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The Stakes in Darfur


On September 9, Colin Powell declared that genocide was taking place in Darfur in western Sudan. But during a recent three-week visit to Sudan I met few people who claimed that genocide—as distinct from systematic war crimes—was going on there. I spoke with Darfur’s African rebels, who talked about poor schools and hospitals, about soldiers who raped their women, and about Arab nomads whose herds and camels trampled and ate their crops. When I met Arab tribesmen they complained that the rebels were kidnapping their fellows and stealing their camels.

The educated supporters of the rebels I met in Darfur claimed that Sudanese government officials were now rushing to destroy the evidence of the massacres they had approved. They were doing this, my informants said, because Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, has dispatched a high-level team on a discreet mission to investigate Mr. Powell’s claims.

Thus far about 70,000 people are believed to have died in Darfur, fewer than the 100,000 the British medical journal The Lancet estimates to have died in Iraq in the same period. But even if genocide is an exaggerated description of what is happening in Darfur, some 1.6 million people have been forced to flee their homes. And whether the war continues or not, a catastrophic famine is now unfolding there.

On November 18 and 19, the UN Security Council met in Nairobi in Kenya to discuss Sudan—but Darfur was not its main concern. In fact, ever since the rebellion began last year, it has served as a distracting sideshow for most of the Western and African diplomats involved with Sudan. It has diverted time and energy away from the huge efforts that they have invested over the last few years to end the war in southern Sudan, where the Islamist Sudanese government has been fighting black African rebels, many of them Christians or followers of traditional beliefs. That conflict has been going on for almost half a century and, since 1983, is said to have cost some two million lives. At the Security Council meeting the Sudanese government and the southern rebels pledged to sign a comprehensive peace deal by December 31. If this happens, then a large UN peacekeeping force will be deployed. Six and a half years after that, under the agreement, the southern Sudanese could choose to form a country of their own.

For months news reports from Darfur on European television have told a familiar and even repetitive story. They have explained, quite accurately, that because of drought and the expansion of the desert, there has been more and more pressure on the people of the Darfur region to acquire and hold on to land. This has pitted the majority of the African tribes, who are farmers, against the mainly nomadic Arab tribes, whose cattle and camels need extensive grazing land for their annual cycles of migration.

There have been many reports on television and in the press about Africans who have been brutally driven from their villages and are now in refugee camps. They tell of being attacked by the Janjaweed, the Arab militiamen who are often mounted on camels, as well as by Sudanese troops and planes. They have no doubt that the Arabs of the Janjaweed militia are backed by the government in Khartoum. The stories the refugees in the camps told me were remarkably similar and consistent. However, the numbers of people they said had been killed in their villages were always relatively small. It seemed clear to me that the militiamen were aiming more at clearing out the villages than killing large numbers of Africans. Less clear to me, however, was what the African rebels, who had started the conflict in Darfur in February of 2003, actually wanted.

A UN helicopter took me to Golo, a small town high in the Jebel Marra, a rocky plateau studded with stark, sharply peaked mountains. The farmers there grow sorghum and other staples as well as tomatoes, oranges, grapefruit, and other crops that they and their fellow members of the Fur tribe sell for cash. Before the war, they sold their produce in Darfur’s towns and as far away as Khartoum.

Today, like most other towns in Darfur, Golo is held by Sudanese government troops. As in much of the rest of Darfur, the soldiers seldom leave the town, for the area outside it is considered rebel territory. Except for soldiers and police, the Sudanese government administration is more or less absent in Golo, and foreigners have stepped in to provide aid. The Spanish branch of Médecins sans Frontières runs the hospital and GOAL, an Irish charity, and the Danish Refugee Council help feed people, using supplies from the UN’s World Food Programme, half of which comes from the US.

From Golo, you need to walk an hour and a half to get to the nearest rebel base, which is close to a deserted, destroyed village called Debenaira. Behind the village is a mountain called Korongnang Fugo, which means Monkey Mountain. Halfway up I met forty or fifty men of the local detachment of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), the larger of Darfur’s two main rebel movements.

They propped their guns against the wall between two huts in their camp and we sat in the shade sipping tea. I asked them what they were fighting for. I pointed out that Darfur had been independent until 1916 and that the deal that the government appears ready to make with the rebels in southern Sudan meant that in six and a half years’ time southerners will be able to vote in a referendum on independence. Although almost all Darfuris, like almost all northern Sudanese, are Muslims, would they, too, want to live in a Darfur that was reborn as an independent country? Almost all of them looked completely baffled. They appeared to have no idea what I was talking about.

Abulgassim Ahmed Ali, one of the local commanders, said that all his people wanted were their “rights and freedoms.” But what, I asked, did these words mean to him? “People here are farmers,” he said. “When we harvest our crops and take them on donkeys to market, the government”—by which he meant policemen in Golo—“takes money from us.” Then he complained about a lack of water and medical facilities and poor roads.

Another commander in Debenaira, Ali Hamed Fatah, described how last year Arab nomads had come and let their camels, cattle, and goats trample on Debenaira’s fields and eat its crops. A villager had then been sent to complain to the police in Golo, but he was promptly arrested and was still in jail. “So we took up guns,” he said. Then, in October last year, he continued, Janjaweed militiamen, soldiers, and a single bombing plane had attacked the village, killing twenty-one people and forcing its inhabitants to flee. I asked whether the rebel soldiers had been there when the village was attacked and he said yes, they had been.

The Janjaweed have more cattle than us,” Ali Hamed said. “Despite that, they want to take ours by force.” Also, he said, when the government soldiers come to the villages, “they take our women and rape them. Before the war it happened too.” He had other grievances. “We are very poor and want to educate our sons and daughters but, if you have nothing to pay, the teachers can send your children away. Everything is money, you have to pay every month.” At a school I visited earlier in Golo, as many as a hundred children sat on the floor in each class. When I asked how much their fees were, I was told that they were the equivalent of $1 a month. “If you have no money,” Ali Hamed repeated, “your daughter or son cannot go to school. For this reason we started to fight.”

In fact, there has been very little fighting around Golo recently. When I asked Abulgassim why his men did not take over Golo he told me that the rebels and government soldiers had made an agreement not to attack each other. Since the rebel fighters now control the region, the Janjaweed have been driven out; still, none of the Fur who have fled from their villages think it is safe for them to return home.

Many of the rebels were wearing amulets around their necks, some of which were small bottles of water with what appeared to be specks of earth inside. But exactly what these signified, no one could explain. Most, however, were little leather pouches containing verses from the Koran and long texts that the rebels believe will protect them from harm. A fighter showed me one of the sheets of paper that were sewn inside the pouches. I asked Mohammed, my interpreter, to translate it. He was impressed, he said: “This protects you from swords, guns, arrows, and knives. In fact it is very good because it covers just about everything.” Later in Golo’s market I talked to some of the men who were making the pouches. They told me that business was booming. Who, I asked Musa Ali Hamed, one of the men busy cutting the leather, was buying more of them, soldiers or rebels? He looked surprised by what he obviously considered a stupid question. “The rebels,” he replied, “because there are more rebels here.”

From the Debenaira camp Mohammed and I walked back down the mountain. The path to Golo was packed with people, since it was market day. Their donkeys were laden with goods. Women in beautiful, brightly colored clothes were laughing as they trotted past on their donkeys and men in traditional white gowns and turbans stopped to shake hands and talk. I didn’t see a single policeman or soldier on the way back to Golo.

The next day I returned to Nyala, the main town of South Darfur. In the big camps around the towns of Nyala and El Fasher, the situation is very different. The men I talked to there said they are frightened to venture outside these camps for fear of being attacked by the Janjaweed. The women, they said, fear being raped. In Nyala I told Jon Swain, the veteran war correspondent of Britain’s Sunday Times, that my strongest impression of the rebels was that they were engaged in something like a peasants’ revolt in Europe in the fourteenth century. Swain said that although this might be true, that did not mean that their leaders should be seen as having limited political aims. In 1976, he recalled, he had been captured for three months by soldiers of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in Ethiopia. They had, he said, talked in a similar way about land and politics. But then they had gone on to overthrow the government of Ethiopia in 1991 and, to this day, the former TPLF leaders are still in power.

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