II. A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DARFUR CONFLICT
The tragedy in Darfur has played itself out as an increasingly critical side-show to a decades long battle for control of the country of Sudan. From the time the British granted Sudan its independence in 1956, a series of coups and elections have put Sudan under the control of military dictatorships, extreme right wing governments, and briefly a communist government. Generally, regardless of who was in control, the Sudan government heavily favored the Muslim population.
The fight between the Muslim oriented government and southern rebels who represented the mostly non-Muslim south of Sudan began before independence and abated in the early 1970s. Then, in 1983, the government of Sudan attempted to impose Muslim law on the entire country. The predominantly Christian non-Muslims in the south saw that as a betrayal and the civil war flared up again. The major player for the southern rebellion has been the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army (“SPLM/A”) led by John Garang. Because there were many Christian casualties among the southern population during the civil war, the U.S., prompted by Christian missionary agencies, became interested in the conflict and used its diplomatic power to try to bring about a settlement between the central government and the southern rebels.
Darfur, formerly an autonomous sultanate, was conquered by Britain in 1916 and incorporated into Sudan. It is located in the western part of Sudan, and varies geographically from desert in the north to grasslands in the south. Darfur covers about one-fifth of Sudan’s territory and has approximately six million people, one-seventh of Sudan’s population. It includes a mixture of Arab and non-Arab ethnic groups, both of which are predominantly Muslim, and virtually all of whom are dark-skinned. The ties of the Arab and non-Arab groups to their Arab and African tribal roots are extremely strong.
The Arabs are mostly nomadic, herding camels in the desert north and cattle in the southern grasslands. The Africans, including the Fur, Zaghawa, Daaju and Massalit, the largest tribes, live in western Darfur and tend to farm although the African Zaghawa tribe who live in the north of Darfur, where there is also a significant Arab population, herd cattle and move south with their herds at harvest time.
A drought that began in the 1980s turned much of Darfur’s grasslands into desert. As the area occupied by the Sahara expanded, the competition for water, grazing rights, and prized agricultural land intensified. Northern herding tribes were driven further south and west in search of grasslands. In the north, Arab herders resented the Zaghawas’ encroachment onto the Arabs’ diminishing grazing lands. African farmers in the west, who were just beginning to utilize tractors and other mechanized farming equipment to make their land more productive, resented the encroachment by Arab nomads from the north who trampled farms in search of pasture and water for their cattle and horses. The farmers began to impede the migrations. The tribes began increasingly violent feuding over the scarce resources. In the meantime, Arabs began coming in from countries to the west, exacerbating the feuds. The Sudan government did nothing to defuse the tensions.
Disputes over land had always been common. Tribal leaders traditionally mediated those disputes, and their decisions previously had been respected in Khartoum. The government of Sudan had weakened the old tribal administration system, replacing it with state institutions that were not trusted enough by the people to be able to resolve the economic and ethnic disputes that were growing. As the tribes became more polarized, they resorted to armed conflict.
In 1986, Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi had armed the ethnic-Arab tribes of Darfur and enlisted them to fight Garang’s SPLM/A. After helping the government of Sudan beat back an SPLM/A attack in Darfur in 1991, one of the armed Arab tribes sought to resolve ancient disputes over land and water rights in the Darfur region by attacking the Zaghawa, Fur, and Massalit peoples. Thousands of non-Arabs and hundreds of Arabs were killed, tens of thousands of cattle were lost, more than six hundred villages were burned, and hundreds of Arab tents were burned. A 1989 inter-tribal conference came up with recommendations for compensation and punishment that were largely unheeded, leaving strong grievances.
Despite the fact that both Arab and non-Arab factions were culpable, the Sudanese government sided with the Arabs, encouraging the formation of an “Arab Alliance” in Darfur to keep non-Arab ethnic groups in check. Weapons flowed into Darfur and the conflict spread. After President Bashir seized power in 1989, the new government disarmed non-Arab ethnic groups but allowed politically loyal Arab allies to keep their weapons.
Sudan’s central government had neglected Darfur, providing inadequately for roads, schools, hospitals, civil servants or communications facilities. Most top posts were awarded to local Arabs even though Africans thought themselves to be in the majority. The violence against African tribes escalated. Ethnic Africans and others in Darfur appealed to the Sudan government to include their concerns in the U.S.-backed peace process that was under way to resolve the dispute between the northern and southern regions of Sudan. When that effort failed, African tribal activists believed that only taking up arms, as Garang had done in the south, would allow them to get world attention.
In February of 2003, the Sudanese Liberation Movement/Army (the “SLM/A”) was formed, with a force of about 4,000 rebels, to act on the grievances of the African population of Darfur, and to a lesser degree, the grievances of the population of Darfur as a whole. The Justice and Equality Movement, with fewer than 1,000 rebels, had been established in 2002 but later joined the SLM/A in several campaigns against government forces. At first, the SLM/A appealed to both Africans and Arabs, going so far as to appoint an Arab as commander of the SLA in south Darfur. The SLM/A described its goals in terms meant to appeal to the broadest cross-section of Darfur: to protest “policies of marginalization, racial discrimination, exclusion, exploitation, and divisiveness” with the goal of creating “a united democratic Sudan on a new basis of equality, complete restructuring and devolution of power, even development, cultural and political pluralism and moral and material prosperity for all Sudanese.” On April 12, 2003, Sudan’s President Bashir downplayed the SLM/A’s rebellion, calling it “acts of armed banditry.”
Two weeks later, on April 25, 2003, the SLM/A made a major raid on a Sudanese military air field in El Fashar, killing a hundred soldiers, destroying airplanes and helicopters, stealing weapons, ammunition and vehicles, and kidnapping the head of the Sudanese Air Force. The government of Sudan then decided to treat the SLM/A as a major threat.
The government strategy, employed against Garang and his rebel allies in the south of Sudan, had been to bomb from the air and employ Arab tribesmen to launch raids on the ground. In the fighting which erupted in the West, the regular army could not be trusted to fight against their neighbors and families because a majority of Sudan’s army troops were from Darfur. So the Sudanese government called on Darfur’s Arab tribal leaders to defend their homeland against the SLM/A rebels. In a move later regretted by Sudanese leadership, the Sudanese government called on Musa Hilal, sheikh of his Arab tribe, to lead the Arab militias. His selection was problematic because he had recently been prosecuted, imprisoned and banished from Darfur for among other reasons, having been a long-time instigator of skirmishes by the Arabs against the Fur and other African tribes. With arms and funds from the government, he set up a training camp for militias that were to be part of or associated with the Popular Defense Forces (non-military groups utilized by the government to fight rebels) and rallied Arabs to the cause of suppressing the SLM/A rebellion and populating all of Darfur with Arabs. The Arab militias organized by Hilal and others, referred to by many as the “Janjaweed” (Arabic for horse and gun), have participated in pillaging, looting and raping in Darfur, and together with the Sudanese Air Force and Army, with whom they often carry out their attacks, have killed as many as 300,000 Darfur residents, destroyed 400 villages and caused more than 1.85 million people to flee from their homes to refugee camps in Sudan and 213,000 to escape to neighboring Chad. According to press and NGO reports, the Sudan government has given Janjaweed recruits salaries, communication equipment, arms, and identity cards.
The Janjaweed, along with other armed outlaw groups, continue to terrorize and destroy African villages and often attack people who leave the refugee camps, killing the men and raping the women. The Janjaweed and other outlaw groups have at times made it difficult to deliver necessary food and aid to the refugee camps. On December 21, 2004, Save the Children, U.K., suspended relief operations in Darfur after four of its staff were killed and less than a week later, the U.N. World Food Programme temporarily halted operations because of the violence.
The Sudanese government has not cooperated in acting against the militias nor has it provided information about militia leadership to the United Nations, as requested.