While the white world frets over the fate of a few white people getting released from Chad, the killing fields next door in Darfur continues to quietly bury the victims of its casual genocide. Death by war and violence has already claimed a quarter of a million people this century and now malnutrition threatens thousands more. A new UN World Food Programme survey shows the malnutrition rate has actually increased in Darfur since the height of the fighting in 2004. But while the story of the six members of Zoe’s Ark has been reported by over 1,300 news articles, the UN report on Darfur attracted just 117.
It doesn’t help that the Darfur Emergency Food Security and Nutrition Assessment (pdf) is not very sexily named. But the basic fact is that no white people are affected by this assessment. The victims are all, depending on labelling, either “Arab” or “African” or “Darfuri” or “Sudanese”. But what ever they are called, the numbers involved are staggering. Last year, it was estimated that some 3.74 million people were affected by the situation in Darfur.
Other key findings in the report are that the food and security outlook in all three Darfur provinces remains poor for the majority of the population, over two million people. Remote West Darfur (pdf), with no direct border to non-Darfuri Sudan, remains most at risk. 3.7 million out of Darfur’s total of 6.7 million rely on some sort of “humanitarian” assistance. Food production remains scanty, livestock is rare, and markets don’t function due to insecurity and poverty. And the world at large remains, generally, disinterested.
Darfur is well used to the lack of attention. The region was almost unheard of outside Sudan before 2003. Within Sudan it has been mostly neglected since its 19th century colonisation. And even when people started dying in sufficiently large numbers to attract the attention of the media and NGOs, the Americans and their allies were too tied up in Iraq to do anything about it, the UN was hamstrung by lack of funding, and the EU conveniently bickered and contrived to look the other way, like it always does. In the end it was decided it was “African problem” that needed an “African solution” and so the new constituted African Union (AU) had responsibility to solve it.
But this conveniently overlooks history and economics and the very obvious culpability of the West in the tragedy of Darfur. Gerard Prunier entitled his book on Darfur “The Ambiguous Genocide”. By that, Prunier was not trying to claim mass killing did not exist, but rather that the labelling of who did it and who they did it to, and indeed the label of “genocide” itself, have twisted the meaning of what happened in Darfur and how it is generally understood. The west’s quest for pithy explanations of news does not suit Darfur’s complex ethnography and history.
The conventional shorthand explanation is that an “Arab” militia supported by the government in Khartoum, carried out mass atrocities on native “African” tribespeople in a land grab. This explanation overlooks deeper motives and trivialises the ethnic make-up of Central African peoples. It also gives the impression it is violence by Muslim peoples on non-Muslim peoples. However the fact is that almost all Darfuris are Muslims. Unlike the colonial war that the Khartoum government fought against the Christian and animist provinces of the south, the conflict in Darfur had no religious connotation at all. It also overlooked the role played by neighbouring Libya and Chad in the region’s destabilisation.
The population of Darfur is an ethnic mosaic but in skin colour everyone is “black”. Language is often similar too with “African” tribes speaking Arabic. The differences therefore come from Sudanese cultural racism which distinguishes between “Arab” and “zurug” (the local pejorative word for blacks) which may hinge on such factors as the shape of the nose, or the thickness of lips. Intertribal marriages and slave concubines have further muddied the racial waters. And what Sudan considers to be “Arab” would not necessarily be so accepted in the rest of the Arab world. The name Sudan itself derives from Arabic Bilad-al-sudan, "country of the blacks”.
This lack of Arab acceptance makes the Sudanese “Arabs” even more sensitive to its labelling within Sudan. Being described as Arab was a token of civilisation as opposed to African “savagery” and marked out a general change from nomad to agricultural life. This ethnic construction was very much a product of the 20th century. Prior to then, Darfur was the home of migratory peoples south of the forbidding Sahara. Between the 13th and 16th century it was the scene of three major migrations. From the north-west came Nilo-Saharans, from southern Egypt came Nubians and from the north-east came Arab groups. Later, more people arrived from Sudan itself. The last group to arrive were the most powerful. They were the awlad al-Bahar “sons of the river”. The river was the Nile and these riverine Arabs from Khartoum were the most powerful people in the land. They were traders and imams who settled in the towns of Darfur and turned it into a Sudanese province in the 19th century.
Prior to that, Darfur was an independent sultanate dating back to the 14th century, initially led by African tribes. In the 17th century we first hear of the “Fur” people. The Fur had descended from the mountains and overran the plains. Sultan Suleiman “Solungdungo” (the pale man) was the son of a Fur father and Arab mother. The Fur assimilated other tribes to maintain their hegemony and the land became Dar Fur (land of the Fur). At the start of the 19th century, Darfur was a respected political entity, while “Sudan” did not exist as such. The Arabic “land of the blacks” was an arbitrary name that covered many jurisdictions. In colonial times the French also called what is now Mali “Le Soudan”. In the 1821 the then stateless entity to the east of Darfur was invaded by Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt. They defeated the Darfuri who had similar designs and who fled back home to their province.
The Turco-Egyptians gradually extended their colonisation of Sudan, south from Khartoum along the Nile. In 1873 they moved against the sultanate of Darfur and easily conquered it. But in 1881 a quasi-religious organisation known as the “mahdi” under the banner of a mixture of Islamist and Christian Revelatory practices rebelled against the Turkish administration. The Mahdist state then collapsed under an onslaught from the British and they lost control of Darfur back to the sultanate. The British were content to rule with the “lightest of threads” and let the sultan rule as de facto leader of Darfur until 1916.
The fate of Darfur was sealed by World War I. Britain was worried about Turkish propaganda and feared Darfur could become a tool of the Central Powers. Looking beyond the war, they also feared the French influence from Chad in the west. The British invaded Darfur. The sultan resisted and he and his sons were shot dead in an ambush as they tried to flee on horseback. The tragedy of Darfur can be dated to the British occupation. From 1916 onwards, Darfur would only be an appendage of some bigger entity, never an object of attention in itself.
For the next 40 years Darfur was part of the grandly named Anglo-Egyptian Condominium. Although the Egyptians shared naming rights, this was just a clever move by the British to assuage Egyptian ego – the Brits were the real power. A handful of colonists ran the Sudan Political Service and its territory of 2.5 million sq kms. These men included author Wilfred Thesiger who served in Darfur in 1935. But Thesiger was the exception, what little power there was, was isolated in Khartoum. Darfur did not get any attention except when it caused trouble. Rebel Mahdists launched a rebellion from the Darfuri capital Nyala in 1921 and was brutally put down with 800 deaths. But Darfur was mostly ignored, and services including schools and hospitals were non-existent.
In the 1950s, the British were fighting a rearguard action to delay Sudanese independence. Darfur was not considered a threat because of its “backwardness”. Darfur became part of the new nation of Sudan in 1956 and participated in the first elections two years later. The “Umma” party won that election with a significant vote from Darfur. But the region got no thanks from their new political masters and continued to be ignored. The military then took over, with no change for Darfur. In 1964, the Umma won another political victory, again with help from Darfur. Once again however, this carried no clout in Khartoum.
In 1965 neighbouring Chad descended into what was to be a decades-long civil war. Darfur would become central to the conflict with the Chadian guerrilla group Frolinat based in Nyala. The war spilled across the border. In 1969, newly installed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafy came into the war in support of Frolinat. A brief attack by Gaddafy on Khartoum caused the lasting enmity of the Sudanese government, who in retaliation supported an anti-Libyan, Hissen Habre, as new leader of Chad. Darfur was transformed into a three-way battleground between Libya, Chad and Sudan.
In 1984, famine struck the Sahel and Darfur was devastated. Almost 100,000 people died of starvation in the next 12 months. 80,000 people walked across the country to food camps in Khartoum. The Gaafar Nimeiry regime, in power since 1971, was destabilised and the army took control. The army showed little inclination to solve the food problems of the west and Libya took advantage to invade Darfur. Sudan tacitly accepted the temporary Libyan presence on “their” soil. But Chad did not and fought Darfuri and Libyan troops they accused of supporting Chadian rebel forces.
In 1988 Sudan underwent another army coup. Colonel Omar Hassan al-Bashir came to power in protest at the peace settlement with rebel Southern Sudan. The reality on the ground in Darfur continued to be bleak: the ravages of drought, war and lack of government interest left it on the brink of starvation. Slowly but surely, rebel groups began to form dedicated to the fight against Khartoum. A low intensity civil war began. As the Cold War ended, new cultural labels rose which gave a political identity to the concept of “Arabism”. It was to those that defined themselves as “native Arabs” that Khartoum would look to, to carry out the violence to come.
A hitherto unknown Islamist group known as Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) claimed credit for starting a revolt within Darfur. They issued a “Black Book” which outlined the discrimination that Darfuris encountered in their relations with Khartoum. In 2003 rebels occupied El-Fashir airport in a major victory over government forces. Sudanese hardliners opted for a strong response. The army was not deemed up to the job. Instead they recruited “Arab” militiamen known as Janjaweed (“evil horsemen”). First used in the 1980s, the Janjaweed were paid a good salary and given access to Sudanese armoury. It was to be “counter-insurgency on the cheap”.
Russian Antonov airplanes bombed Darfuri cities targeting civilians. After the air attacks finished, the Janjaweed arrived to finish the job. An orgy of killing, destroying, raping and looting followed. They hurled insults at the “Africans” and herded them into camps. The government issued propaganda that the rebels had demanded independence and a share in Sudan’s growing oil revenues. Neither accusation was true. Masses of refuges fled towards Chad or the centre. Aid was not getting through to the neediest areas.
News began to escape about how bad things were in Darfur. In 2004 the Red Cross spoke of an “agricultural collapse”. Khartoum prevaricated and found continual excuses to delay foreign intervention. The west was more interested in the fate of the peace talks between North and South Sudan. But Amnesty International and the International Crisis Group began to give Darfur the media attention it needed.
When the UN spoke of “genocide” the world’s press began its feeding frenzy. Now there was an angle to the story that would sell newspapers: the first genocide of the 21st century. Moral indignation lasted much of the next 12 months. Deaths continued and Sudan refused to admit culpability and talked of “bandits” and “rebels”. After concerted international pressure, the Janjaweed were forced to stop their killing. But peace remains elusive for Darfuris. Conflicts in Chad continue to have reverberations. Government disinterest continues. The world does not have the stomach to help. None of the "humanitarian" solutions address the political inequity at the heart of the problem. Now malnutrition is about to draw its weapons against the stomachs of an already battered people. But the world’s media have moved on elsewhere, unable to turn this grotty complex tale into a simple and compelling narrative.