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The Harrowing of Darfur

Public understanding of Darfur has been muddied by the understandable tendency of those who do not know Sudan to view this territory in the west of the country through the lens of the much more publicized civil war in the south. But unlike the decades-long struggle between successive Arab regimes in Khartoum and rebels drawn from predominately non-Muslim African communities in the south, the fighting in Darfur is of more recent origin—and all of the combatants and their victims are followers of Islam. 

At first glance, the fighting in Greater Darfur, which includes the three states of North, South, and West Darfur, appears to be an ethnic clash. It pits an Arab-dominated government in Khartoum, aligned with ethnic militias drawn from some Arab nomadic groups that have long roamed freely across Darfur’s forbidding desert and fertile farmland, against rebel groups drawn largely from three main African groups, two of which are traditionally settled agriculturalists or semi-pastoralists. But the reality is more complex. Until the mid-1980s, Arab herders and African farmers occasionally clashed, but mostly co-existed peacefully. In fact, despite the ethnic polarization that now exists, there has been considerable ethnic fluidity and intermarriage.

The seeds of the conflict in Darfur were sown by decades of government exploitation, manipulation, and neglect; recurrent episodes of drought and increasing desertification leading to competition for ever-diminishing resources; a flow of arms and people caused by earlier wars in Chad; and the failure of the international community to hold the government of Sudan accountable for the human rights abuses committed over two decades in other regions of the country. Paradoxically, however, the immediate spark may have been progress in negotiations to end the twenty-one-year-long north-south conflict, which created fears among Darfurians that they might be excluded from the power- and wealth-sharing formula being negotiated by the government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), the rebel group that has waged a civil war in the south since 1983. 

In February 2003, the Darfur rebels of the Sudan Liberation Army shocked Khartoum by successfully assaulting government military forces in Fashir, the capital of North Darfur, and achieving a string of military successes. In response, the Bashir government launched a vicious counter-insurgency campaign in Darfur, patterned after earlier campaigns it had conducted in southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains, using a proxy militia force, the so-called Janjaweed, made up of members of nomadic Arab tribes. 

The first loud warnings of an impending human rights catastrophe came in October-November 2003, when U.N. agencies reported that villages had been burned and Amnesty International reported that Sudanese refugees in camps in Chad were describing “how militias armed with Kalashnikovs and other weapons . . . often dressed in green army uniforms, raided villages, burnt houses and crops and killed people and cattle.” Shortly thereafter, Jan Egeland, United Nations under-secretary for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, warned that the humanitarian situation in Darfur had become “one of the worst in the world.” In December 2003, as Khartoum imposed tight restrictions on access to the region and launched a new offensive, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan echoed Egeland’s concern.

In April 2004, reporting by U.N. agencies, humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), human rights groups, and the media started to reveal the enormity and nature of what was happening—and, on April 7, Kofi Annan, addressing the Commission on Human Rights on the 10th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, called attention to the human rights abuses and growing humanitarian crisis in Darfur and called on the international community to be prepared to take swift and appropriate action.

Based on its investigations in Darfur and refugee camps in Chad at that time, Human Rights Watch found “credible evidence that the government of Sudan has purposefully sought to remove by violent means the Masalit and Fur population from large parts of Darfur in operations that amount to ethnic cleansing.” As a result of the mounting evidence that massive human rights abuses and crimes against humanity were being committed, the Security Council began—slowly and hesitantly—to pay attention to Darfur. 

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2005