Background Briefing

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Since the armed conflict in Darfur began in early 2003 more than 200,000 civilians have been killed and almost 2 million people have been displaced; the assets of this population have been looted and the economy destroyed.1  An untold number of men, women and children have been victims of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and “ethnic cleansing.”2 

Sudan’s government blocked almost all international relief work in Darfur while its counter-insurgency campaign of ethnic cleansing was in progress in 2003 and 2004. It finally relented somewhat under heightened international pressure in mid-2004. At the time, 1 million people were already internally displaced in Darfur. By mid-2005 the number of displaced persons had almost doubled.

The 1.7 million displaced persons now in Darfur have been robbed and driven from their homes and farms, and threatened with death by Janjaweed militias if they try to return; an additional 208,000 are refugees in Chad.3 Also counting those in Darfur who, although not displaced, have been impoverished by the collapse of the rural economy caused by the continuing violence in the countryside, a total of 3.5 million Darfurians—more than half of the region’s population—were in need of humanitarian assistance as of early 2006.4

Displaced persons (as well as many among the non-displaced in need), have missed the 2004 and 2005 planting seasons, and will miss a third which begins in May 2006.  A mere 4 percent of households in Darfur are now able to feed themselves from their own food production.5 Nomads and their herds have deliberately trampled, eaten, and destroyed crops throughout Darfur, unconstrained by any opposition from the expelled farmers or law enforcement. They have moved herds into particularly desirable and fertile localities in central Darfur. The nomads are suffering as well. Rebel forces mistrustful of these herders, from whom the government has recruited its Janjaweed militias, have blocked livestock migration routes.

The traditional “hunger gap” before the harvest—when stored food is exhausted—starts soon, and the heavy rains that fill the wadis (dry river beds) with flash floods should begin in June-July 2006 with the rainy season lasting from July to September. Darfur’s roads will become impassible in many locations, at the height of the lean season.  Humanitarian aid workers seek to preposition supplies for at-risk populations in advance of the rains, but insecurity and a shortage of donor funding will hinder this life-saving measure this year.

Deteriorating security is the result of several factors. Periodically during the African Union-sponsored Darfur peace talks in Abuja, Nigeria, that started in 2004, both the government and rebels have tried to improve their bargaining positions through military advances on the ground. Sudanese government forces and Janjaweed militias have responded to rebel attacks on government targets with further attacks on and reprisals against civilians. Clashes between rival factions of the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) have arisen from time to time and rebels have become a regular source of harassment and robbery of relief convoys. These attacks on convoys traveling Darfur’s roads have left many areas “no-go” for humanitarian agencies, adding to the climate of insecurity.

Clashes between the warring parties and attacks on villages and towns have occasionally forced relief organizations to withdraw their staff. For instance, in January 2006, insecurity as well as local government regulations limited relief operations outside Fashir, the capital of North Darfur.6  Insecurity has also had a negative impact on South Darfur, where, according to U.N. statistics, less than two-thirds of the conflict-affected population is accessible to relief agencies.7

Nowhere is Sudan’s humanitarian crisis as acute as in West Darfur, where the U.N. estimates that 716,000 people have been uprooted and taken refuge in internally displaced persons camps over the past two-and-a-half years.8 Since late 2005, there have been serious armed clashes in all three Darfur states, but some of the most intense fighting has taken place in West Darfur, where the security situation is complicated by the sheer multiplicity of armed groups. Some 60,000 new forced displacements took place in West Darfur in March alone due to sustained violence.9

The security situation in West Darfur has been steadily deteriorating for some time.  The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) was forced to resort to costly and inefficient airdrops to remote parts of Jebel Marra as long ago as July 2005.10 As a result of persistent government, bandit, and rebel attacks endangering humanitarian operations, on January 3, 2006, the U.N. imposed a Phase IV Security Level in many areas of West Darfur, north and south of the state capital Geneina: Phase IV is the U.N.’s most stringent security restriction short of total evacuation.11 All U.N. workers not responsible for urgent, life-saving needs, evacuated; some NGO staff also left. (For successive restrictions on U.N. movements around Geneina in the preceding months, see below.)

The security situation in West Darfur deteriorated to the point that even the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) temporarily suspended some of its activities outside Geneina in February 2006 for lack of sufficient security guarantees for its field teams (see also below).12 The ICRC operates pursuant to security agreements it negotiates directly with the parties, and is often able to go where other agencies cannot.

Statistics compiled by U.N. OCHA reflect the precipitous drop in U.N. humanitarian access to the population in need in West Darfur: from 100 percent access in April 2005 to less than 90 percent in August 2005 to less than 50 percent in December 2005.13  By January 2006, fewer than 40 percent of the people in need in West Darfur were within reach of humanitarian aid according to U.N. security standards.14

Humanitarian access is extremely difficult in Jebel Marra,15 the mountainous area in the center of Darfur that was the region’s breadbasket before Darfur was turned into a killing field.  Jebel Marra is considered an SLA stronghold.16 It was the historical bastion of the Fur people, with rugged terrain that is easy to defend and hard to capture.17   

Rebels groups that only operate in West Darfur, particularly the rebel National Movement for Reform and Development (NMRD),18 have contributed to conflict and insecurity in West Darfur, notably by harassing AMIS forces. The NMRD, led by Col. Djibril Abdul Kareem Badri, is thought to be responsible for several attacks on AMIS forces in the NMRD-held area of Jebel Moon, West Darfur, some of them deadly.19 The Special Representative of the Chairman of the A.U. Commission in Sudan, Ambassador Baba Gana Kingibe, said that a breakaway faction of the JEM working with the NMRD abducted members of the Senegalese contingent of AMIS on October 9, 2005, in Tine, West Darfur. No fatalities were suffered, but AMIS vehicles and equipment were stolen by the attackers. The NMRD claimed responsibility for an attack on an AMIS patrol on November 29 in the Kulbus area of West Darfur, in which five AMIS soldiers were injured.20

The NMRD, which is itself a splinter from the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), is suspected of receiving support from the Chadian government.21 The Chadian government and the Sudanese government have accused each other of sponsoring anti-government rebel groups. On April 25, the Security Council, with China, Russia and Qatar abstaining, voted to impose targeted sanctions on Colonel Djibril and three others (an SLA commander, a Janjaweed leader and a former Sudanese government military commander) implicated in violating international law and Security Council resolutions banning arms traffic to Darfur, among other things.22

Chadian rebels, also absent from North and South Darfur, are located in many remote bases scattered throughout West Darfur.23  The Chadian rebel presence has generated fighting in West Darfur, further impeding humanitarian access there, and there was a direct violation of existing humanitarian access arrangements when, prior to a November 18, 2005, offensive in West Darfur purportedly against Chadian army deserters,24 the Sudanese government sealed off the Jebel Moon area on the Chadian border.25

Events moved swiftly in the lead-up to an African Union-imposed deadline of April 30 for the conclusion of peace talks in Abuja. On April 13, Chadian rebels attacked the Chadian capital N’Djamena, trying to oust President Idriss Déby before the May 3 elections. On April 14, 2006, President Déby accused the Sudanese government of supporting the Chadian rebels and broke off relations with Sudan.26 The African Union is investigating these charges.

On April 23, Osama bin Laden echoed the call by Sudanese President Omar El Bashir for Islamists to go to Darfur to fight against any possible U.N. peacekeeping force, which they termed “foreign invaders” engaged in an anti-Muslim campaign.27 The Sudanese government rejected bin Laden’s support but did not withdraw its call for Islamists to oppose any U.N. military operations in Darfur—which are still under consideration by the U.N. Security Council for deployment, possibly when the African Union forces’ mandate lapses on September 30, 2006.

Clashes increased on the ground in Darfur in late April.  On April 24, the Sudanese government attacked a rebel-controlled area of South Darfur, utilizing Antonovs, attack helicopters and local militias, all in violation of its own commitments to refrain from using offensive military power.28 Observers feared the attack might be a prelude to further attacks, including on Greida, an SLA-held town where almost 100,000 displaced civilians from the region had gathered.29 As of May 4, the deadline for negotiations in Abuja had been extended twice as mediators struggled to reconcile the demands of the warring parties.

[1] There are currently more than 1.7 million internally displaced persons in Darfur. UNHCR, “Protection and Assistance to Refugees and IDPs in Darfur: 2006 Supplementary Appeal,” March 2006, [online]

[2] See Human Rights Watch, “Darfur in Flames: Atrocities in Western Sudan,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 16, no. 5(A), April 2004, [online]; “Darfur Destroyed: Ethnic Cleansing by Government and Militia Forces in Western Sudan,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 16, no. 6(A), May 2004, [online]; “Darfur Documents Confirm Government Policy of Militia  Support,” A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, July 19, 2004, [online]; “Empty Promises? Continuing Abuses in Darfur, Sudan,” A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, August 11, 2004, [online]; “If We Return We Will Be Killed,” A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, November 15, 2004, [online]; “Targeting the Fur: Mass Killings in Darfur,” A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, January 24, 2005; “Sexual Violence and its Consequences Among Displaced Persons in  Darfur and Chad,” A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, April 12, 2005, [online]; “Entrenching Impunity: Government Responsibility for International Crimes in Darfur,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 17, no. 17(A), December 2005, [online]; “Sudan : Imperatives for Immediate Change,” A Human Rights Watch Report, January 2006, vol. 18, no. 1(A), [online]; and “Darfur Bleeds: Recent Cross-Border Violence in Chad,” A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, no. 2, February 2006, [online]

[3] In December 2005 there were 1.8 million internally displaced. The number fluctuated slightly to 1.7 million in early 2006, which relief officials believe may have represented a temporary return by some displaced to villages.  The total numbers used were 3.6 million in December 2005 and 3.5 million in 2006. The number of residential (non-displaced) persons in need remained about 1.8 million.

[4] U.N. OCHA, Darfur Humanitarian Profile No. 22, Situation as of January 1, 2006, [online]

[5] World Food Programme, “Special Report: FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission to Sudan,” February 15, 2006, [online]

[6] U.N. Joint Logistics Centre Sudan, Bulletin 72, January 2006, [online]

[7] United Nations Security Council, “Monthly Report of the Secretary-General on Darfur,” October 14, 2005, [online] OpenElement. The air travel option is limited by the prohibitive costs and decreased cargo capacity.  Carlos Veloso, the WFP emergency coordinator for Darfur, said in March 2006 that if food aid could not reach isolated communities by road, it would be dropped by parachute. But one airdrop costs as much as five truckloads of food and it can only deliver grain rations for 200 people per trip. Dan Morrison, “Darfur’s turn for the worse,” Christian Science Monitor, March 10, 2006, [online] Half of Oxfam’s Darfur programs must be accessed by air because of security problems. Oxfam press release, Jeremy Hobbs, “In Darfur, time is running out,” op ed, March 10, 2006, [online]

[8] OCHA, “Sudan Humanitarian Overview,” Volume 1, Issue 2, September 15 – October 15, 2005, [online]

[9] Human Rights Watch telephone interview from New York with international humanitarian aid official, March 29, 2006.

[10] United Nations Security Council, “Monthly Report of the Secretary-General on Darfur,” August 11, 2005, [online]

[11] United Nations Joint Logistics Center, “Bulletin 72 - January 2006,” [online]

[12] ICRC News, “Bulletin No.06/39 – Sudan,” February 15, 2006, [online]

[13] U.N. OCHA, “Sudan Humanitarian Overview,” Vol. 2, Issue 2, February 1 – March 1, 2006; U.N. OCHA, “Darfur Humanitarian Profile No. 22, Situation as of January 1, 2006,” [online]

[14] U.N. OCHA, “Darfur Humanitarian Profile No. 22,” Khartoum, Sudan, January 1, 2006, [online]

[15] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with international humanitarian aid official, March 23, 2006.

[16] Disputes over land in Jebel Marra that predate the present conflict engendered local Fur self-defense groups that later formed part of the SLA.  Currently, the dominant Sudanese rebel group in eastern Jebel Marra is the Abdul Wahid Mohamed al Nour faction of the SLA; Abdel Wahid is Fur.

[17] The Jebel Marra region was split among the three states of Darfur when these were created in 1996. According to many Fur leaders, this was done in order to divide the Fur population between three different administrative entities and thus weaken the dominance of this numerically strong ethnic group. The Fur ruled the DarFur sultanate for hundreds of years before the British annexed Darfur to its Anglo-Egyptian Condominium in 1916 to secure its flanks during World War I.

[18] The NMRD entered into a bilateral ceasefire agreement with the Sudanese government, but announced that since it was not a party to the Abuja peace talks, it would not respect the April 2004 ceasefire agreement.

[19] On November 29, 2005, an AMIS patrol was attacked in the Kulbus area of West Darfur and five soldiers were injured; Colonel. Djibril claimed responsibility.  On January 6, 2006, ten AMIS soldiers were wounded and one killed in another attack in West Darfur.  An AMIS investigation placed responsibility for that attack on Colonel Djibril and the NMRD.

[20] United Nations, “Monthly Report of the Secretary-General on Darfur,” January 30, 2006, [online]

[21] U.N. Security Council, “Report of Panel of Experts established pursuant to paragraph 3 of resolution 1591 (2005) concerning the Sudan,” January 30, 2006, S/2006/65, [online] at

[22] “Security Council Imposes Travel, Financial Sanctions on 4 Sudanese,” SC/8700, April 25, 2006.

[23] Chad, one of the world’s poorest countries, stands to receive billions of dollars in oil money, with the bulk of the income earmarked for social programs pursuant to a World Bank revenue management program.  Chad’s President Idriss Déby diverted oil revenue intended for the social programs in November, leading the World Bank to freeze certain revenue payments.  In November 2005, a rash of high-level defections from Chad’s army occurred at the same time that Zaghawa relatives of Déby took up arms as SCUD to demand a share of the oil bonan za. See Human Rights Watch, “Darfur Bleeds.”

[24] This action purportedly against Chadian army deserters occurred only a matter of weeks before Chad declared a “state of belligerence” with Sudan on December 23, 2005. The history of successive breaches and mends in relations between Chad and Sudan over support for rebels against each other’s governments is noted in Human Rights Watch, “Darfur Bleeds.” For comment on the mid-April 2006 Sudanese-backed Chadian rebel attempt to seize power in Chad, see “Chad: Rebel Offensive Poses Risk of Ethnic Reprisal,”  Human Rights Watch press release, April 13, 2006, [online]

[25] United Nations Security Council, “Monthly Report of the Secretary-General on Darfur,” January 30, 2006, [online]

[26] “Chad breaks off diplomatic ties with Sudan,” Associated Press, April 14, 2006 at

[27]Alastair Lyon, “Analysis: Bin Laden call for Darfur jihad clouds UN mission,” Reuters, April 24, 2006, at See also Sudan Tribune, "Darfur will be foreign troops’ graveyard - Bashir," February 26, 2006, [online]

[28] “Government Offensive Threatens Darfur Civilians,” Human Rights Watch press release, April 27, 2006, [online]

[29] “Government offensive raises fears of attack on Gereida,” IRIN, May 2, 2006 at

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