Tragedy in Darfur
On understanding and ending the horror
Oct 5, 2004
32 Min read time
Every genocide is hideous, each in its own grotesque way. Searching for the origins and distinctiveness of the genocidal violence that has convulsed the Sudanese region of Darfur in the last year—leaving tens of thousands dead and perhaps a million people displaced and in danger—we must go to the remotest desert-edge settlements in Northern Darfur near the border with Chad, to the basalt stubs of mountains that march southward until they fuse in the 10,000-foot Jebel Marra massif in the center of Darfur, and to Sudan’s capital in Khartoum, far to the east.
Geography helps to explain much. Darfur is huge and distant from the capital, and events in neighboring Chad and Libya have often exerted more influence over it than the national government, whose ignorance of its western region and indifference to the welfare of its inhabitants spurred a rebellion in 2003, organized by the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).
This journey will introduce us to these Darfur rebels, including members of the Fur, Zaghawa, Masalit, and Tunjur ethnic groups, who have been the primary victims of the violence; to their neighbors, the Darfurian Arabs—including the branches of the northern Rizeigat (Jalul, Mahariya, and Ereigat), Beni Halba, and Salamat—some of whom have been recruited to the infamous Janjawiid militia, the perpetrator of the worst massacres in the conflict; and to the Sudanese Government itself, which has suppressed the rebellion with brutal tactics rehearsed in the recently concluded 21-year civil war with southern Sudan.
We will see that the story is not as simple as the conventional rendering in the news, which depicts a conflict between “Arabs” and “Africans.” The Zaghawa—one of the groups victimized by the violence and described in the mainstream press as “indigenous African”—are certainly indigenous, black and African: they share distant origins with the Berbers of Morocco and other ancient Saharan peoples. But the name of the “Bedeyat,” the Zaghawa’s close kin, should alert us to their true origins: pluralize in the more traditional Arab manner and we have “Bedeyiin” or Bedouins. Similarly, the Zaghawa’s adversaries in this war, the Darfurian Arabs, are “Arabs” in the ancient sense of “Bedouin,” meaning desert nomad, a sense that has only in the last few decades been used to describe the Arabs of the river Nile and the Fertile Crescent. Darfurian Arabs, too, are indigenous, black, and African. In fact there are no discernible racial or religious differences between the two: all have lived there for centuries; all are Muslims (Darfur’s non-Arabs are arguably more devout than the Arabs); and until very recently, conflict between these different groups was a matter of disputes over camel theft or grazing rights, not the systematic and ideological slaughter of one group by the other.
As we dig through the layers of causation of this complicated war, we will come to see it as a deeply sad story about the struggles of resilient people, poor even by Sudanese standards, who have been pitted against each other by a forbidding environment, a long history of political neglect, and a ruthless national government.
Furawiya, the “valley of the shepherds,” is a Zaghawa village that used to be the last permanently inhabited settlement before the vastness of the Sahara. North of Furawiya, a water course called Wadi Howar flows for just a few days every few years. But when it does flow, the grasses that grow there are so lush that camels can feed on them for 40 days without needing water.
For such a tiny and remote place Furawiya has had some remarkable progeny. Two leading figures in the Darfurian drama grew up there: the president of Chad, Idris Deby, and the spokesman for the Darfurian opposition movements, Professor Sharif Harir, who lives in Eritrea, far away on Sudan’s eastern border. The military commander of the biggest rebel movement, the Sudanese Liberation Army, is Mini Arkoy Minawi, a Zaghawa from nearby.
Furawiya is now burned to the ground, many of its men murdered and its women raped. It was attacked within weeks of the outbreak of war in Darfur in February 2003, when the Sudanese government dispatched helicopter gunships to the rebel headquarters at Karnoi, 30 miles to the south. A band of villages from there to the Chadian border at Tine were destroyed in the first wave of scorched earth, which has become a distinctive feature of Sudanese counterinsurgency. The survivors have fled to refugee camps in Chad. The devastation of the village with its remarkable way of life is only one terrible casualty of the current conflict in Darfur.
But to understand the demise of Furawiya, we must go back to the last humanitarian disaster to strike the area, the drought and famine of 1984–1985. When that famine was drawing to a close, I spoke with a young woman in Furawiya called Amina. The widowed mother of three children, she harvested barely a basketful of millet in September 1984, when the third successive year of drought was devastating crops. Rather than eating her pitiful supply of food, she buried it in her yard, mixing the grains with sand and gravel to stop her hungry children from digging it up and eating it. Then she began an epic eight-month migration, not atypical of the journeys that ordinary Zaghawa rural people make. Amina started by scouring the open wildernesses of the Zaghawa plateau for wild grasses, whose tiny grains can be pounded into flour. Together with her mother (who was, like most older rural women, something of a specialist in wild foods), she spent almost two months living off wild grass and the berries of a small tree, known locally as mukheit and to botanists as boscia senegaliensis. Mukheit is toxic and needs to be soaked in water for three days before it is edible; although it has a sour taste, it contains about a third of the calories of grain.
Having lived solely on wild foods for eight weeks, and having stored enough provisions for a week’s journey, Amina left her eldest daughter in the care of her mother and walked southward. She found work on farms in better-watered areas, collected firewood for sale in towns, and sold a couple of her goats (for a meager return, since the market was flooded with distressed rural people selling animals). She finally made it to a relief camp in June, just before the rains were due, and collected one set of rations. (The USAID sorghum was known as “reagan,” giving rise to much speculation among the less-well-informed villagers as to the identity of this generous man. “Who is this Reagan?” one farmer asked me. “He ought to be promoted!’) With a couple of kilos of sorghum on her back, Amina and her two other children promptly left the camp and walked home (it took one week), dug up the seed Amina had buried the previous fall, planted it, and watched it grow for another three hungry months (again living off wild foods plus the milk from the herds of camels and goats that the Furawiya residents were bringing back from southern Darfur). Finally she harvested her first post-famine crop, which she was threshing the day I arrived.
A remarkable story of sheer toughness and survival skill, Amina’s story brought home to me just how marginal we outsider agents of relief are to the survival of ordinary Darfurian villagers. We provide little help and even littler understanding. A Zaghawa refugee in Chad today, looking across the border to the small town of Tine, with its gracious mosque, sees not a desert but a land in which she can survive, if only given the chance.
The Zaghawa showed extraordinary tenacity and skill in surviving the famine, but by the late 1980s they were poorer and more desperate. Over the previous decade, Zaghawa had been fanning out across Darfur, Chad, and Sudan in search of land and economic niches in towns where they could start kiosks. They cannot simply be described—as they often are—as “nomads” or “farmers”: they are both, and more besides. For sheer business acumen, the Zaghawa surpassed all contenders in Darfur, making spare but impressive profits in an economy that seemed to have no surplus. After 1985, these networks swelled with another outflow of migrants from the desert-edge villages seeking livelihoods elsewhere. By then, the reserves of fertile land in southern Darfur had been claimed by waves of settlers, Khartoum’s economic neglect of the region meant that trade was declining, and conflicts were breaking out across the central farming belt of Darfur, principally between impoverished former nomads seeking land to farm and established villagers who sought to keep the best land for themselves.
The current crisis has roots in those conflicts over resources. As communities armed themselves in their struggle for survival, Khartoum withdrew from governing Darfur, resorting solely to divide-and-rule—and chiefly siding with the Arab nomads. Today’s famine is man-made and will push the Zaghawa and other groups to their limits. In some cases, people are being deliberately starved; in others, they are being prevented from moving freely about to find the plentiful wild foods or from returning to their farms to cultivate. In addition to the killings, then, we can expect pockets of extreme suffering (estimates of 100,000–350,000 more deaths seem credible), along with widespread hunger and impoverishment across Darfur. But understanding how these things have come to pass will a require a shift in geography.
When I first visited Furawiya in the fall of 1985, I found the herds of the Zaghawa and the Jalul Rizeigat Arabs grazing side by side. I was in search of the camels of a famous paramount chief of the Jalul, a man of notable charisma and unbending pride known as Sheikh Hilal Musa. For most of his 80 years, Hilal had herded camels from the desert edge near Furawiya to the massif of Jebel Marra in the center of Darfur. Without any place to call home, he had set up his camps on the pastures that separate villages, exchanging meat, milk, and transport with the farmers, who in turn sold grain and ironwork. Only in his final years, too old to travel on the back of a camel, did this aging Bedouin agree to settle, setting up court in a big black tent in a place called Aamo, where he entertained visitors with his limitless hospitality.
Aamo is about 200 miles south of Furawiya, in a grim plain surrounded by basalt volcanic cores that stick up like broken teeth. When the history of the today’s convulsions is written, Aamo may perhaps rank as its epicenter. The sheikh’s son, Musa, is the leader of the Janjawiid, and ranks first on the State Department’s list of suspected war criminals. The first notable Janjawiid massacre took place just a few miles from Aamo on August 3, 2003, when several dozen villagers were murdered by Musa Hilal’s forces in the wake of an attack by the Darfurian rebel movements, the SLA and the JEM, on the district headquarters at Kutum. Seeking a cheap and effective proxy force, Khartoum began organizing the armed nomads into a paramilitary force as soon as the conflict broke out, elevating Musa Hilal to command one of its most ruthless brigades.
When we met, the old Sheikh already seemed a ghost from a past age. His lifetime included the entire history of imperial rule in Darfur. The independent Fur Sultanate, founded in the 17th century, was overthrown by a British expeditionary force in 1916, and the last Sultan, Ali Dinar, was killed. The British ruled this vast and remote region of no appreciable natural resources with just twelve district officers. That now seems extraordinary, especially since their first decade was studded with uprisings by messianic preachers and the dead Sultan’s loyalists.
To rule Darfur, the British sought to co-opt the traditional leadership one ethnic group at a time. One of their favored means of doing this was to award a tribal “dar” or homeland to each group and to give the paramount chief jurisdiction over the civil affairs within that territory. Paid a pittance but given considerable executive and judicial powers, the paramount chiefs’ most important tasks were allocation of land and settlement of civil disputes. It was administration on the cheap, with only minimal health and education services provided.
The old social order, in which the Fur had been politically dominant and in which an array of more than 30 other groups (many Arabic-speaking and semi-nomadic, many speakers of Sudanic languages and mostly farmers) were tributary subjects, was swept away. The fluidity of social relations and ethnic boundaries, whereby both individuals and entire groups could move between and among ethnic categories, was replaced by a fossilizing “native administration.” But the imperial hand was light. A characteristic Darfurian flexibility and knack for innovation meant that people moved at will, and many mixed communities grew up, especially as people moved south to settle the frontiers of the forest zone.
While almost all of Darfur’s 35-odd groups were awarded “dars,” half a dozen nomadic groups were not, including Sheikh Hilal’s Jalul Rizeigat. As true nomads, they moved vast distances with their herds and never settled.
Sudan’s independence came just 40 years later, in 1956. The agitators for independence were from the ruling elites of Khartoum, and Darfur was again neglected. Its chief role was as a labor reserve for the lower ranks of the army and the irrigated cotton schemes along the Nile. In 1964, a young Fur politician called Ahmed Diraige—the son of a Shartai who used to host Hilal’s clan at the southernmost end of its annual migration—founded the Darfur Development Front to campaign for the region’s interests. But although Darfur is a formidable electoral bloc (its votes have decided the outcomes of Sudan’s general elections in the periods of civilian rule in the 1960s and 1980s), Diraige never succeeded in forming a consolidated political front, to lay claim to its rightful share of Sudan’s national wealth.
For most Darfurians, life under independence continued as before. Sheikh Hilal laughed when he described how the socialist government tried to abolish native administration in 1970. Although they gave the Jalul some territory for the first time, his people blithely ignored the decree and continued to follow their Sheikh, using the little administrative centre established at Fata Borno—an hour’s drive from Aamo—solely as a post office and a place to meet junior government officials. The government had intruded briefly in Darfur in the 1970s, but salaries were no longer paid, the clinics were abandoned, and the police had neither fuel for their Land Rovers nor bullets for their decrepit rifles. If there was a serious crime, the district police chief would come to Sheikh Hilal’s tent, sit humbly on a Persian carpet on the sand, and ask the Sheikh to find the culprit.
Hilal’s tent was pitched in a barren waste. He could have had a comfortable if modest house in Fata Borno, or persuaded the local Tunjur farmers to provide him a farm next to the seasonal water course, Wadi Kutum, lined with date palms and vegetable gardens. But instead he chose stony Aamo; he insisted that the only respectable way of life for a Jalul was camel nomadism, and he and his people would never stoop to cultivation. He waved at his young grandson, saying, “Even he has camels!” But the reality was different. Over the brow of the hill was a small village of Jalul whose camels and goats had died in the drought, who were trying to farm a sandy hillside. And Sheikh Hilal must have known the reality. He brooded on the disturbances brought about by drought, and how the familiar landscapes were turning into dying forests and spreading sand drifts. Most of all he regretted how the villagers—Zaghawa in the north, Tunjur around Aamo, and Fur further to the south, no longer readily accepted their nomadic guests, who without a “dar” relied on their customary rights to migrate and pasture their animals. The Fur villagers had taken to enclosing their grazing areas with thorn fences or even burning grasses to stop the herders passing their way. “The world is coming to an end,” he said darkly, before rousing himself to present me with a fly whisk made from a giraffe tail and sending me on my way to seek his sons and their camels.
Musa Hilal, now in his 40s, became known as a ruthless leader of armed nomads even before the current conflict. He thrived on the lawlessness in Darfur since the drought of 1984, when local disputes were rendered more deadly by the proliferation of light weapons. With no effective police force, all of Darfur’s communities armed themselves. In the past, intercommunal conflicts were settled by tribal conferences, but the last of these—held in 1990—showed glimmerings of a Darfurian united front to challenge Khartoum’s neglect. That conference called for the disarming of both the Arab Janjawiid (the first time the name appears in an official document) and the Fur militia. It also demanded a much stronger administrative presence and social and economic development. But these and other recommendations from the conference were never implemented. Cynically, the central government played the politics of divide-and-rule, usually supporting Darfur’s Arab tribes.
In April 2002, the young men of one village in central Darfur complained to the district authorities that they were being harassed by an Arab militia group; the authorities responded by confiscating the men’s weapons and jailing them. A young Fur lawyer, Abdel Wahid Nour, took up their case; he was imprisoned too. From his prison cell he wrote a passionate letter documenting the invisible sufferings of his Fur kinsmen. On his release, community elders asked Abdel Wahid to represent them; he became the chairman of the Darfur Liberation Front, which set up camps in Jebel Marra and, from there, attacked a police station on February 26, 2003, to take back the lost weapons. This was the spark that set Darfur afire.
At first the local authorities tried to contain the insurrection, but without funds or arms, it was a lost cause. Abdel Wahid is Fur, from Darfur’s largest ethnic group. He teamed up with young leaders from the other two large communities—Zaghawa and Masalit. Senior posts in the movement are distributed among these groups. The organization was renamed the Sudanese Liberation Army. The government’s first major counterattack was on Karnoi and Furawiya; the rebels responded by mounting a daring attack on the regional capital, el Fasher, on April 25, destroying half a dozen military aircraft and taking a general as a hostage. The same day, together with the newly created Justice and Equality Movement, they also attacked Kutum.
At the time of the attacks. Musa Hilal was in prison and had been accused of murder. Like many Janjawiid leaders, he has a criminal record. But senior leaders in Khartoum intervened and had him released and flown back to Darfur, where he was given leadership of a Janjawiid brigade, armed and supplied by the government. Musa Hilal’s murderous campaigns over the last 12 months make it hard to look at the Darfurian Arab communities, sinned against as well as sinning, and recognize that they too are historic victims of neglect and the gradual squeezing of a nomadic, pastoral way of life. Tragically, this way of life has died abruptly.
A month after leaving Aamo, I reached Wadi Howar, but I couldn’t find Musa Hilal or his father’s camels. The desert was too huge, and my companions and I were warned not to stray too far from the villages. Libyan trucks were bringing arms and mercenaries across the desert into Darfur to establish a staging post for Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s irredentist ambitions in Chad. We saw their tracks in the sand; when we saw their silhouettes in the distance, we turned back to Furawiya.
This was the first augur of Darfur’s descent into violence. Poverty, desertification, and the collapse of the police force all contributed, but the first war in Darfur erupted in 1987 because Libya was using the region as a back door into Chad. Fighters from the “Islamic Legion,” recruited from Darfurian and Chadian Arabs, Tuaregs, and others, set up camp close to the border. They brought guns, which they also distributed to their kinsmen in Darfur, and most disturbing of all, they brought a new racial ideology, Arabism. Qaddafi’s designs went beyond annexing northern Chad: he dreamed of carving an Arab homeland out of the Sahel.
The 1987 war also provided the first glimmerings of the new racism that has rent Darfur’s social fabric. There were fights before, but never organized along “Arab” versus “non-Arab” lines. In exile in Libya, Darfur’s black African Bedouins had imbibed notions of Arab solidarity; in 1987 a group of them wrote an “Arab letter” to the prime minister in Khartoum, demanding recognition and support. This prompted a response from other Darfurians. Sharif Harir, then a professor of social anthropology at the University of Khartoum, began to document the “Arab belt” ideology.
In Chad, resistance to Libya was mounted by force of arms, with Zaghawa commanders in the front line. The Chadians pioneered a form of mobile warfare using Toyota land cruisers mounted with machine guns, striking with stunning speed and running rings around the ponderous tanks of the Libyan army and its mercenaries. In 1988, at the Chadian oasis of Ouadi Doum, Qaddafi’s expansionist dreams were destroyed by just such a Chadian force. Its deputy commander and, ultimately, the nemesis of Chadian Arab supremacism was Idris Deby. After this defeat, the mercurial Libyan leader turned his attention elsewhere. But in Darfur, collateral damage had been done. For the black Arabs of Darfur, who were among the most disadvantaged of all Darfur’s communities, the Islamic Legion offered a heady promise of emancipation: it linked them to the Arabs of the Nile and the Mediterranean littoral.
Most of Sudan’s political elite have never visited Darfur and certainly have no awareness of the complexities of the region. But for them, too, the “Arab” label provided a comforting feeling of familiarity. Darfur’s “Arab Alliance” was established in 1987 and served as the vanguard of an Arab supremacism defined by an ideology and political language that we would call “racial” if the concept were not so alien and inappropriate to Darfur. For Darfur, “Arabism” is nothing more than an ideologically constructed political label. But it began to stick as Darfur’s communities became militarized along these lines.
In reaction, Darfur’s non-Arab communities sought a common label. There were two candidates. One was “African,” in alliance with the Southern Sudanese, who under the leadership of Dr John Garang, the commander in chief of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), were seeking allies in their protracted war against Khartoum. This is the label—also unknown 20 years ago—that sticks today.
The other option was “Muslim.” Until the 1980s, political Islam in Sudan was dominated by an Arabized elite, hailing from the river Nile, with strong links to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Theirs is the Arabism of Cairo and Damascus: for them, the Darfur Bedouins were illiterate nomads, not fellow Muslims. And there was no love lost between Libya and Sudan’s Islamists. But the leader of Sudan’s Islamists, Dr. Hassan al Turabi, was a political innovator who broadened the agenda and constituency of the Islamist movement. Of most immediate relevance, he recognized the authenticity of western Sudanese and West African Islam. This is embodied in his treatment of the Sudanese of West African origin, the Fellata. This group, several million strong, consists of ethnic Hausa and Fulani whose ancestors migrated to Sudan from Nigeria, Mali, and Niger, either on their way to Mecca or as labor migrants for the colonial-era cotton schemes. Devoutly Muslim, they follow variants of the West African Mahdist tradition. Until the National Islamic Front took power in 1989 they were not recognized as Sudanese citizens. Turabi granted them citizenship and increased the status of their sheikhs, thereby correcting a longstanding anomaly and creating a strong electoral constituency.
In Darfur, too, Turabi reached out to the religious leaders of the Fur, Masalit, and other groups. The military governor of Darfur in 1991–1992, Colonel Tayeb Ibrahim “Sikha” (“the iron rod,” so known for his skill in wielding reinforcing rods at student demonstrations), made a point of praising the Fur for their piety and taking lessons in the Fur language. The concept of common citizenship through common Islamic faith was attractive to many Darfurians, and the Islamist embrace neutralized the Darfurian critique of the region’s neglect by Khartoum and its marginalization. In practical terms, little changed. A handful of Darfurians were elevated to high positions in the party and government. But the Islamism of the “westerners” was not accepted on its own terms: the government’s “civilization project” focused on the elevation of Arabic values and culture so that some non-Arab groups even began to identify themselves politically as “Arabs.” One example is the Gimir, a small group whose “dar” lies on the Chad–Sudan border, but who also have local diaspora settlements in southern Darfur. They lost their native language, adopted Arabic, and took to calling themselves “Arabs.” Even some Fellata leaders did the same. This wasn’t a coercive Arabization: non-Arab Darfurians continue to aspire to learn the Arab language, adopt Arab cultural traits, and live peaceably with their Arab neighbors.
Why, then, did the Muslim option ultimately not prevail? The answer lies in Khartoum.
The third place to look for the roots of today’s crisis is Sudan’s national capital. The real power in Khartoum is not President Bashir, who is a pious, tough soldier, but a cabal of security officers who have run both the Sudanese Islamist movement and the Sudanese state as a private but collegial enterprise for the last 15 years. Around this core is a fissiparous coalition, in which all civilian politicians are ultimately dispensable—including, as it turned out, their own Sheikh, Dr. Turabi. And the members of this cabal are serial war criminals.
Before Darfur, we can identify three separate episodes in the Sudanese civil war, each of which can arguably be counted as genocidal. The first was in the late 1980s, when the government mobilized militias from the cattle-herding Arabs of southern Kordofan and southern Darfur as a militia to attack the Southern communities that were identified as supporting the SPLA. Three seasons of vicious raiding by these militias, abetted by military intelligence, not only massacred tens of thousands of Dinka villagers but created a uniquely horrible famine in which camps of displaced people were deliberated starved to death en masse. This was Khartoum’s first large-scale use of the “militia strategy,” a counterinsurgency taken to extremes by using the cheap tactics of starvation and robbery.
The second episode followed the 1992 declaration of Jihad in Kordofan. The occasion for this was the rebellion in the Nuba Mountains led by the SPLA. The Nuba are a collection of non-Arab peoples, distinct from their Sudanese Arab neighbors in appearance, culture, and way of life. Like the Darfurians they have suffered neglect and exploitation, and in the 1980s young Nuba rose in revolt. Central to their rebellion was an assertion of Nuba cultural distinctiveness. Kordofan, unlike Darfur, is marked by a cultural and racial polarity. Khartoum’s response was more than the repression of revolt; it was an attempt to create an Islamic state by force of arms. The aim was to relocate the entire Nuba population away from their ancestral lands into what were called, with Orwellian aptness, “peace camps.” The Jihad failed: SPLA resistance was too strong, and Khartoum’s resolve faltered.
The distinctive Islamist color of the Nuba Jihad showed a government at the height of its ideological ambition. In retrospect, there were clear fissures in the ruling coalition that fatally compromised the plan and ultimately brought about a schism in the Islamist movement itself. While the regime’s ideologues in Turabi’s Arab and Islamic Bureau were intent on radical social re-engineering, the generals just wanted a ruthless military campaign. Vice President Zubeir Mohamed Saleh, who commanded the offensive, tried to stop the wholesale ethnic removals policy. Turabi himself stayed aloof from this contest, traveling abroad at the critical moment.
The third example is the clearance of the oilfield zones of the Upper Nile province in Southern Sudan after 1998, when the army was dispatched to remove any obstacles to oil drilling. Again, militias were used as an adjunct to the regular army and air force, and again, deliberate starvation was a favored tactic. This time, however, there was no pretense to an Islamist program: it was just about money and power. The split within the Islamist movement had become irreparable, and in 1999 President Bashir moved decisively against Turabi, removing him from his position as the speaker of the National Assembly in December 1999 and later imprisoning him.
Key to Bashir’s triumph was Vice President Ali Osman Taha’s shift from the Turabi to the Bashir camp. While Turabi was the charismatic mentor to the young Islamists, commanding the loyalty of most of the rank and file, Ali Osman was the operator who turned philosophy into policy. The split rent the Islamist coalition down the middle. The security elite, controlling the military and various off-budget security agencies, stayed with Bashir. The students and the regional party cells mostly went into opposition with Turabi. Among other things, the dismissal of Turabi gave Bashir the cover for making an opening to the United States and sending Ali Osman, the real power in Khartoum, to negotiate with John Garang in a serious peace process—which finally led to the signing of a peace agreement in Kenya in June. It is almost unbearably ironic that just as southern Sudan is on the brink of peace, Darfur—and with it the entire north—is convulsed by another war.
The linkage is not accidental. The Islamist split quickly took on regional and ethnic dimensions. The west Africans and Darfurians who had come into the Islamist movement under Turabi’s leadership left with him. The opening to Darfur, which had dampened if not neutralized Darfurian critiques of Khartoum for a decade, was over. In May 2000, Darfurian Islamists produced the “Black Book” in which they detailed the region’s systematic underrepresentation in national governments throughout Sudan’s independent history. It caused a stir throughout Sudan. In essence, it condemned the Islamist promise to Darfur as a sham. The Black Book was a key step in the polarization of the country along politically constructed “racial” rather than religious lines, and it laid the basis for a coalition between Darfur’s radicals, who formed the SLA, and its Islamists, who formed the other rebel organization, the Justice and Equality Movement. The JEM has a smaller military presence but more educated leaders and an abler public-relations machine.
And when Vice President Ali Osman was finalizing the peace agreement with the SPLA, the security clique made it clear that they felt he had given away too much power. Their message was, thus far and no further. They rejected out of hand the mediators’ suggestion that Khartoum grant regional autonomy. To the contrary, they urged a ruthless response, not only to wipe out the Darfur rebels but also to deter other insurgencies. Khartoum’s security chiefs in particular have their eye on eastern Sudan, where the Beja ethnic group are also discontented and armed, and neighboring Eritrea is ready to foment a war. Sharif Harir lives in Eritrea and has worked closely with the Beja opposition for the last ten years; some suspect that he sees a two-front war closing on Khartoum from both the west and the east. The government’s overreaction to opposition in Darfur is fueling such bitter ambitions.
What we now see, then, is a regime bereft of its legitimating ideology, run by a security clique that is concerned solely with power and its associated riches. There is no longer a recognizable Islamist ideology at work (and in fact the rebels, especially the JEM, have stronger Islamic credentials than the government). And one of the reasons for the reliance on the Janjawiid is that the national army, which includes many foot soldiers and noncommissioned officers from Darfur, cannot be counted upon to fight the rebels. In fact, as more and more Sudanese pierce the veil of secrecy that the government has draped around Darfur, the level of popular outrage deepens. The Darfur crisis represents a more profound challenge to the government’s legitimacy than the war in the south ever did.
This past July, the U.S. Congress voted unanimously to condemn the events in Darfur as “genocide.” Thus far, the Bush administration and the United Nations have stopped short of taking that step formally, although Secretary of State Colin Powell used the term in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 9. Human-rights groups have been less coy. But, as I have tried to show, the simplistic characterization—used, for example, by Human Rights Watch—of “Arabs” killing “Africans” doesn’t fit. Let’s examine some key questions that bear on the issue of genocide.
First, is the killing in Dafur bad enough to be genocide? Darfur doesn’t look like the Nazi Holocaust or Rwanda, and it is different in important ways from the Nuba Jihad. But “genocide” is a legal term of art, and the actions covered by the 1948 Genocide Convention are considerably wider than the lay definition of “genocide,” dominated as it is by the Holocaust. Article II of the Convention defines a genocide as
acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Extreme manifestations are not legally necessary for a crime to count as genocide: the Genocide Convention does not distinguish “ethnic cleansing”—which Darfur certainly is—from “genocide.” Darfur doesn’t fit the lay definition, and there are legitimate concerns about lowering the bar for what counts as “genocide,” but the Genocide Convention’s definition is what counts in law.
Second, are the groups that have been targeted sufficiently clear and distinct to warrant the name “ethnic groups”? The Arab–African dichotomy is historically and anthropologically bogus. But that doesn’t make the distinction unreal, as long as the perpetrators subscribe to it. A comparable problem was faced by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in prosecuting Jean-Paul Akayesu for genocide. In that case, the tribunal concluded that “a stable and permanent group, whose membership is determined largely by birth” was a sufficient criterion, along with the fact that Rwandese subjectively identified individuals as belonging to the categories “Hutu” and “Tutsi.” A similar argument will work in Darfur, with the additional factor that most of the targeted communities speak non-Arabic languages.
And, sadly, the violence itself is creating newly polarized identities. The relaxed reciprocity of earlier decades is gone, and the sharp divisions of a contrived racism are being nurtured by bitterness and fear. Darfur’s social fabric cannot be stitched back together quickly or easily.
Third, what about intent? Perpetrators are unlikely to admit genocidal intent, so how is it to be ascertained? Again, the ICTR decision on the Akayesu case is helpful. It found that intent could be inferred from a number of presumptions of fact: namely, a general context in which other culpable acts are systematically directed against a group. Again, the events in Darfur appear, prima facie, to meet the conditions. The International Criminal Court certainly has sufficient evidence to mount an investigation.
The perpetrators’ motives are hazy and mixed. For the Janjawiid leaders: power, loot, and land. For their backers in Khartoum: counterinsurgency taken to its annihilatory limit and a demonstration of ruthlessness intended to deter any further resistance in Darfur and elsewhere. At the end of the day, however, this is genocide by habit alone. The security cabal lives in a decades-old ethics-free zone, dispatching its officers with impunity to do whatever is necessary to preserve its power.
The United States and the United Nations are frightened that if they utter the word “genocide” they can no longer do business with the Sudanese government, that the peace deal for the south (a massive achievement) will unravel, and that they will be obliged to send troops. But does a diagnosis of genocide really imply military intervention? The Genocide Convention is silent on this issue. This silence implies intervention as one option, but not the only one. Stopping the killing in Darfur, and reconstituting its social fabric, will be a slow and complicated business. An international military presence is needed, but that doesn’t imply a foreign occupation. The key is a strategy that combines humanitarian action, security, and a political settlement.
On July 30, the UN Security Council gave Khartoum 30 days to disarm the Janjawiid. But how? There are many different militia groups, ranging from entire nomadic clans that have armed themselves to protect their herds, to the brigades of trained fighters headed by Musa Hilal and some of his Chadian Arab comrades in arms. The Janjawiid paramilitaries are the direct responsibility of Khartoum and can be demobilized, but the armed nomads will be more difficult. In a region where every community has armed itself, confiscating all arms is frankly impossible: what can be done is community-based regulation of arms, gradually marginalizing criminal elements through a process of political reconstruction.
The Genocide Convention requires punishment for the architects and perpetrators of massacres. Darfur could be a first case for the International Criminal Court; a prosecutor could be appointed, and then the law could do its work and remove some of the most undesirable individuals from Sudan’s political scene—not only the Janjawiid leaders but their mentors in the security cabal as well. But preventing a repetition of today’s horrors will require more than legal deterrence; it will require painstaking social and economic development.
Foreign correspondents have done a fine job of putting the Darfur genocide in our newspapers and on our television screens. As we seek to understand the massacre and famine, and put a stop to it, we need to remove the lenses of Rwanda and Southern Sudan and come to understand the uniqueness of Darfur and the constellation of circumstance and criminality that has led its long-suffering people into their current tragedy.
The finding of genocide is a half-truth. But it must not come in full armor. The security cabal that controls Khartoum has repeatedly shown that it will stop its violations only when it is given no other option. But that is only a beginning: 20 years of decay and militarization cannot be undone in a few weeks.
October 05, 2004
32 Min read time