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Greater Darfur, a territory composed of three states (North, South, and West Darfur), is located in the northwestern region of Sudan, bordering Chad to the west, Libya to the northwest, and Central African Republic to the southwest.1 The people living on both sides of the 1,000 kilometer-long border between Chad and Sudan have much in common. This border region is divided into three ecological bands: desert in the north, which is part of the Sahara and the least densely populated and most ecologically fragile zone; a central, fertile belt which includes the Jebel Marra mountains and is the richest agriculturally; and the southern zone, which, although more stable than the north, is also prone to drought and sensitive to fluctuations in rainfall.

Several of the region’s ethnic groups straddle both sides of the frontier between Chad and Sudan, and historically there has been significant migration and trade across the border. While the region’s peoples are mostly Muslims, they are diverse ethnically, linguistically, and culturally. Two ways are often used to describe the ethnicity of the people of Darfur: by language and by occupation. The indigenous non-Arab or African peoples historically do not speak Arabic at home and came to Sudan from the Lake Chad area centuries ago; those claiming Arab descent are Arabic speakers. Another classification distinguishes between agriculturalists and pastoralists. While there is some overlap between the two descriptions, there are also important nuances.

Darfur’s sedentary agriculturalists are generally composed of non-Arab or African ethnic groups known as “Zurga” or blacks, and include groups such as the Fur, Masaalit, Tama, Tunjur, Bergid, and Berti, who live and farm in the central zone.

The region’s pastoralists are mainly of Arab descent, and the northern belt, the most arid zone, is inhabited by nomadic and semi-nomadic camel herding tribes, including Arab ethnic groups such as the northern Rizeigat, Mahariya, Irayqat and Beni Hussein, and the African Zaghawa. The southern and eastern zones are largely inhabited by the cattle herding Arab tribes known as the southern Rizeigat (of the Baggara), Habbaniya and Beni Halba.2

In the last year, since the conflict in Darfur intensified, the communities under attack, namely the Fur, Masaalit and Zaghawa, have begun to identify themselves as “African” and “marginalized,” in contrast to earlier self-definitions as Sudanese or Darfurian. They increasingly see the attacks on their communities by the Sudanese government as racially and ethnically motivated ones.

Historical Patterns of Conflict

Darfur has been affected by intermittent bouts of conflict for several decades. Pastoralists from the north, including the northern Rizeigat, Mahariya, Zaghawa, and others, typically migrate south in search of water sources and grazing in the dry season (typically November through April). Beginning in the mid-1980s, when much of the Sahel region was hit by recurrent episodes of drought and increasing desertification, the southern migration of the Arab pastoralists provoked land disputes with agricultural communities. These disputes generally started when the camels and cattle of Arab nomads trampled the fields of the non-Arab farmers living in the central and southern areas of Darfur. Often the disputes were resolved through negotiation between traditional leaders on both sides, compensation for lost crops, and agreements on the timing and routes for the annual migration.

In the late-1980s, however, clashes became progressively bloodier through the introduction of automatic weapons. By 1987, many of the incidents involved not only the Arab tribes, but also Zaghawa pastoralists who tried to claim land from Fur farmers, and some Fur leaders were killed. The increase in armed banditry in the region also dates from this period, partly because many pastoralists lost all their animals in the devastating drought in Darfur of 1984-1985 and, in turn, raided others to restock their herds.3

There were also contentious political issues in the region. In Darfur, Arab tribes considered they were not sufficiently represented in the Fur-dominated local administration and in 1986, a number of Arab tribes formed what became known as the “Arab alliance” (Tujammo al Arabi) aimed at establishing their political dominance and control of the region. Meanwhile, Fur leaders distrusted the increasing tendency of the federal government to favor the Arabs. Arabs from the northern Nile Valley controlled the central government since independence.

This fear of Arab domination was exacerbated by the Sadiq El Mahdi government (1986-89) policy of arming Arab Baggara militias from Darfur and Kordofan known as “muraheleen.” Similar to the militias currently involved in the Darfur conflict, the muraheleen were a militia based in Darfur, employed by the El Mahdi government and its military successors for almost twenty years as a counterinsurgency force against the southern-based rebels, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). The muraheleen primarily focused on raiding, looting, displacing, enslaving, and punishing the Dinka and Nuer civilians living in SPLA territory—from which communities the SPLA forces were in part drawn.4 One of the differences in the fighting was that the Sudanese government recruited volunteers to fight in the south on the basis of “jihad,” or a religiously-sanctioned war against the largely non-Muslim southerners. In Darfur, in contrast, the communities under assault are Muslim, but that has not proved to protect them from the same abusive tactics.

In 1988-1989, the intermittent clashes in Darfur evolved into full-scale conflict between the Fur and Arab communities. The situation also developed a more political character for a number of reasons. In a pattern that was to be repeated numerous times throughout the 1990s, rather than working to defuse tensions and implement peace agreements, the Khartoum government inflamed tensions by arming the Arab tribes and neglecting the core issues underlying the conflict over resources: the need for rule of law and socio-economic development in the region.

Conflict in 2003: Widening the Divide

The current conflict in Darfur has deep roots. It is but the latest configuration of a protracted problem, yet there are key differences between the 2003-2004 conflict and prior bouts of fighting. The current conflict has developed serious racial and ethnic overtones and clearly risks shattering historic if fragile patterns of co-existence. A number of ethnic groups previously neutral are now positioning themselves along the Arab/African divide, aligning and cooperating with either the rebel movements or the government and its allied militia. Remaining neutral and outside the conflict is becoming impossible, though some groups have tried to do so.

Overtly, the conflict in Darfur pits the government of Sudan and allied militias, the “janjaweed,”5 against an insurgency composed of two groups, the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). Initially, the rebel groups were mainly composed of three ethnic groups: Zaghawa, Fur and Masaalit. Over the past months however, members of some smaller tribes such as the Jebel and Dorok peoples have also joined the rebellion following janjaweed militia attacks on their communities.6 Additional Arab tribes and even some non-Arab tribes have also joined the government-backed militia.

The SLA emerged in February 2003. Initially called the Darfur Liberation Front, it captured the town of Gulu, and shortly thereafter changed its name to the SLA. Early political demands included socio-economic development for the region, an end to tribal militias, and a power share with the central government. Khartoum called the group “bandits” and refused to negotiate. In April 2003, the SLA launched a surprise attack on El Fashir, the capital of North Darfur, and damaged several government Antonov aircraft and helicopters and looted fuel and arms depots. The rebels required a captured Sudanese air force colonel to give an interview on the Arab satellite TV news station El Gezira.This was followed by another major attack on Mellit, the second largest town in North Darfur, where the SLA rebels again looted government stocks of food and arms. In May 2003, the Sudanese government dismissed the governors of North and West Darfur and other key officials and increased military strength in Darfur.

The conflict escalated in July 2003, with fighting concentrated in North Darfur. The government launched offensives against the SLA in Um Barou, Tine, and Karnoi, North Darfur, in response to the SLA attacks on El Fasher, Mellit, around Kutum, and Tine (the latter on the border with Chad and an important trade route to Libya). Government response consisted of heavy bombing by Antonov aircraft plus ground offensives of government troops and heavy equipment, including tanks. Government armament has improved substantially since 1999 when it began to export oil, and it was available for full deployment in the west after it agreed with the southern-based SPLA to a ceasefire in the south in late 2002.7

Janjaweed militias were also used, but on a lesser scale than later in 2003 in both North and West Darfur. The bombing raids in North Darfur prompted thousands of civilians to flee the area for Chad, which by August 2003 was host to more than 65,000 Sudanese refugees.8

The Chadian Connection

While the government of Sudan, its militias, and the rebel groups are the main actors in the conflict, there are also external influences and involvement. These include Chadian civilian communities aligned with both sides of the conflict, the Chadian authorities, members of the Chadian armed forces, possibly other regional neighbors, and border armed groups profiting from the further collapse in law and order in order to loot and steal goods, cattle and other livestock.

Darfur has traditionally been a staging base for Chadian coups and insurgencies.9 Chadian President Idriss Déby, himself a Zaghawa of the Bideyat clan from northeastern Chad, came to power in 1990 through a Darfur-based, Khartoum-supported insurgency that overthrew ex-president Hissène Habré.

The SLA and JEM rebel groups were initially dominated by Zaghawa, and the support of the Chadian Zaghawa community and, unofficially, many Zaghawa whom Déby brought into the Chadian military, has been important for both groups. The SPLA is also alleged to have played a role in supporting the SLA in its initial stages, although its support is believed to have been minimal since the peace talks began.10

Despite its entanglement in the situation, the first international negotiations took place in and were mediated by Chad in September 2003--following several failed internal attempts to mediate by Sudanese officials. The Abéché talks (in the Chadian regional capital nearest Darfur) produced an agreement between the government of Sudan and the SLA that provided for a ceasefire, relocation of forces, control of militias, and pledges to increase social and economic development in the region. Although fighting between government forces and the SLA stopped temporarily after the agreement was signed in September 2003, janjaweed militia attacks continued in the Zalingei area in West Darfur and near Nyala, capital of South Darfur, in early September and October 2003. The ceasefire was extended for one month at the beginning of November but by that time the increasing militia activity, including major attacks in West Darfur, had rendered the agreement moot.

Khartoum Responds in Force

Civilian as well as military authorities in the current government are said to consider the Darfur rebellion as a “regime threat.” The Darfur rebels pose far greater menace to their hold on office than the SPLA rebellion, confined in its effects to the south, ever did. The JEM, the SLA, and the prospect of a united Darfurian coalition that could garner support among other tribes in the west, and states such as Kordofan, is deeply worrying to the Khartoum government, given that these groups are Muslim, and thus not as easily objectified or inveighed against as the southern “infidels.”

The rebels and their communities believe that the real motivation for this conflict is the Arabizing thrust of this and previous Sudanese governments. The rebels are not Arabs, and they have been considered, in Khartoum where they fled to from the Darfur droughts of the 1980s, as uncontrollable and threatening presences and second-class citizens in an Arab city.

Behind much of Khartoum’s response to Darfur is the spectre of Dr. Hassan al Turabi,11 the eminence gris and creator of the Islamist movement in Sudan. While his connection with the JEM rebels, many of whom were members of Turabi’s political party, is murky and he denies any links, the government fears that, wily politician as he is, he will find a way back into power by using the Darfur conflict—rumors now circulate with the new-found “fact” that Turabi is not really an Arab.

There is the additional strain on the government of a Zaghawa threat, although less pressing than Turabi. It is unclear to some whether the Zaghawa in whole or in part are participating in the Darfur rebellion to redress local grievances or to come to power in Khartoum, as they did in Chad. The Zaghawa, although a poor community, include many transnational traders and are more organized than others in Sudan.

Dominated by Zaghawa, the JEM emerged later in 2003 than the SLA, and was reported to have a stronger political agenda, while the SLA was believed to have greater military force.

The JEM group was not a signatory to the Abéché agreement, and had several clashes with the janjaweed militia during the period of the ceasefire. It also expanded its forces, partly through recruitment of some SLA members unhappy with the concessions made by their leaders. Some analysts suspect that the difference between the JEM and the SLA may have been more a matter of negotiating tactics than ideology, however, and recently, the two groups appear to be increasingly coordinating activities, leading to speculation that they have been or are in the process of merging.12

By early December 2003, any pretense at upholding the ceasefire was gone, and ceasefire talks scheduled in the Chadian capital of N’djamena collapsed without any serious dialogue. Shortly afterwards, Sudanese president Omar El Beshir vowed to annihilate the rebellion13 and in mid-January 2004 the government launched a major offensive against rebel-held areas in North Darfur, hoping for a military solution. Attacks by janjaweed militia on villages and towns in West Darfur also increased in December 2003, causing new waves of displaced persons to flee villages from along and south of the road between el Geneina and Nyala.

By late Febuary 2004, estimates of displaced persons from Darfur were of more than 750,000 people, the majority of whom continued to experience attacks and looting even after fleeing their homes.14 In Chad the number of refugees almost doubled to more than 110,000, with close to 30,000 new refugees arriving in December 2003, and more than 18,000 arriving in late January following the government offensive.15

On February 9, 2004, President El Bashir announced victory and stated that the war was over and that refugees could be swiftly repatriated. To date, however, the fighting between government forces and the rebel groups has continued, with clashes reported around Nyala, Kubum El Fashir and other areas in March 2004.

1 Darfur is an enormous region about the size of France, with an estimated population of about four to five million people.

2 Each of the indigenous groups has a “dar,” a homeland or territory. For instance, Darfur is named for the dar of the Fur, the largest ethnic group in the state which inhabit the central area around the Jebel Marra mountains. The dar of the Fur has been split among North, West and South Darfur by federal government administrative redivisions in the 1990s. The Masaalit dar is mainly in West Darfur—around El Geneina and Adré in eastern Chad (the border between Chad and Sudan splits Dar Masaalit). Dar Zaghawa is in North Darfur.

3 Africa Watch (now Human Rights Watch/ Africa), “The Forgotten War in Darfur Flares Again,” A Human Rights Watch Report, Vol. 2, No. 11(A), April 1990. This report notes that “In January 1988, the newspaper al Ayyam estimated that there were at least 50,000 modern weapons in Darfur—one for every sixteen adult men,” p. 3 Now, after twenty years of war in southern Sudan and several decades of conflict in Chad, there are no doubt many more weapons in circulation.

4 The muraheleen were largely drawn from the Rizeigat and Miserriya Baggara tribes of south Darfur and Kordofan, and also became involved in attacks against the Fur community in Darfur in the late-80s. After taking power in a coup in 1989, the National Islamic Front (NIF, renamed the National Congress) ruling party incorporated many of the muraheleen militias into the Popular Defense Forces, paramilitaries whose atrocious human rights record has been well documented by many organizations.

5 Numerous spellings of “janjaweed” are circulating. Definitions of the term generally allude to armed horsemen. One Arabic speaker told Human Rights Watch that “jan” referred to a gun and “jaweed” to horse. A Darfurian scholar of Darfur, remarked that “janjaweed” was the term used during his youth to describe outlaws. Dr. Ali Dinar, lecture, Washington, DC, February, 2004.

6 In further complications of the ethnic/racial divide, some African groups, such as the Gimr, have aligned themselves with the government, and some Arab groups reportedly sympathize with the SLA and allegedly have refused to collaborate with the janjaweed.

7 Human Rights Watch, Sudan, Oil, and Human Rights (Human Rights Watch: New York 2003).

8 UNHCR Briefing Notes, January 30, 2004, at (accessed March 26, 2004).

9 Several ethnic groups straddle the border, including the Zaghawa in the north-east, the Masaalit around and south of Adre, and numerous sub-clans of the Iraygat, Rizeigat and Misseriya Arab tribes., a major factor in the cross-border politics. Although Déby’s clan is small, other Zaghawa groups are more numerous but are still a minority in Chad.

10 Human Rights Watch telephone interview, March 10, 2004. The SPLM/A was warned off involvement in Darfur by the U.S. mediators in the peace talks with Khartoum, held under Inter Governmental Development Authority (IGAD) auspices in Kenya since June 2002.

11 Turabi, the leader of the Islamist movement in Sudan and former leader of the National Assembly, was mentor to President El Bashir until they had a falling out in late 1999, when Turabi wanted to wrest power from President El Bashir through machinations in the National Assembly. His former acolytes, perhaps feeling that it was the seventy-year-old’s time to move aside while they came into their own, rejected this move. President El Bashir declared a state of emergency and adjourned the National Assembly for a few years. Turabi, who with many Islamist followers formed his own party, the Popular National Congress (PNC), began to challenge the government with strikes by teachers in regional capitals and other similar actions, claiming to represent the true Islamist movement. When Turabi signed an agreement with Col. John Garang, head of the SPLA, in February 2001, his enemies in government seized on this opportunity to throw him in jail for “treason.” Although the Constitutional Court ordered his release later in the year, the government kept him in jail through executive order, in full defiance of national and international human rights norms. He remained in jail, and hundreds of his PNC followers were in and out of jail, until late 2003. The government of Sudan rearrested Turabi and at least 6 PNC officials on March 31, 2004, alleging that they were plotting a coup. March 31 was the opening day of peace talks with the rebels in Chad. The government did not arrive.

12 Human Rights Watch telephone interview, March 10, 2003.

13 Agence France-Presse, “Sudanese president vows to annihilate Darfur rebels,” December 31, 2003.

14 U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), “Relief Supplies being stolen from recipients in Darfur,” February 27, 2004.

15 UNHCR Briefing Notes, January 30, 2004, at (accessed March 26, 2004).

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