Disaster in Darfur

2004: The war in the west of Sudan is the outcome of a ruthless divide-and-rule policy pursued by successive national governments in Khartoum. It reveals the decay of the state, the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of violence, and fatal inconsistencies in the policies of western countries.

By John Ryle  •  12 August 2004  •  New York Review of Books  •  Afterword  •  Posted 2016  •  3,948 words

Darfur is a 160,000-square-mile expanse of desert and savannah, an area the size of Texas or Spain, with five or six million inhabitants, that spreads out from the fertile slopes of Jebel Marra, the mountainous zone in Sudan’s far west. Remote from the country’s political heartland on the Nile, it is linked to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, by several hundred miles of rough dirt road and an intermittently functional single-track railway.

Over the last sixteen months a disaster has been unfolding in Darfur, one that is agonizingly familiar to observers of Sudan during the past two decades. In response to an insurgency on the part of rebel groups demanding greater political representation in Khartoum, R&C - Disaster in Darfur-1the government of General Omar al-Bashir has unleashed a scorched-earth policy across large tracts of the province. Locally recruited militias—armed and often commanded by Sudan army officers in combined operations with helicopter gunships—burn and loot villages in rebel areas, raping women and killing men, forcing the survivors to flee west across the border into Chad, or else to seek refuge in government-controlled towns and camps in Sudan, where they are under the control of those responsible  for their degradation.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the conflict. Over 100,000 of them are in camps in Chad.  Thirty thousand may already have died. Many more still inside Sudan—trapped in the impending seasonal rains without assistance—are likely to perish from malnutrition and epidemic disease. Recent visitors to rebel-held areas report seeing the remains of young men, shot at close range, the victims of extra-judicial executions by Sudanese troops. A cease-fire between the government in Khartoum and the rebels has broken down; the international aid effort has been put in jeopardy by government obstruction and the delay of emergency relief. Despite much-publicized visits by Colin Powell and Kofi Annan to Sudan in June, demands by the UN and other international bodies that the militias be disarmed have not been met.

End to conflict in the south; start of war in the west

The crisis in Darfur comes at a time when Sudan’s other war, the war in the south, seems to be on the point of resolution. In May, after two years of sustained diplomatic pressure, primarily from the United States, the government of Sudan signed a preliminary peace agreement in Naivasha, Kenya, with the southern rebels, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), to end the twenty-one-year conflict in the south. (This is a war in which, to date, the death toll has well exceeded that of Darfur.)

For the US administration the Naivasha Agreement promised a rare foreign policy achievement, one that could offset growing doubts about Iraq and bring some luster to the 2004 election campaign. But success in southern Sudan, such as it is, has been eclipsed by the international outcry over the events in Darfur, which a number of human rights organizations are characterizing as genocide. Today the US administration is in the awkward position of commending the Khartoum government for the Naivasha Agreement, while threatening it with sanctions over Darfur. Yet the conflicts are similar. Both have their origin in the decay of the Sudanese state; and in each case the Sudan government’s response has been the same.

The US administration’s present difficulty is the result of a policy that has been shaped not by any analysis of the long-term problems of Sudan but rather by considerations of domestic US politics. The impetus behind the decision to revive the north-south peace process was the need to satisfy two opposing points of view in the Bush administration: that of the evangelical Christian lobby, which regarded the north-south civil war as an attack by an Islamist dictatorship on the Christian population of southern Sudan (most southerners are non-Muslims), and that of the State Department, where officials saw a chance to do business with a regime that, while remaining Islamist in name, had purged itself of some of the hard-core ideologues that had guided it up until the late 1990s (and of such foreign guests of the government as Osama bin Laden and Carlos the Jackal). State Department officials argued that this strategy of engagement would deter Sudan from cooperating in future with international terrorist groups.

To reconcile the two views—that of the evangelical lobby and that of the State Department—the war in the south had to be brought to an end. And this is what a succession of high-level US officials, with assistance from the UK, Norway, and the regional organization IGAD (the Intergovernmental Authority on Development) have managed to achieve, for now at least. The Naivasha Agreement is the result not of war weariness on the part of the belligerents, but of sedulous carrot-and-stick negotiation by the United States. As John Garang, the leader of the SPLM, recently told the Voice of America, “This peace agreement was reached, not necessarily because the parties wanted to, but because both parties were forced to.”

The agreement is a diplomatic achievement. But it does little to tackle the wider political problems that have afflicted Sudan since independence: the neglect of areas such as Darfur that lie outside the central zone of the Nile valley, the decay of the national judicial system, and the subversion of administration by the security agencies that have proliferated since the present government seized power in 1989. The price of the agreement in the south, furthermore, has been the exclusion from the peace process of all but the two warring parties, the government and the SPLM, both of which came to power by force of arms. Other political forces and regional interests in Sudan and other conflicts, north and south, have been sidelined, including those in Darfur.

In this respect, the timing of the insurgency in Darfur was dictated by the Naivasha Agreement. Low-level fighting among communities in western Sudan (all of which are Muslim, apart from some groups of recently displaced southerners) has been endemic since the late 1980s, when a war broke out between Arabs and Fur, two of the ethnic groups involved in the present conflict. During the 1990s, the apparent impunity enjoyed by militias drawn from the Arab communities in Darfur—and the growth of their political influence—confirmed anxieties on the part of the Fur and other non-Arab groups that they were losing political ground. In particular, they feared that a peace agreement in the south would strengthen the government in Khartoum domestically and internationally, locking them out of the national political process altogether.

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In early 2003 two loosely allied armed groups, the Sudan Liberation Movement (the SLM, not to be confused with the SPLM, the Southern rebel group) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), mounted a series of attacks on government posts in Darfur. The government response was to rapidly escalate its support to the Arab militias—bands of horsemen known pejoratively in Darfur Arabic as Janjawiid—with the results to be seen in Darfur today.

The crisis is connected to the Khartoum government’s war with the SPLM in another key respect. In the harrowing of Darfur there is a clear continuity with the government’s earlier military strategy in the south. Darfur has been described as “Rwanda in slow motion.” But more significantly, perhaps, it is southern Sudan speeded up. For two decades in the south successive Khartoum governments have employed the same counterinsurgency techniques as in Darfur today, with similar results. During the 1980s and 1990s Arab militias from Darfur and neighboring Kordofan—similar to the Janjawiid but known by the term murahaliin (a word for a nomadic advance guard)—were deployed against communities in SPLM-controlled areas of Bahr-el-Ghazal, the province to the south of Darfur. The famines that afflicted Bahr-el-Ghazal in 1987–1988 and 1998–1999 were, to a significant extent, the result of these attacks and those of other Government-backed militias. Mortality figures can only be guessed at, but they were in the hundreds of thousands, comparable with those projected for Darfur in the coming months.

These attacks were coordinated by Sudan government military intelligence and sometimes accompanied by aerial bombardment, as in Darfur. An ideology of Muslim religious and Arab racial superiority was used to justify them. Similar tactics, including mass rape, were used against the Nuba of Kordofan, another group involved in the southern rebellion. And as recently as last March, well after the cease-fire in the south, government-backed militias launched systematic attacks on villages in SPLM-controlled areas of the Upper Nile.

In the case of the south, where the victims were non-Muslims, the official rhetoric justifying the attacks used the vocabulary of holy war, of jihad. Murahaliin were transformed into Mujahideen. But the unofficial rhetoric of the conflict was racial, employing the terms abid (slave) and zurga (from a root-word meaning “blue,” a word that is a euphemism for blackness, used in Sudanese Arabic to refer to non-Arabs). This terminology bears the weight of a history of discrimination and exploitation in Sudan, where ethnic groups claiming Arab descent have assumed superiority over others.

Arabs and Africans: a questionable dichotomy

In the case of Darfur, the inhabitants are all Muslim (with the exception of the comparatively recently displaced southerners), but the province is a patchwork of Arab and non-Arab groups, of which the Fur are one of many. In the present conflict, in the absence of religious difference, it is racial rhetoric that has come to the fore. Adherents of the two rebel movements, the SLA and JEM, are drawn, in varying proportions, from the three major non-Arab, so-called “African” groups in the province, the eponymous Fur, the Massaleit and the Zaghawa, while the Janjawiid are drawn from a number of pastoral Arab tribes who move in the same territory and compete for natural resources and political power.

It is only recently, however, that the division between “Arab” and “African” has achieved its present level of political significance in Darfur. The distinction is not a straightforward one. The Islamic presence in Sudan as a whole originates from the Arabian peninsula: over centuries of Islamization many indigenous peoples in the Nile valley came to claim Arab ancestry, to speak Arabic rather than their own languages, and to embrace the culture of Arabia. Thus about half the inhabitants of northern Sudan (a term which includes the western provinces such as Darfur) are, by their own definition, Arabs. Non-Arabs — who, despite the term “zurga”, may well be physically indistinguishable from Arabs — retain their indigenous languages, though Arabic is the national lingua franca. From this point of view Sudan can be said to be an Arab country only to the extent that United States is an Anglo-Saxon country, if that.

The nomadic Arabs of Darfur, who provide the recruits for the government-controlled militias, are a world away from the settled Arab elites who control the state. They are closer, in most ways, to their non-Arab neighbors, even in the Arabic they speak. (The word “Janjawiid”, for instance, by which the militias are known, and which has achieved global currency in international coverage of the crisis, was unknown elsewhere in the country until the present crisis.) In Darfur, moreover, ethnic distinctions are changeable: nomads and farmers share the same territory; they may intermarry even as they compete for land and water; individual Fur and others who acquire cattle can be incorporated into Baggara lineages, becoming Arabs within a generation.

Darfur: a history of misgovernment

A doctrine of solidarity among Arab groups throughout Sudan is increasingly invoked to link the pastoral Arabs of the west to the Arab-dominated central government. The rebel groups in Darfur, however, prefer to stress a history of discrimination against the region as a whole as the cause of the war, rather than the ill-treatment of non-Arabs per se. The internal history of conflict and cooperation between ethnic groups in Darfur is one of Balkan complexity. As in the Balkans, differing interpretations of this history become part of the conflict.

As a political entity, it may be noted, Darfur pre-dates the present Sudanese state by several centuries. An independent sultanate that controlled the desert trade route between West Africa and Egypt, it embraced Islam in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. Though named for the dar (homeland) of the Fur people, the sultanate drew its administrative elite from a number of ethnic groups, including Arabs.  In the 1880s, Darfur became embroiled in resistance to the uprising against Turco-Egyptian rule that was led by the Mahdi, a millenarian Islamic religious leader from north central Sudan.  At this time the sultanate was overrun by the horseback cavalry of the Baggara — cattle-keeping Arab pastoralists in the West — who were allied with the Mahdist forces.  In certain respects, this period of Sudan’s first experiment with radical Islam, which ended with the British invasion and defeat of the Mahdi’s successor in 1898, bears comparison with the present time.

The sultanate was briefly restored after the British defeat of the Mahdi in 1898, and then, in 1916, it was incorporated by force into the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. For fifty years thereafter, under British rule, Darfur, like southern Sudan, was a neglected outpost of empire. It was during this period, in the central northern region of the country, that the leading families of the settled, Arabized tribes along the Nile (including the descendants of the Mahdi) consolidated their control of trade and commercial agriculture and ultimately —as independence approached — the institutions of the state, which they have continued to dominate, under both military and democratic regimes, since independence in 1956.

The current military-Islamist regime of General Omar al-Bashir, which is known as the Ingaz (Salvation) government, came to power in a coup in 1989, after overthrowing the elected government of Sadiq al-Mahdi, grandson of the Mahdi.  But this new regime did not mark a break with the hegemony of the central riverain Arab groups. The power behind the throne in the Salvation government, until a split in 2001, was the Islamist thinker Hassan al-Turabi, who is Sadiq’s brother-in-law. Turabi was, however, the architect of a new Islamist program that aspired to reach beyond the Arab elites to include Muslim non-Arab peoples in Darfur and elsewhere. Today Turabi languishes in Kober prison in Khartoum, a victim of the split in the government, accused of links to one of the rebel groups in Darfur, the Justice and Equality Movement. And the Salvation government, like its civilian predecessor, seems to have reverted to an Arabist agenda, attempting to control the west of the country, as it attempted to control the south, by divide and rule.

Control of the peripheral regions of Sudan has thus come to depend on a strategy that combines administrative neglect with ethnic polarization and the clandestine, state-sponsored violence of government-backed militias such as the Janjawiid. The present government’s indiscriminate use of this strategy—its deliberate disruption of the balance of enmity maintained among pastoralists and between pastoralists and settled people—combines with the indiscriminate spread of weaponry to make great tracts of the country ungovernable. In the south and the west guns are now ubiquitous. “Kalash au bilash; kalash begib al kash,” runs a current catchphrase, “You’re trash [nothing] without a Kalashnikov; get some cash with a Kalashnikov.”

What can be done?

What is to be done about a regime that visits such evils on its citizens? In the short term there must be free access for international aid agencies to all areas of Darfur, over borders and across lines between government and rebel-controlled zones. This is the only way to reduce mortality among those displaced by the conflict; it should be the immediate focus of donor and UN pressure. Beyond this, it is necessary to establish an effective international monitoring regime, in order to ensure the protection of civilians and unimpeded access to them. A team of military observers from the newly born African Union is currently being deployed in Darfur, but their number is far too small for the task and their mandate too limited.

To prevent more killing—and the concealment of crimes already committed—the international presence in Sudan would need, in order to be genuinely take on responsibility for this long-term political emergency, to establish an unprecedently broad-based field information network, one that could match that of the Sudan government’s own security forces. Short of a serious threat of external military intervention, though, it will be difficult to achieve this. Even now, with evidence of war crimes mounting by the day, there is no international unanimity in condemning the government of Sudan. A general UN arms embargo would be opposed, for example, by China, which, in return for oil from fields in southern Sudan, has, in recent years, provided the Sudanese government with three new arms factories.[9] Such an embargo would, in any case, do little to stem the flow of weapons within Sudan. An international tribunal on the Yugoslav or Rwandan model is something to be pursued. This, though, is a long-term project that will not resolve the immediate crisis.

The United States and the European Union have both demanded the disarmament of the Janjawiid and said that they will impose sanctions and travel restrictions on militia leaders and the government military officers who control them. In the case of the Janjawiid, though, as a former governor of Darfur, Ahmed Direig, has pointed out, an international travel ban is meaningless: these are not people who have cause or desire to leave Sudan.[10] And in the case of the Sudanese military, where does responsibility stop? The government of Sudan is in thrall to its security forces. The proxy militias that are used to devastate civilian lives have become the means by which the government remains in power.

The ruthlessness of the government’s response to the Darfur insurgency is a sign of fear: any hint of weakness is liable to encourage other insurgencies in the east of the country, where rebels already control an enclave on the Eritrean frontier, and exacerbate the split in their own ranks—the split that has led to the incarceration of Hassan al-Turabi. To limit responsibility for military strategy in Darfur, or in Southern Sudan, to specific officials in the internal security agencies or military intelligence is not plausible. If anyone is guilty it must be the highest authority, the commander in chief, the head of state.

In 2002, in northern Bahr-el-Ghazal (in the SPLM-controlled part of the country to the south of Darfur), after years of international condemnation of the abduction and enslavement of local people by Government-backed Murahaliin militia groups — and years of denial of official involvement—raids on villages ceased when the United States stepped up diplomatic pressure on the Sudanese government. Claims that the Janjawiid are beyond government control are similarly unconvincing. It is clear that, when it wants, the government can call off the dogs of war.

Currently it appears to be discreetly reining in the Janjawiid (and clandestinely incorporating some of them into regular military forces). As of this writing, aerial attacks on villages in Darfur have diminished, though they have not ceased. Barring a major offensive on the part of the rebels, it seems likely that the scale of government abuses will be reduced, leaving a long aftermath of displacement and famine, affecting a million people or more, to be dealt with by yet another huge international emergency relief operation.

In this way the government may yet manage to evade growing international condemnation, resume its deceptive engagement with donor countries, and, if the Naivasha Agreement holds, benefit from US, EC, and World Bank funding for the reconstruction of the country. While the militias remain, though, there is no guarantee that they will not be redeployed—and there will be no safety for the people of Darfur.

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In Jabarona

Earlier this year I spent a day in a shanty town on the outskirts of Khartoum, a place of mud bricks and plastic sheeting where many famine-displaced westerners and southerners have come to live. The shanty town is called Jabarona; the name means “we are forced”.  In Jabarona I took tea in a bar called Machakos. This name, by contrast,  bespeaks optimism: Machakos is the Kenyan town where the early stages of negotiations for the north-south peace agreement took place.

“When the agreement has been signed,” the owner told me, “and the SPLM comes to Khartoum, we will give this bar a new name. We will call it ‘New Sudan’.” He appeared confident that these events would come to pass.

The Naivasha Agreement has raised high expectations among Sudanese, both Northerners and Southerners. The dimensions of the commitment made by the United States, as its principal guarantor, are considerable, arguably as great as those in Afghanistan or Iraq. The agreement prescribes a six-year transition period during which there will be national elections and, most importantly, a referendum on the fate of the south and other disputed areas — in order to decide whether these will remain part of Sudan or form a separate state.

Holding the two warring parties to this agreement, and ensuring the proper conditions for elections in which the Sudanese, after two decades of military dictatorship, have the chance to decide freely who will govern them—these are the challenges that, after the immediate humanitarian demands in Darfur, face the US and other donor countries.  In view of the consistent bad faith of the Sudanese government, it is unlikely that the process will be straightforward.  And judging by the record of the donor governments over the past twenty years of emergency relief programmes in Sudan, the prospect of concerted, long-term, informed attention from them is doubtful too. But the Naivasha agreement offers the only chance there is of breaking the cycle of state violence and rebellion in Sudan, and bringing hope for the future to Africa’s largest and most diverse country. ★


The original printed version of this article suggested, inadvertently, that with the departure of Hassan al-Turabi, the government of Sudan had been purged of “hardcore Islamists”. This interpretation of events is the one that was promoted by US government officials eager to advance the peace agreement between the Sudanese Government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in the south. But the 2001 split in the ruling party, rather than being a conflict between ideologues and pragmatists (or between hawks and doves) is better characterised as a power struggle between individuals. A number of prominent figures who remained in the government after the split certainly had Islamist credentials to match those of Hassan al-Turabi. They included the Minister of Defence, Major-General Bakri Hassan Saleh, and the Vice-President, Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, who is Hassan al-Turabi’s former protégé. According to the International Crisis Group (Darfur Rising, March 2004), “the rivalry between Vice-President Taha and his ex-mentor Turabi for control of the Islamist movement and the country is being played out in Darfur, with civilians as the main victims.” (Thanks to Gérard Prunier and Gill Lusk regarding this point.)

Three useful pieces on Darfur, by Abdullahi an-Naim, Alex de Waal and Samantha Power appeared soon after the present article. See also Q & A with Alex de Waal and Tajudeen Abdul-Rahman (Blackelectorate.com) and de Waal’s Tragedy in Darfur.

During the second half of 2004 large parts of Jabarona, the shanty town in Omdurman mentioned in the article, where many displaced southerners and westerners live, were razed to the ground by order of the government, one of a series of similar demolitions, making its inhabitants homeless once more.

During the subsequent decade the war in Darfur continued with varying intensity, rebel factions proliferated, peace talks came and went with no resolution of the conflict, the NCP remained in power in Khartoum, and the suffering of the people of Darfur continued unabated.


  • See John Prendergast’s Sudan’s Ravines of Death, op-ed in The New York Times, July 15, 2004.

  • Organizations arguing that the massacres in Darfur fulfil the international legal definition of genocide include Physicians for Human Rights and the UK-based campaigning group Justice Africa. (See “PHR Calls for Intervention to Save Lives in Sudan: Field Team Compiles Indicators of Genocide”, June 23, 2004 and Justice Africa’s “Prospects for Peace in Sudan Briefing March-May 2004”).  Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group have not employed the term “genocide”, but both say that Sudanese government forces and Janjaweed militias are responsible for crimes against humanity, war crimes and ‘ethnic cleansing’ (“UN: Impose Sanctions on Sudanese Officials” HRW July 7, 2004; “Sudan: Now or never in Darfur” ICG 23 May 2004)  Amnesty International has called for the setting up of an international inquiry to examine charges of war crimes and “allegations of genocide” (“Sudan: Those responsible for war crimes must be held accountable” )

  • “Peace Agreement Will ‘Lead to a New and Prosperous Sudan,’ Says Rebel Leader,” Voice of America, May 30, 2004

  • Sharif Harir, a social anthropologist from Darfur, chronicled the earlier Fur–Arab conflict in an article entitled “‘Arab-Belt’ versus ‘African Belt,'” in Short-Cut to Decay: The Case of the Sudan, edited by Sharif Harir and Terje Tvedt (Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikaininstitutet, 1994). He argued that Darfur would go the way of southern Sudan if government-sponsored violence was not curtailed. Sharif Harir is currently the chief negotiator for the SLM.

  • Anthony Lake and John Prendergast, “Stopping Sudan’s Slow-Motion Genocide”, The Boston Globe, May 20, 2004.

  • See Facing Genocide: The Nuba of Sudan (African Rights, 1995).

  • A samizdat publication, The Black Book: Imbalance of Power and Wealth in the Sudan, appeared in Sudan in two parts in 2000 and 2002. The book is an ad hominem analysis of the regional and tribal origin of office-holders in governments of Sudan since independence, aiming to show the disproportionate representation at the top levels of government and administration of individuals from a single region of the north, i.e., riverain Arab tribes. An English translation of The Black Book is available on the website of the Justice and Equality Movement

  • See R.S. O’Fahey, “A Complex Ethnic Reality with a Long History: Darfur,” International Herald Tribune, May 15, 2004 and “A Distant Genocide in Darfur” (May 2004); also R.S. O’Fahey and J.L. Spaulding, Kingdoms of the Sudan (London: Methuen, 1974)  and Q&A With Sean O’Fahey  (blackelectorate.com)