Background Briefing

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After more than twenty months of conflict in the Darfur region of western Sudan, the situation is more complex and volatile than it has ever been.1 Despite an April 2004 ceasefire signed by the two main rebel groups—the Sudan Liberation Army Movement (SLA/M) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM)—and the government,  and the presence of 136 African Union (A.U.) ceasefire observers,  protected by 625 A.U. troops, attacks on civilians and ceasefire violations continue on a daily basis.

Currently, the scale of forced displacement and associated human rights abuses is not as high as it was in the early months of 2004, primarily because the majority of the rural population that was targeted is now displaced in camps and settlements.  However, attacks in new areas of Darfur continue to displace thousands of civilians from their homes, and violence against civilians remains a constant factor throughout Darfur.  In addition, the recent emergence of two new rebel groups,2 and the spread of the conflict to western Kordofan, could threaten the lives and livelihoods of many more communities.3

Each Darfur state—North, South, and West Darfur, constituting the Greater Darfur region—has its own dynamics and insecurity in each state varies from area to area. While the government’s overall counterinsurgency strategy of ethnic militia recruitment in joint ethnic cleansing operations with army and airforce backing  is evident throughout the past twenty months in Darfur, the conflict in each state has been differently shaped by the distinct ethnic composition of each. The terrain—vast, with minimal infrastructure, from desert to savannah to mountains--—has also influenced the course of the conflict, as has the seasonal calendar of rains, livestock migration, and agriculture.

[1] For further detail on the background and evolution of the Darfur conflict, see Human Rights Watch reports:  Darfur in Flames: Atrocities in Western Sudan, Vol.16, No.5 (A), April 2004, Darfur Destroyed: Ethnic Cleansing by Government and Militia Forces in Western Sudan, Vol.16, No. 6(A), May 2004; and briefing papers “Darfur Documents Confirm Government Policy of Militia Support,” July 20, 2004, and “Empty Promises: Continuing Abuses in Darfur, Sudan,” August 11, 2004.

[2] One group, the National Movement for Reform and Development (NMRD), is a breakaway faction of the JEM, led by Col. Gibril of the Zaghawa Kobe section. This rebel group objected to the long-distance attempts by civilian Islamist leaders to direct military affairs from Europe. Human Rights Watch interviews, NMRD members and sympathizers, North Darfur, August 2004, and Khartoum phone conversation, October 23, 2004. The other group calls itself Al Shahamah Movement (Nobility Movement) and is based in West Kordofan.  “New Rebel Group Set Up in Sudan’s Kordofan Region,” Al-Sahafah, October 21, 2004, reprinted in Sudan Tribune Khartoum, Sudan, (retrieved November 11, 2004). It is believed to have been organized by the JEM.

[3] Ibid.

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