Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Tragedy in Darfur: Understanding the Conflict

Tragedy in Darfur

By Alex De Waal
Boston Review [October/November 2004]

Alex de Waal is a researcher, writer and activist on African issues. He is a fellow of the Global Equity Initiative, Harvard; director of the Social Science Research Council program on AIDS and social transformation; and a director of Justice Africa in London.

De Waal completed his D.Phil. at Nuffield College, Oxford University in social anthropology. His dissertation was entitled "Understandings of Famine: The Case of Darfur, Sudan, 1984-1985."

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.


Read De Waal's criticisms of the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo's handling of the indictment of Sudanese president 'Umar al-Bashir HERE.

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