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.

The main political leaders of the rebels have by now left Darfur and Sudan and are based in Chad, Eritrea, and other countries; but it is not hard to find prominent people in Darfur who sympathize with the rebel forces. One of the best known, Ahmed Abdel Rahman Adam Rigal, has the title of magdoum, which signifies his importance in the Fur traditional leadership. The family of the magdoum have been among the rulers of the tribe, he told me, “since the beginning of the Darfur Sultanate in the fifteenth century.” A former university professor and civil servant who speaks impeccable, old-fashioned English, the magdoum spoke of the SLA as “our boys who are defending our tribe,” and the land of the Fur people, both from “aggression by Arab tribes” and from the Sudanese government, “because it supports the Arabs openly.” This was a claim I was to hear continually from people in Darfur as well as from diplomats and UN workers. That is, this war is different from Darfur’s past tribal wars because now the Sudanese government had armed the Arab tribes instead of intervening to end the conflict.

The magdoum also told me that in the villages where people had been massacred, the government was exhuming the corpses and removing them. They did not, he said, want them to be found by the UN team sent by Kofi Annan to investigate claims of genocide. This group, consisting of five officials, is led by Antonio Cassese, a distinguished Italian judge who was the first president of the UN’s Yugoslav war crimes tribunal. Like many other things I heard in Darfur it was impossible to verify these claims.

Would the magdoum like to see Darfur’s independence restored? “If we are ill treated,” he said, “of course we won’t stay in the Sudan. This is obvious. We want our liberty, democracy, and…our fair share in government.” If the Fur people got their fair share of wealth and power from Khartoum, the magdoum said, in a view that I was to hear often, “then we have no objection to continuing in the Sudan, provided we have supremacy in our land.”

The second of Darfur’s two main rebel groups is the Justice and Equality Movement, or JEM. Although it is much smaller than the SLA, it is also thought by many to be politically far more powerful because it has strong connections in Khartoum and, as I was told by many Darfuris, close ties to Hassan al-Turabi, once the main Islamic ideologue of the government and now in prison accused of plotting to overthrow it. Khalil Ibrahim, JEM’s leader, once led Mujahideen fighters to take part in the government’s jihad against the rebels in southern Sudan, apparently believing that its people, and then the rest of black Africa, could be forcibly converted to Islam.

One of Nyala’s most prominent imams is Abdulhaye Alrabe. He told me that disaster had fallen on Darfur because, fifty years after independence from the British, “the government is not serious about introducing Islamic laws in our lives. We are not implementing them in the economy or in our social or political life.” If the government had done this, he said, there would be no “killing, burning, robbing, or raping” in Darfur because people would know that all of these things were prohibited by Islam. But then he added something I seldom heard, at least in Western news reports. One reason for the current war, he said, was the fear in Darfur of the apparently imminent deal between the government and the southern rebels, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which includes an agreement on sharing Sudan’s oil wealth. “The government and the SPLA will share the cake, half and half, so there will be no chance for any other Sudanese parties in the north to have a share.”

Broadly speaking, I was told, JEM is dominated by the African Zaghawa tribe and has Islamist aims, while the SLA is dominated by the Fur and has a more secular outlook. Talking to government officials in Khartoum I heard far more about the JEM, much of it consisting of unsupported conspiracy theories. Mustafa Osman Ismail, the Sudanese foreign minister, has even accused JEM of receiving help from Israel, while Saif Addein al-Bashir, the editor of Sudan Vision, a partly government-owned English-language newspaper, told me that he believed that JEM had received money from the German government, apparently interested in the uranium said to be in Darfur. He claimed, without giving me any evidence, that groups inspired by or linked to Osama bin Laden were also helping JEM. Their interest, he said, was in creating chaos, and thus a safe haven from which they could operate.


All the SLA men that I met seemed happy to talk with me; and virtually everyone else I met in Darfur who identified themselves as African gave what appeared to be unreserved support to the rebels. On the other hand, finding open supporters of the Arab militias was difficult, especially in Darfur’s towns. In the past, Arab herders would bring their camels to markets and sell them or trade them. Now many of the herders are cut off from the towns, surrounded by the rebels. At this time of year there would normally be hundreds if not thousands of camels for sale in Nyala’s al-Manash market. On the day I went I counted only twenty-five forlorn-looking animals and was able to talk to their owners for only a few minutes before Sudanese government security men ordered me out of the market. My interpreter, an African, explained that the security men were frightened that journalists would film the owners and their camels and claim they were Janjaweed. This, he quickly added, would be justified, “because they are jans.” Frightened of being overheard by the plainclothes security men, he did not want to say the word Janjaweed.

Before I was expelled from the market, Jaly Abdu Alrahim, a camel dealer, told me that the rebels were constantly attacking Arab herders, and that in June, for example, 3,700 camels and seventy-six people had been captured by the rebels on their way to Libya. The camels had been eaten, he said, and the fate of the people kidnapped was unknown. “If they find us, they kill us,” he said. “Now we have become very poor, because we have lost our camels and our cattle and we are hungry.” (Others told me that the rebels stole camels in order to use them, not eat them.)

In El Fasher, the main town of North Darfur, I met the wali, or governor, Osman Yusuf Kebir. He did not deny that there were militias who were fighting on the government side, but, as far as he was concerned, one could not disarm them without also disarming the rebels, who would otherwise overrun the entire region. When I asked him about genocide he replied that not only was there no genocide in Darfur, but it was literally impossible since there were no distinct ethnic groups. “There are no purely Arab tribes and no purely African tribes,” he said. “Everyone here is intermarried and lives as one family.” Could I tell from their looks, he asked me, whether he and his colleagues were Arabs or Africans? I could not. But in Sudan, whether one is Arab or African is less a matter of skin color and physical features than of culture and identity. Almost everyone I met could immediately identify himself either as an African or as an Arab.

As I write, with perhaps only weeks before the southern peace agreement is to be signed, the situation in Darfur is causing deep anxiety for the UN officials in Khartoum who are assigned to work out security arrangements there. Already the date for signing the long-negotiated agreement has been delayed because attention has been diverted to Darfur. Still, under the leadership of Jan Pronk, a former Dutch politician and the senior UN diplomat, the small team in Khartoum is now preparing for the peacekeeping mission that will be deployed in the south after the deal is signed. Up to ten thousand blue helmets could soon be on their way to southern Sudan. But, as Radhia Achouri, the mission’s spokeswoman, told me, the UN believes it is “not viable to try and consolidate peace in the south and have a war zone in the west. It is one country and the conflicts are related.”

Once the peace agreement in the south is signed, the SPLA leader John Garang will become Sudan’s vice-president and 30 percent of all posts in the central government will go to southerners. But Ms. Achouri fears that southerners will be unwilling to take part in a government that is trying to crush a rebellion in the west. “If Darfur continues the way it is,” she said,

the more the process in the south will be stalled. Garang feels strongly that Darfur must be resolved as soon as possible and the demands of the people of Darfur met by the current government…. If he is in government without Darfur being resolved, that will harm north–south relations.

The UN hopes that Darfur’s rebels will be able to clarify their demands, that a deal for peace in Darfur will be made in talks taking place in Abuja in Nigeria, and that peacekeepers will then be dispatched there as part of the UN peace mission. In fact, some seven hundred monitors from the African Union are already in Darfur with 2,600 more to arrive by the end of the year. They are supposed to monitor a cease-fire that has not been holding up well. In the long term, though, they are, in effect, the advance guard of the UN and they may well, to use UN jargon, be “rehatted” with blue helmets if a deal is struck to end the conflict in Darfur.

Still, while one group of UN officials is concerned with a political settlement for Sudan, the most urgent concern of others is simply getting food to Darfur. The statistics are grim. When I was in the Jebel Marra, I asked people threshing their sorghum how many sacks they expected to fill from this year’s harvest. Everyone said more or less the same thing: they would fill between one and two sacks from plots that usually yielded between eight and eleven.

According to Carlos Veloso, an official of the UN’s World Food Programme, the war has meant that only half of the region’s fields have been planted this year. The rains have been erratic and, in many places where farmers remain in their villages, they have been too frightened by the Janjaweed to tend their crops. As a result Darfur is now facing a catastrophic crop failure. In September the WFP got food to 1.3 million people, out of Darfur’s total population of some 6 million. In October, because the roads were dangerous, that number fell to 1.1 million. For next year, though, the WFP is facing the task of feeding up to 2.8 million people. Even if the fighting in Darfur were to stop immediately and all the refugees could go home, a highly unlikely possibility, the farmers would still not be able to plant again until next spring or harvest until next autumn. Many people, particularly children, are expected to die of malnutrition, especially if fighting and banditry prevent aid from getting to them.


Alfred Taban, the editor of the English-language Khartoum Monitor, comes from the south, and he is also well known in Africa as a longtime BBC correspondent. Unlike Ms. Achouri, he does not believe that the conflict in Darfur will hold up the agreement between north and south; but he fears that the deal, once signed, will be difficult to carry out and that, as is already happening, tensions, both tribal and political, among southerners, will cause more problems. But the sense of excitement that the southerners feel about the coming of peace is almost palpable. As soon as the agreement is signed, Taban told me, he and his newspaper will move to Juba, the likely capital of the south.

The war in the south has caused at least four million people to leave their homes. Some of them have stayed within the south, but as many as three million are living in and around Khartoum, while another half-million are abroad. When I flew to Juba from Khartoum and drove into the town, I felt as if I’d left an Arab country and had arrived in Africa. What concerns UN officials is that as many as 1.2 million southerners may also decide to follow Mr. Taban’s example next year and go home, too. The WFP has already made provisions to feed half a million people.

Juba is in the middle of a government- controlled enclave surrounded by territory held by the SPLA. Even though a cease-fire has been in force since 2003, the roads are mined and remain closed. But there is a mounting sense of excitement here. Every day people are walking in and out of SPLA territory to have a look and report back to their families on whether they can move back to their native villages. The southern agreement was pushed through in large part by the US, whose chief negotiator, John Danforth, was soon after appointed the US representative to the UN and then quit. If it is signed, then it will be not only a major, if rare, diplomatic triumph for the Bush administration but might dramatically affect the lives of millions of people for the better.

For now though, after virtually half a century of war, Juba is in a state of collapse. Its buildings are falling down and its people are exhausted. There is trepidation too. The Red Cross is supplying 80 percent of the drugs used in Juba’s main hospital and important members of its medical staff as well but the place is still stretched to the breaking point. Next year, if the roads reopen and a great many returning refugees start arriving, Dr. Samuel Saleh Lolaku, its director, fears, the number of patients coming to the hospital might triple.

Talking with ordinary people in Juba, I did not find much sympathy for the people of Darfur. Many Darfuris, they said, were enthusiastic recruits for the armies that Khartoum has sent to fight in the south. Still, according to some well-informed people I talked to in both Juba and Darfur, SPLA officers had helped the Darfur rebels as part of their own strategy of bringing pressure on the Khartoum government. I was unable to confirm this. Still, it points to the possible ties between Darfuris and southerners that could lead to their having more cooperative relations.

The officials I met in the governor’s office in Juba were all southerners, except for the man from the intelligence services, who came from Khartoum. Later, in private, one of the southerners confirmed a story I had already heard, that many southern government officials are already in contact with the SPLA about its coming takeover of Juba and other towns; they have been negotiating for jobs in the new southern federal unit that is to be created. They say they have been carrying on “the fight from the inside.”

When I asked people in Juba if they thought that the south would vote for independence in the referendum that they have been promised, they laughed, because they thought the answer so obvious or else they said “absolutely,” or “of course.” The northerners I talked to seemed reconciled to losing the south.

At the Security Council meeting in Nairobi Kofi Annan said that he hoped that a southern deal would serve as a “basis and a catalyst” for resolving the problem of Darfur. If his hopes are not realized, the result could be disastrous. A man I met in Juba told me how his father was involved in the southern mutiny of 1955, which was the starting point of Sudan’s wars. It would be tragic if the conflict in the south ended while Darfur and other regions of the north, which also have deep grievances against Khartoum’s elite, were left to carry on the fight for another fifty years.

—Nyala, Khartoum, and Juba, December 15, 2004

This Issue

January 13, 2005