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Darfur is Sudan’s largest region, on its western border with Libya, Chad, and the Central African Republic.  Darfur has been divided into South, West, and North since 1994. The predominant ethnic groups of West Darfur are the Masalit and Fur, who have often united in marriage with Arabs and other Africans.1

West Darfur, with a population of more than 1.7 million,2 is ethnically mixed although African groups predominate: in Geneina and Habila provinces the Masalit are the majority (60 percent), followed by the Arabs and other Africans, namely, Zaghawa, Erenga, Gimr, Dajo, Borgo and Fur. In Zalingei, Jebel Marra, and Wadi Salih provinces the Fur predominate. In Kulbus province approximately 50 percent is Gimr, 30 percent Erenga, 15 percent Zaghawa, and 5 percent Arab. Together the Fur and the Masalit comprise the majority of the population of West Darfur. Dar Masalit, or homeland of the Masalit,3 is located around Geneina—the state capital—and north and south along the border.

The Masalit, Fur, and other sedentary African farmers in Darfur have a history of clashes over land with pastoralists from Arab tribes, primarily the camel- and cattle-herding Beni Hussein from the Kabkabiya area of North Darfur and the Beni Halba of South Darfur. Until the 1970s, these tensions were kept under control by traditional conflict resolution mechanisms underpinned by laws inherited from the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium (1898-1956).  While clashes over resources took place, they were usually resolved through negotiations between community leaders.4  It is not the case, as the Sudanese government maintains, that the current violence is merely a prolongation of the predominantly economic tribal conflicts that have always existed in the region.

In recent decades, a combination of extended periods of drought; competition for dwindling resources; the lack of good governance and democracy; and easy availability of guns have made local clashes increasingly bloody and politicized. 5  A wide-reaching 1994 administrative reorganization by the government of President Omar El Bashir in Darfur gave members of Arab ethnic groups new positions of power, which the Masalit, like their Fur and Zaghawa neighbors, saw as an attempt to undermine their traditional leadership role and the power of their communities in their homeland.6

Communal hostilities broke out in West Darfur among other places in 1998 and 1999 when Arab nomads began moving south with their flocks earlier than usual.7 During the 1998 clashes, more than sixty Masalit villages were burned, one Arab village was burned, approximately sixty-nine Masalit and eleven Arabs were killed, and more than 5,000 Masalit were displaced, most fleeing either into Geneina town or to Chad. Despite an agreement for compensation for both sides negotiated by local tribal leaders,8 clashes resumed in 1999 when nomadic herdsmen again moved south earlier than usual.

These 1999 clashes were even bloodier, with more than 125 Masalit villages partially or totally burned or evacuated and many hundred people killed, including a number of Arab tribal chiefs. The government brought in military forces in an attempt to quell the violence and appointed a military man responsible for security overall, with the power to overrule even the West Darfur state governor. A reconciliation conference held in 1999 agreed on compensation for Masalit and Arab losses.9 Many Masalit intellectuals and notables were arrested, imprisoned, and tortured in the towns as government-supported Arab militias began to attack Masalit villages; a number of Arab chiefs and civilians were also killed in these clashes. The barometer of violence crept steadily upward.

[1] The terms “African” and “Arab” have been used to describe the conflict in Darfur yet fail to capture the ethnically diverse society of Darfur and the nuanced relationships among ethnic groups.  Especially since the beginning of the conflict in 2003, members of the Zaghawa, Fur, and Masalit communities have used these terms to describe the growing racial and ethnic polarization in Darfur, perceived to result from discrimination and bias emanating from the central government. 

In this report, Human Rights Watch uses the term “African” mainly to describe the Zaghawa, Fur, and Masalit, the principal victims of the government’s military campaign against the rebel insurgency in Darfur in 2003-2004.  The term “Arab” is used to describe the Arabized, Arabic-speaking groups of nomadic and semi-nomadic people who have been recruited and deployed as Janjaweed militia.  The use of these terms is not intended to gloss over the complexity of the ethnic picture in Darfur. Many of the smaller African and Arab ethnic groups are not direct participants in the conflict. See Appendix A for a summary of the only ethnic census in Sudan, taken in 1956.

[2] See Appendix B for a geographical breakdown of the population of West Darfur in 1999.

[3] Dar roughly corresponds to homeland or home territory.

[4] This report focuses on the recent conflict and abuses in the Masalit area of West Darfur. For further background on the conflict in the Darfur region, including North and South Darfur, see Human Rights Watch, Darfur in Flames: Atrocities in Western Sudan, Vol. 16, No.5 (A), April 2004.

[5] The largest African ethnic group in Darfur is the Fur, while the Masalit and Zaghawa are among the largest. 

[6] See Dawud Ibrahim Salih, Muhammad Adam Yahya, Abdul Hafiz Omar Sharief and Osman Abbakorah, Representatives of The Massaleit Community in Exile, “The Hidden Slaughter and Ethnic Cleansing in Western Sudan.” Cairo, Egypt, April 8, 1999, (accessed April 29, 2004).

[7] In January 1999, during a confrontation over animals trampling crops, angry Masalit farmers shot at Masalit and Arab tribal heads who came to restore calm, killing an Arab chief. The Sudanese government claimed that the Masalit were a fifth column of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA, southern-based African rebels), and sealed off Dar Masalit. Reportedly the Arab militias then killed more than 1,000 Masalit. The government set up special courts to try leaders of the clashes, sentencing fourteen people to death, and sponsored a tribal reconciliation conference. It concluded that 292 Masalit and seven Arabs were dead; 2,673 houses burned down; and large numbers of livestock looted, with the Masalit suffering most. The Arab tribes refused to pay compensation. About 29,500 fearful Masalit refugees remained in Chad, where the Arab militias reportedly came to kill eighty Masalit refugees in mid-1999. See Human Rights Watch, “Sudan,” Chapter from World Report 2000 (Events of 1999) (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2000).

[8] The 1998 agreement included blood payments of 70 million Sudanese pounds and 9 million Sudanese pounds from the respective Arab and Masalit communities. Unpublished report on file with Human Rights Watch.

[9] This agreement provided that nomadic tribes would not commence movement southward until February 28 of each year, that everyone would be allowed access to water sources, and that state authorities would provide security and obtain resources for longer term development of water projects. Ibid.

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