, traders, military forces and migrants from other parts of Sudan.14

Historical tensions over land

While the area is bordered by historically pastoral or nomadic15 groups of Arab ethnicity such as the Beni Halba, whose dar is south of Shattaya, an important point of contact between settled Fur communities and migrating Arab tribes has been during the annual livestock migrations. Several north-south migration routes (known as marhal) transit the Deleig-Mukjar-Shattaya region.16

Darfur’s migration routes have been delineated since the days of the British colonial rule, when the system of dars was elaborated. Official and customary law regulated the timing and use of migration routes by nomads and included prohibitions on cultivation or fencing along the routes, many of which have been reasserted in more recent agreements between ethnic groups as both the area under cultivation and livestock numbers have increased.17 However, over the past few decades, there has been increasing conflict over land, especially between sedentary Fur18 farming communities and migrating Arab nomads, particularly landless nomadic groups, due to a number of factors: increasing human and livestock population, environmental degradation, expanding agricultural cultivation, inadequate water resources and the migration of nomads from Chad into Darfur.19 

Darfur has long experienced underdevelopment, as have most Sudanese regions on the periphery of Khartoum.  Since the current National Congress government took power in a military coup in 1989, however, Fur and other non-Arab communities increasingly complained that instead of addressing the underlying causes of the Darfur conflicts, the government armed and assisted the nomadic Arabs in the localized clashes that took place in the late-1980s and 1990s. These local conflicts—and the hostility and mistrust that they have provoked between communities—have been a contributing factor in the violence of 2003-2004. These local clashes were, however, far surpassed in scale and suffering by the impact of the conflict that has been taking place between the government of Sudan, its ethnic militia allies, and Darfur rebel movements since 2003.

[4]The figure of 70,000 has been circulating in media reports for months but was originally made by the World Health Organization only as an estimate of the number of displaced people who died from “conditions in which they are living since March 1st [2004] (David Nabarro, Mortality projections for Darfur, October 15, 2004 . The figure of 70,000 is an estimate based on a survey conducted jointly by WHO and the Sudanese Ministry of Health between June 15, 2004 and August 15, 2004.  It does not include the numbers of people who died from conflict-related disease and malnutrition from February 2003-March 2004 when the violence was at its height and the Sudanese government prohibited all but three international relief agencies from working in Darfur. Nor does it include violent deaths from the end of the survey period (August 15, 2005) to the present. Amnesty International alone has gathered 3000 names of civilians who died from direct violence. Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) retrospective mortality and nutritional surveys in various parts of Darfur indicate extremely high mortality rates due to violence. See MSF, “Violence and Mortality in West Darfur, Sudan: epidemiological survey from four surveys,” published in The Lancet, October 1, 2004

[5] “Protocol Between the Government of Sudan, the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) on the Enhancement of the Security Situation in Darfur in Accordance with the N’Djamena Agreement,” pp.3.

[6] Press Release, African Union, Addis Ababa, December 18, 2004.

[7] UN Press, “UN again calls on Sudan’s government and rebels to cease hostilities in Darfur,” December 20, 2004.

[8]Although the term “African” historically had little relevance in the Darfur context, many of the Fur, Zaghawa and other victims of government-militia attacks have increasingly identified themselves as “African” in opposition to their “Arab” attackers. This is a troubling sign of the increasingly polarizing effect of the conflict, in which many—but not all—ethnic groups have felt compelled to become involved along ethnic lines. Almost all the people of Darfur are Muslim and ethnic identity has previously been flexible, with intermarriage between ethnic groups, particularly in urban areas.

[9] Numerous smaller ethnic groups, such as the Tama, Eringa, Berti, Bergit, Dorok and Tunjur, have also been targeted by the government-militia forces, especially as the conflict has broadened geographically over time.

[10] The crime of genocide requires a specific intent to commit acts such as killing, rape, or serious injury with the purpose of destroying, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such.  See Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, entered into force on 12 January 1951.

[11] Human Rights Watch conducted five fact-finding trips to Chad and Sudan in 2004 (February, March-April, June, July-August, September-October) and interviewed hundreds of witnesses and victims of abuses in Darfur. Until the September-October research trip to government-held areas of Darfur, however, access to victims and witnesses from the Fur areas of Darfur was minimal because the Fur mainly reside in central Darfur and the vast majority did not seek refuge in Chad. Most refugees from Darfur in Chad are Zaghawa, Masalit and other smaller ethnic groups inhabiting areas along the Sudanese-Chadian border.

[12] For a map of West Darfur, see the Draft West Darfur Field Atlas by the Humanitarian Information Center for Darfur at

[13] Transhumance is the seasonal movement of livestock between mountain and lowland pastures, or as in Sudan between rainy season and dry season pastures. The livestock owners are not nomads but live in settlements from which they, their youth, or others move the livestock.

[14] There are also small communities of Tama, Eringa, Gimr, Misseriya Jebel and Masalit ethnic groups living throughout the rural areas, many of whom migrated from other parts of Darfur during the famine of 1984-85.

[15] Pastoralism includes a broad variety of livestock-based movement ranging from “pure nomadism” such as the long-distance seasonal migration practiced by camel-owning nomads in North Darfur to the short-distance migration of small flocks of sheep and goats practiced by some sedentary agriculturalists. See also “Pastoral Land Tenure in Sudan,” Study prepared for UNDP Project Reduction of Resource-based Conflicts among Pastoralists and Farmers, SUD/01/013, prepared by Dr. Salah Shazali, DSRC, UK, p.3.

[16] Northern camel-herders--known as abala or gamala camel nomads--typically bring their animals south into the area in the dry season (October – May) in search of water and pasture, then return north in the rainy season (June – September). Southern cattle-owning tribes known as baggara travel even further south in the dry season, entering the Central African Republic and Bahr El Ghazal state in southern Sudan, but return north into the Deleig-Mukjar-Shattaya region in the rainy season.

[17] “Pastoralist Baseline Survey, Greater Darfur 2003,” Al Massar Charity Organization for Nomads [sic] Development and Environmental Conservation (MONEC). See also “Pastoral Land Tenure in Sudan,” Study prepared for UNDP Project Reduction of Resource-based Conflicts among Pastoralists and Farmers, SUD/01/013, prepared by Dr. Salah Shazali, DSRC, UK.

[18] There has also been growing conflict between Arab pastoralists and other non-Arab agriculturalists, such as the Masalit, as well as among various nomadic groups, such as between Arab and Zaghawa nomads.

[19] Ethnic groups such as the Salamat, Saada and Tarjum are reported to have migrated from Chad to Darfur in the 1970s and 1980s. In some places, these groups were allocated land for settlement, but not ownership, by Fur leaders.

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