At the centre of the conflict in Darfur is the issue of ethnic identity. On the face of it all Darfurians are Muslim and are Sahelian or Saharan people, an age-old mixture of Arab and African resulting from centuries of inter-mixing and inter-marriage.
I sat in the market place in Zalingei in West Darfur one morning, taking tea and ‘Zelabiyah’, sweet, sticky Sudanese Donuts, for breakfast. As I supped my morning tea, some camel riders swayed past and dismounted close by. They tethered their camels, leaving them in the charge of a small boy, and disappeared into the market.
This is how it has always been in Darfur: The nomads and the townsfolk, the farmers and the herders, have always lived side by side in a, sometimes uneasy, symbiosis. The nomads need the produce of the farmers and each year they come to town to exchange hides, leatherwork and dairy products in exchange for grain and other farm commodities. The herders can no longer only survive on the produce of their animals, they too need a more varied diet and have come to depend on the grain and vegetables they are able to purchase from the farmers. They also need cash to purchase commodities like soap, salt and clothing; and, as with the camel riders I saw, must come to town from time to time to make these purchases. In many cases families have become linked through this relationship as nomad has married farmer, and the clear line between ‘Arab’ and ‘African’ has become blurred.
The conflict though, in all its complexity, will have another long-term impact: The simple trading relationship between these people is breaking down. The nomads positively need the farmers to continue producing crops that they can purchase with cash or by exchange. By driving the farmers off their lands, the Janjaweed are, in fact, shooting themselves in the foot. Come the end of the planting and growing season, there will be no crops in the ground to trade. The nomads are not climbing off their camels and starting to plant, so they too will find that they cannot buy the products upon which they have come to depend. Starvation may well come to much of the nomadic population as a result within the next year.
This conflict, therefore, is savagely undermining this relationship between farmer and herder. The armed ‘Arab’ militias, who have come to be known as Janjaweed, now terrorise the farmers and townsfolk. When camel riders appear in the town, there are dark mutterings and palpable tension. It would be outrageous to brand all camelback nomads in Darfur as Janjaweed bandits but this is precisely what’s happening. This fear of course has considerable justification. The presence of mounted armed militias outside the towns and roaming the countryside is fact and these militias still terrorise the remaining rural farming populations and even, on occasion, enter the towns and Displaced Persons Camps. These militias derive from the largely nomadic population and that these nomads consider themselves of Arab extraction is also fact.
Nevertheless, it is also true that not all nomads are bandits and not all nomads are Arab. As explained above, many of these nomadic peoples are in fact of mixed ancestry and, in appearance, differ little from the ‘African’ farmers. One of the most important ‘African’ peoples of Darfur, the Zaghawa, are also predominantly herders, themselves camel and cattle nomads. The Zaghawa are one of the main targets of the Janjaweed armed militias along with Fur farmers, yet in religion, culture and lifestyle these people differ little from each other.
Whilst in Darfur I mostly mixed with the townspeople and those displaced into the huge sprawling camps in El Fasher, Nyala and Zalingei. These were the victims of the armed raiders and as a result, had the most tales to tell regarding their plight. The nomads of Darfur are not villains though, and are themselves, poor people struggling to make a living in a harsh and precarious environment. That a proportion of them have been co-opted by the Government into taking up arms against another section of the population does not condemn the entire pastoralist population as bandits and murderers. Those who have commuted such crimes and those supporting and arming them should be brought to justice one day. There has to be reconciliation between these groups though, unless the Darfur conflict is going to drag on into the kind of eternal conflict we have seen in the south of Sudan for over 20 years.
Since I left Darfur in September the situation has not improved and in recent weeks has substantially deteriorated with attacks on public transport, the deaths of international aid agency staff in a land mine incident (including one colleague I worked with in north Darfur), military incursions into the Displaced Persons Camps, and an upsurge in fighting between the government and rebel movements. These are ominous signs and there is no immediate indication that this conflict is approaching a peaceful resolution.
It certainly is a difficult region in which to travel unless you are working for an aid agency, a journalist or perhaps a PB [sic], although even a PB may find the hazards too much to consider. As the latest exhibition at the British Museum in London shows, Sudan has much to offer, scenically and culturally, for the hardened traveller, but it will still be some years before it is able to share these attributes with most of the rest of the world