Background Briefing

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Since February 2003, Sudanese government forces and allied, government-backed militias known internationally as the “Janjaweed”1 have committed war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of “ethnic cleansing” in Darfur in the context of a military counter-insurgency campaign against rebel groups known as the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).2

In addition to attacking rebel targets, the Sudanese government’s campaign has routinely targeted civilians of the Fur, Masalit, Zaghawa and other tribes who share the ethnicity of members of the SLA and JEM. Despite public denials of links with the militias, hundreds of eyewitness testimonies highlight the Sudanese government’s policy of arming and supporting ethnic militias.  Government documents obtained by Human Rights Watch irrefutably demonstrate the role and responsibility of government officials in ordering the recruitment, arming and deployment of the Janjaweed militias. 3

An April 8, 2004 ceasefire agreement signed by the government of Sudan and the two rebel groups has done little to ease the plight of the more than one million civilians displaced by the conflict in Darfur.

Following months of shameful neglect, international media and political attention to the crisis has belatedly increased over the past four months as awareness of the extent of the human rights violations and their dire humanitarian consequences has grown. The United Nations estimates that 30,000 – 50,000 people have died, approximately 200,000 people have fled to neighboring Chad, and that the bulk of the displaced community—numbering approximately 1.2 million people—remains in Darfur.4

The majority of displaced people remain in small and large towns under government control, where they are sometimes concentrated and confined in appalling conditions, preyed upon by the Janjaweed militias, who operate in near-total impunity. An unknown number of people remain in rural areas under rebel control, some of them displaced from their original villages and hiding in the hills and other areas where they continue to be attacked by government forces and Janjaweed militia members.5  

Under growing international pressure, including the threat of U.N. Security Council and European Union (E.U.) sanctions, the Sudanese government and the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, signed a Joint Communiqué on July 3, 2004 in which the government committed to improve the situation in four areas: humanitarian access, human rights, security, and political resolution of the conflict.6 

On July 30, the U.N. Security Council passed resolution 1556 calling for the Sudanese government to “fulfill immediately all the commitments it made in the 3 July 2004 Communiqué” including: facilitation of humanitarian relief; bringing to justice “Janjaweed leaders and their associates who have incited and carried out human rights and international humanitarian law violations and other atrocities;” disarmament of the Janjaweed militias and “establishing credible security conditions for the protection of the civilian population and humanitarian actors;” and resumption of political talks.  The resolution also calls for “measures to prevent the sale or supply to all non-governmental entities and individuals, including the Janjaweed, of arms and related materiel,” and requires the Secretary General to report back to the Council in 30 days on the government’s progress in disarming the Janjaweed militias.7 

As of August 9, 2004, the African Union’s ceasefire monitoring mission had deployed more than 100 military observers, with plans to deploy up to three battalions of 800 troops each in the coming weeks, a proposal that the Sudanese government rejected.8 The current limited A.U. presence on the ground has failed to deter or address the ongoing attacks on civilians over the past few months.  Instead the situation has become increasingly insecure as the conflict continues in a new phase, with local stakeholders consolidating power and control over economic gains, and a proliferation of armed actors. As U.N. envoy Jan Egeland noted, “There is a false impression now that things are improving in Darfur.”9 

With mounting reports of ceasefire violations on all sides, political negotiations between the government and the two main rebel groups have stalled. Rebel groups, perhaps emboldened by the heightened international pressure on the Sudanese government, increasingly claim to embrace a national, rather than a regional agenda10 and have set pre-conditions for entering political negotiations.11 Insecurity on the ground has also increased, not only due to the continuing conflict but also because of a proliferation of armed groups with agendas varying from looting and banditry to various political interests, particularly along the border with Chad.

Overlapping agendas in Darfur: national and local stakeholders

The Sudanese government has often portrayed the current conflict in Darfur as “tribal clashes” exacerbated by competition for resources due to desertification, the proliferation of arms in the region and the insurgency that intensified in February 2003.12 Although there is an element of truth in this portrayal, the conflict in Darfur in 2003-2004 and the humanitarian crisis it has produced is of an entirely different scale, gravity and nature than the clashes of previous years. This is largely due to the overlap of national security interests—combating the rebel insurgency—and local interests in claiming land and other resources. 

In an effort to quell increasing insecurity in the region, by 2002 the Sudanese government extended a state of emergency to North and South Darfur, sent additional troops into the region and increased the severity of laws aimed at penalizing the illegal possession of weapons and acts of robbery and banditry.  Despite these steps, clashes between the Fur, one of the predominant ethnic groups in the region, and Arab nomadic groups increased. Some in the Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit communities—the predominant ethnic groups comprising the SLA—have long alleged a Sudanese government policy of alliance and support to Arab nomadic groups based on a national agenda of Arabization and local interests of creating an “Arab belt” that would claim the lands of “non-Arab” ethnic groups in the region.13 This perception was partly fostered by more than a decade of central government policies aimed at asserting control over the region through the restructuring of local administrative systems in Darfur and alleged “selective disarmament” of some tribes, and not others, between 2001 and 2003.14

The emergence of the main Darfur rebel movement, the SLA, in February 2003, and its surprising military successes, sharpened fears in the central government, which was then engaged in longstanding political talks in Naivasha, Kenya with the southern rebels, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/ Movement (SPLA/M) in an effort to end the long-running war in the south. The timing of the SLA’s emergence in the midst of the Naivasha talks, its surprising military success in the first months, and fears that it did or could forge a coalition with other real or potential insurgencies seeking power-sharing in Sudan, resulted in the Sudanese government’s decision to crush the rebellion militarily.  It did this by looking beyond the national army, which had always been manned by ill-trained and ill-motivated conscripts and many troops from Darfur.15  As one observer noted, “President Bashir did not want to rely on his 90,000-strong regular army. It consists to a large extent of Darfuri foot soldiers whom he does not trust. So the Janjaweed was created.”16

The Sudanese government chose to recruit, arm and use ethnic militias, formed and in some cases led by local Darfur tribal leaders, drawn principally from a few Arab nomadic tribes present in both Sudan and Chad, as its main ground force in the conflict. This same tactic and strategy has long been used in the 21-year war against southern-based rebel movements in southern Sudan.17 For their part, some of the Arab tribal leadership and groups involved in this military campaign were involved in clashes with non-Arab groups over land and resources, and some have felt marginalized in the political and administrative system restructuring in the region, particularly because many of the Arab nomadic tribes have no traditional claim to land.18 The opportunity to take part in the government’s military campaign would have therefore appealed to the economic as well as the political interests of many individuals. 

The government’s policy of using ethnic militias to counter the rebel insurgency, and the manner of its implementation by civil and security officials from the national government in Khartoum, the local regional administration in Darfur, and government-allied tribal leadership in Darfur, has had devastating results for the civilian population.

Ethnic fluidity and polarization in Darfur

Despite increasing media portrayals of the conflict in Darfur as one of “Arabs” against “Africans,” these terms have historically had little relevance in the Darfur context. Virtually all the people of Darfur are Muslim and ethnic identity has traditionally been fluid, with much intermarriage between ethnic groups and key distinctions between ethnicities based more on language (those for whom Arabic was the main language and those whose mother tongues are other languages such as Fur, Zaghawa etc.) or profession (nomadic herders or sedentary agriculturalists or town-dwelling merchants).19  Even within these categories, there has been significant overlap and movement over the decades.

Many Arab nomadic groups in Darfur have not been involved in communal clashes in the past, and are not involved in the current ethnic-based campaign of violence by the government.  There are also nuances on the rebel side—while there are three main groups that have formed the backbone of the rebel insurgency—Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit—there are also a number of smaller ethnic groups that have been victims and participants in the conflict on one side or another, such as the Tama, Gimr and Dorok, either drawn into the conflict because of livestock raids or because the activities of the government-backed militias have broadened beyond military purposes into asset-stripping. The rebel groups have also sought to widen their alliance with others groups, including certain Arab tribes in neighboring Kordofan state.20 

The government’s use of certain ethnic militias as a counter-insurgency partner has highlighted a new ethnic and racial element to the dynamic of conflict in the region and also polarized ethnic and racial identity in some communities in a way that is new for many Darfurians. In many of the attacks racial and ethnic insults have been routinely voiced, not only by members of government-backed militias but also sometimes by members of local or Chadian Arab communities linked to the militias.

Ethnic polarization raises the potential that what has been, up to now, mainly a counter-insurgency campaign with a clear ethnic dimension that has resulted in acts of ethnic cleansing, could broaden into communally-based ethnic violence in some areas if steps are not taken to end the violence, create conditions for reconciliation, and rein in the government-backed militias known as the Janjaweed. This potential is particularly worrying in areas of “transition” where Arab nomadic or semi-nomadic communities and Fur or Masalit communities live in close proximity, such as parts of West and South Darfur.21

Who are the “Janjaweed”?

Although known and used in international English-language media to refer to the Sudanese government-backed ethnic militias operating in Darfur, the term “Janjaweed” is subject to different interpretations. Sudanese government officials have exploited this ambiguity to distance themselves from the government-backed militias they have recruited and armed. 

Historically, the term “Janjaweed” referred to criminals, bandits or outlaws in Darfur.22  Over the past year or more, the term has been repeatedly used by victims of attacks to describe the camel-and horse-backed marauders who have attacked their villages, regularly in the company of Sudanese government troops and aerial support.23 Yet it is increasingly clear that the term “Janjaweed,” while used by victims to describe any armed attacker, is in fact a misnomer, and that there are at least two types of forces encompassed by the description: 1) the government-backed militias used as proxy forces in the government’s military campaign;24  and 2) opportunistic armed elements taking advantage of the total collapse of law and order to settle scores, loot and raid cattle and livestock.

Most important of these two in terms of responsibility for massive abuses in Darfur, are the government-backed militias or proxy forces: the groups recruited, trained, armed and supplied by the government from various Arab nomadic groups and variously known by the Sudanese government as “fursan”--meaning cavalry or knights, mujahedeen, horsemen, or Popular Defense Forces (PDF).25 The term “Janjaweed” is used in this report to describe these government-backed militias.

While  much  remains unclear about their training, structure and chain of command, the Janjaweed militias draw on alliances with certain local tribal leaders from Arab ethnic groups such as the Beni Halba, certain sub-clans of the Rizeigat, Ma’aliya, Irayqat and others who have long been involved in clashes with the farming communities. Several of these Arab nomadic tribal leaders have historical relationships with local government officials, and have played a key role in recruiting and organizing militia members and liaising with government officials. In some cases they have played a direct role in the command responsibility during attacks—eyewitnesses place known tribal leaders such as Musa Hilal in a command role at the site of some attacks in which atrocities against civilians have been carried out.26

A second element in these government militias are members of Chadian Arab ethnic groups such as the Awlad Rashid, Awlad Zaid, and Salamat, some of whom have migrated to Darfur over the past decade for various political and economic reasons, and others who have been recently drawn into the government-backed militias from Chad and other parts of the region by the prospect of loot and land, and sometimes Arabist ideology.27

The members of these government-backed militias are therefore often local stakeholders with enormous interests to maintain the gains they have made—especially regarding land and livestock, both of which represent key economic and political assets in Darfur. Land ownership traditionally provides political and administrative authority over those who live on it and use it. 

For instance, one example of such an alliance between government officials and a local tribal leader is Mohammed Yacoub al Omda, the leader or “nazir” of the Turjum tribe in South Darfur.  The Turjum, a relatively small Arab tribe, have apparently been given land and entitlements by the local government administration in South Darfur--particularly the office of the governor or wali--over a number of years and have actively participated in the government-backed militias, exacerbating ethnic tensions.  Resolving these tensions will likely require replacing the local officials who have been implicated in these practices as well as creating a forum for negotiation and compensation for land and other looted resources.

Other armed elements benefiting from the conflict in an opportunistic way are also currently committing abuses by raiding livestock and attacking and looting villages, but are not necessarily directly supported and directed by the Sudanese government.  Despite the contribution of these criminal elements to the general insecurity in the region, the principal perpetrators of violence and abuses against civilians remain the Janjaweed militias supported by government forces.

[1] While the term “Janjaweed” is increasingly misleading given divergent understandings of its meaning (see section below, Who are the Janjaweed?), in this document the capitalized form “Janjaweed” is explicitly used to refer to the government-backed ethnic militias recruited, armed and otherwise supported by the Sudanese government in Darfur.

[2] See Human Rights Watch:  Darfur in Flames: Atrocities in Western Sudan, Vol.16, No.5 (A), April 2004 and DarfurDestroyed: Ethnic Cleansing by Government and Militia Forces in Western Sudan, Vol.16, No. 6(A), May 2004. See also Report of the High Commissioner on the Situation of Human Rights in the Darfur region of the Sudan, E/CN.4/2005/3, U.N. Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, May 3, 2004; Darfur: Too Many People Killed for No Reason, Amnesty International, February 3, 2004; and Darfur: Rape as a Weapon of War: Sexual Violence and its Consequences, Amnesty International, July 19, 2004.

[3] See Human Rights Watch briefing paper, “Darfur Documents Confirm Government Policy of Militia Support,” July 20, 2004.  See also, the report of the ad hoc delegation of the European Parliament, March 15, 2004, in which the Sudanese Minister of Justice, Ali Mohammed Osman Yassin reportedly told E.P delegation members that “the Government made a sort of relationship with the Janjaweed. Now the Janjaweed abuse it. I am sure the Government is regretting very much any sort of commitments between them and the Government. We now treat them as outlaws. The devastation they are doing cannot be tolerated at all.”  The report then noted that “although there may still be doubts as to the scale, form and duration of government support for the Janjaweed, it is now clear that such support does exist.” p. 4, Report of the ad hoc delegation of the Committee on Development and Cooperation on its mission to Sudan from 19 to 24 February, 2004, CR\528901EN.doc.

[4] Agence France Presse, “30,000-50,000 dead in Darfur: UN,” July 23, 2004.

[5]While international agencies operating in Darfur are beginning to enter rebel-held areas and assess the conditions of civilians, the total number of civilians in these areas remains unknown. See “U.N. Humanitarian Situation Report: Darfur Crisis,” July 15, 2004. In Sudan, the displacement of civilians into larger towns under government control often reflects the fact that these towns often offer the only potential access to food, health care and other humanitarian assistance, economic opportunities, the perception of relative safety in numbers, and sometimes, a “protective” presence of international agencies and actors that are all largely unavailable in the rural areas. 

[6] Joint Communiqué between the Government of Sudan and the United Nations on the occasion of the visit of the UNSG to Sudan, July 3, 2004.

[7] UNSC Resolution 1556, SC/8160, July 30, 2004.

[8] “Sudan rejects AU force,” BBC, August 9, 2004. 

[9] BBC, “Darfur Pressure Mounts on Sudan,” July 26, 2004.

[10] Aymeric Vincenot, Agence France Presse,  “Darfur’s Ragtag Rebels Vow to Fight for All ‘Marginalized People,’” August 5, 2004. 

[11] In July, the rebel movements posed a six-point set of pre-conditions for African Union-mediated political talks with the Sudanese government in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. These included disarmament of the Janjaweed militias, an inquiry into allegations of genocide, prosecution of individuals responsible for genocide or ethnic cleansing, unimpeded humanitarian access, the release of “prisoners of war,” and a change of venue for the peace talks. Tsegaye Tadesse, “Darfur Peace Moves in Disarray as Rebels Quit,” Reuters, July 17, 2004.

[12] For many years, Darfur has been the site of intermittent inter-communal conflict between groups of nomadic camel and cattle-herders and sedentary agriculturalists due to desertification and increasing competition for access to land and water resources. Clashes between various groups in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in the displacement of hundreds—and sometimes thousands of people, hundreds of deaths and the theft of many head of livestock. The region’s remote location, proximity to successive conflicts in neighboring Chad and late annexation to the Sudanese polity has also contributed to the fact that in the enormous, sparsely populated country of Sudan, where most of the country is underdeveloped outside the capital, Khartoum, Darfur remains one of the least developed regions. Darfur’s size, ethnic diversity and poor or non-existent infrastructure have also contributed to governance problems that stretch back decades. Efforts by the central government in Khartoum to govern the region have sometimes conflicted and sometimes colluded with local tribal administrative systems.

[13] The Arab “alliance” or “gathering” was apparently composed of some 27 different ethnic groups, some indigenous to Darfur and others, such as the Salamat, who originated from Chad, who felt marginalized by the political dominance of the Fur in the regional government administration. In 1989, a peace conference was organized which aimed to end the conflict between Fur and Arab tribes between 1987 – 1989.  A longstanding complaint of tribal leaders has been that the central government has never supported the objective implementation of the recommendations of the 1989 conference. Karin Willemse, ‘One Foot in Heaven’: Narratives on Gender and Islam in Darfur, West-Sudan, doctoral dissertation, University of Leiden, July 2001. pp. 74, 312. See also International Crisis Group, Darfur Rising:  Sudan’s New Crisis, March 25, 2004.

[14] A credible source who traveled extensively in Darfur in early 2003 told Human Rights Watch that in one of the attacks by Arab groups on a Fur village in late-2002 or early 2003, the weapons used were allegedly from the army stocks in Nyala. There was also a widespread perception among the Fur that the government was selectively disarming the Fur and other tribes and not the Arab nomadic tribes.  Human Rights Watch interview, July 27, 2004. Many individuals have been arrested and detained for illegal weapons possession in Darfur over the past four or five years, but it is difficult to verify whether the patterns of arrests actually targeted some ethnic groups over others.

[15] Some observers have estimated that up to 50% of the Sudanese army is originally from Darfur.

[16] Koert Lindijer, “Analysis: reining in the militia,” BBC, August 5, 2004.

[17] A long-time Sudan observer has noted that while Darfur has been described as “Rwanda in slow motion” it is in fact “southern Sudan speeded up.” John Ryle, “Disaster in Darfur,” The New York Review of Books, Volume 51, Number 13, August 12, 2004.

[18] Alex de Waal, “Counter-Insurgency on the Cheap,” London Review of Books, Vo. 26, No. 15, August 5, 2004.

[19] Rex Sean O’Fahey, State and Society in DarFur, London, C.Hurst & Co., 1980.

[20] Human Rights Watch interview, July 30, 2004.

[21] In past clashes in the 1980s and 1990s, some of the worst violence took place in locations such as Kebkabiya, Kass, and parts of West Darfur where Arab and Fur communities lived together in close proximity—some of this violence also had political roots due to divergent voting patterns. Human Rights Watch telephone interview, August 5, 2004.

[22] A Darfurian scholar remarked that “Janjaweed” was the term used during his youth to describe outlaws. Dr. Ali Dinar, lecture, Washington D.C., February 2004.

[23] Occasionally victims of attacks have also used the terms “fursan” and “beshmarga” (as in the Kurdish peshmarga) to describe their attackers.

[24] See Human Rights Watch reports “Darfur in Flames: Atrocities in Western Sudan,” “Darfur Destroyed: Ethnic Cleansing by Government and Militia Forces in Western Sudan,” and Human Rights Watch briefing paper “Darfur Documents Confirm Government Policy of Militia Support,” at footnote 2.

[25] The Popular Defense Forces are Islamist militias under the jurisdiction of the army that have frequently been used in the conflict in southern Sudan. A November 1989 law called the Popular Defense Forces Act incorporated existing tribal militias such as the muraheleen, the armed Baggara horsemen of Kordofan and South Darfur, the fursan (cavalry) militia of the Rizeigat of South Darfur and others into the army under a PDF commander appointed—and responsible to the general commander of the army. See Human Rights Watch, Behind the Red Line: Political Repression in Sudan, May 1996, pp. 273-280. The PDF forces have often been known as “mujaheeden.” In December 2003, President el-Bashir himself stated “Our priority from now on is to eliminate the rebellion, and any outlaw element is our target…We will use the army, the police, the mujahedeen, the horsemen to get rid of the rebellion.” “Sudanese president says war against outlaws is the government’s priority,” Associated Press, December 31, 2003, as noted in ICG, Darfur Rising at footnote 10.

[26] Jeevan Vasagar, “Militia chief scorns slaughter charge,” The Guardian, July 16, 2004. 

[27] Some Chadian Arabs are apparently motivated also by ideology. Alex de Waal, a long-time observer of  Sudan has noted, “'Arabism' in Darfur is a political ideology, recently imported, after Colonel Gadaffi nurtured dreams of an 'Arab belt' across Africa, and recruited Chadian Arabs, Darfurians and west African Tuaregs to spearhead his invasion of Chad  in the 1980s. He failed, but the legacy of arms, militia organization and Arab supremacist ideology lives on. Many Janjaweed hail from the Chadian Arab groups mobilised during those days.” “Darfur’s deep grievances defy all hopes for an easy solution,” The Observer, July 25, 2004.

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