Darfur Crisis: From the inside

mosquePolo’s Bastards’ Contributor, Vince Gainey has recently returned from a 6 week posting in the middle of the Darfur Crisis in West Sudan with a major international aid agency. Previously, Vince has spent time in The Sudan both in the 80’s and the 90’s, accompanying cross-border aid convoys into northern Ethiopia, following the big famine. He also worked in the western provinces of Kordofan, and in Darfur, on longer-term development programmes and, more recently, has spent time in Southern Sudan, managing a major aid and humanitarian programme.

Sudan MapHere, Vince describes how The Sudan has managed to spiral out of control and into the situation it currently finds itself in. – Editor.

Sudan, quite frankly, is a mess. In fact, it has pretty much always been a mess, but the mire is getting deeper by the day. Having just been on the verge of clambering out of 20 years of conflict in the south, and with a peace agreement within spitting distance, Darfur then erupted. The two issues are not of course unconnected: The SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) rebels of south Sudan have been fighting the Islamist Government in Khartoum for 20 years in order to achieve greater regional autonomy in the south and a greater share in the wealth of the Sudan as a whole. The oft-vaunted public message about this being a Muslim-Christian conflict, is a gross and inaccurate over simplification of a far more complex conflict.

In October 2002 a cessation of hostilities between Government and SPLA forces was declared and since then the two sides have been edging closer to a comprehensive peace agreement that will give the south a high degree of political autonomy (including exemption from Sharia laws) and, after a proposed 6 year interim period, allow a referendum to give the south the opportunity to opt for total separation from the north.

With peace close in the south, other marginalised peoples of Sudan saw their chance: The peoples of Darfur in the far west have long been isolated from political and economic power in Sudan. This isolation has cost them dear in terms of development and the region shows few signs of having benefited from the oil revenue that has purchased new warplanes, and tanks, and rebuilt the government ministries in Khartoum. Darfur has always been bandit country out on the fringes of society and the law. Much of North Darfur is open desert where Arab nomads have always been the only inhabitants tough enough to survive and, through that toughness, have exercised their own laws and codes far divorced from central government.

West Darfur is the mountain fastness of Jebel Marra, rising to over 10,000 feet above the desert, high and cool, and inhabited by the Fur people (“Dar Fur” means Land of the Fur). South Darfur is savannah country inhabited by farmers of more African extraction, and seasonally by nomads, using the green lands to feed their cattle and camels in the dry season from October to June.

Darfurians have had little opportunity to benefit from the political process to date or from the income flow from Sudan’s increasing oil exports (over 300,000 barrels a day now, and rising). Scattered armed resistance throughout the state crystallised in 2003 into a full armed rebellion against the central government, led by two military factions; the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the latter having a strong Islamic agenda, being closely aligned to the Islamic Ideologue, Hassan El Turabi, former Eminence Grise of the current government and since 2001, their Bete Noire.

mosquePicture: The relative normality of life in Khartoum; The Friday afternoon ‘Dervish’ dances by the Sufi followers of the Saint Hamed en Nil in Omdurman.

The SLA launched a surprise attack on El Fasher, the state capital of North Darfur in April 2003, and this attack acted as the catalyst for a major government offensive against both rebel movements. The Government, on the verge of ceding much power in the south, were determined that this pattern would not be repeated elsewhere in Sudan, and so cracked down hard on the Darfur rebellion. This crackdown included a full conventional military offensive but also the arming and mobilisation of Arab militias to terrorise the ‘African’ population of Darfur, seen as the backbone of support for the rebellion. This technique has been used extensively in south Sudan in recent years where similar Arab militias known as ‘Murahaleen’ have massacred and driven Nuer and Dinka nomads from their homes in the southern oilfields to clear them for major oil exploitation.

The Government has cynically exploited the rivalries between farmers and herders (familiar across the world where these lifestyles clash) to arm the Arab herders and use them as a proxy army against the farmers, seen as the main supporters of the rebel movements. The Arab militias have come to be known to the world as ‘Janjaweed’, a word that means bandit or outlaw. This is a serious misnomer though, as all Arabs seen on horses or camels have been tagged Janjaweed when they are simply the traditional nomads of this region. All the peoples of Darfur are Sahelian or Saharan people where African and Arab have become mixed, blended and confused. At face value there is little to distinguish a so-called “Arab” or “African”. Such distinction is more a state of mind than anything overtly physical. All the peoples of Darfur are Muslim; there is no religious element to this conflict.

Such has been the success of this tactic that whole regions of Darfur are now effectively emptied. The villages are burnt, the fields abandoned and the people driven into vast camps for the internally [eternally? – Editor.] displaced. Many have died, perhaps 50,000, though figures are unreliable and up to a million are in the camps, either inside Darfur or across the border in Chad. Food production in Darfur has hence, ground to a halt. It is now the middle of this year’s rainy season, and with the farmers off the land, there is no prospect for resuming production for at least another year into the 2005 rainy season, if security permits. The crisis is therefore actually only just beginning, as the international community must now commit itself to feeding these one million plus displaced people for at least the next year

Despite the rhetoric of the UN, the US Government, the European Union and others, the Government of Sudan has not made significant progress in the last month on bringing the militias under control and protecting their civilian population. Attacks still happen, militias still terrorise the population outside the camps and women are still being raped in large numbers when they step out of the relative safety of the camps to collect fuelwood and water. The militias now are a law unto themselves. Darfur is wild country where there was always little government control. Now that the tiger has been given its teeth there is little anyone can do to bring it back under control, even if the Government seriously wanted to.

Author: Vincent Gainey

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