Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Crisis in Darfur

Here's an essay I just wrote for my geography class... I found it pretty interesting while I was doing it, and perhaps you will learn something, as I did.

“The bombardments appeared to have been indiscriminate and disproportionate, failing to distinguish between military and civilian targets. The disproportionate use of force constitutes violations of international humanitarian and human rights law,” one UN official said of a recent raid in Darfur.[1]

Unfortunately, quotes like this one have been all too common over the past several years. The country of Sudan has been embroiled in a brutal civil struggle that just seems to be getting worse. Whereas previous civil wars involved the Arab Muslim North pitted against the Christian and Animist South, this conflict pits Muslims against Muslims, and has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands and the displacement of millions.

Since the conflict boiled over in 2003, it is estimated that between 200,000 and 400,000 Darfurians have been killed and over 2.5 million have been displaced by the fighting and destruction of their villages.[2] These disturbing figures have led to accusations of active genocide by the Sudanese government from President Bush and others, but little international action has been taken to curb the ethnic violence.

The former British colony of Sudan is roughly one quarter the size of the U.S and. has a population of approximately 39 million people. It borders Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad, and Libya. It has a decent amount of coastline on the Red Sea as well. However, despite its great surface area, only around 7% of the land is arable. Compounded with droughts, this lack of productive land has brought on severe famines in the past. The only truly good land is in the capital region of Khartoum and along the Blue and White Nile rivers. The only significant natural resource is oil, much of which is controlled by the government and exported to China.3 The region of Darfur, nearly 20% of Sudan’s land mass is both dry and rugged, with very little fertile land and water. Desertification is a serious issue.[3]

The current humanitarian crisis stems from the Arab-dominated Northeast ignoring and oppressing the arid region of Darfur. Sudan’s capital Khartoum has historically ignored much of the country in terms of resources and other aid that governments should provide.
In the mountainous dry region of Darfur, the population began to get restless. Two rebel groups formed. One is known as the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA), and the other is known as the Justice for Equality Movement (JEM).

The SLA historically was a tribal mix between the Fur people for which the region is named, and the Zaghawa. Both the Fur and the Zaghawa are black and Muslim, but unlike the North and in Khartoum, are not Arab. The lines of Arab and black are very blurry in this situation, because nearly all the population is black and Muslim. However “Arabs” are a bit lighter skinned, they speak Arabic, and have traditionally been in power. Although the stated goal of the SLA is to create a “United Democratic Sudan[4]”, the SLA is responsible for myriad attacks on Khartoum government positions in Darfur, and has killed hundreds of soldiers in its raids. The effect of these SLA offensives has caused Khartoum to come down hard on the Darfurian people both with direct use of the armed forces, and through a funded proxy known as the Janjaweed. The SLA has since halved into two factions; naturally one is lead by a Fur, and one is a member of the Zaghawa tribe. They have since skirmished and fought over power and recruitment of new members.

The JEM is a bit more organized and idealistic, and takes its roots from the political process. The 1989 coup by current president Omar al-Bashir was backed by Hassan al-Turabi, then the leader of The National Islamic Front, a powerful semi-militant organization. Through his newfound power in al-Bashir’s administration, Turabi reached out to other regions in Sudan like Darfur who previously had no voice at all. After Turabi tried to limit presidential power through a bill in the government assembly, al-Bashir dissolved the entire assembly of lawmakers. Most of the political casualties were supporters of Turabi, black Muslims mainly from Darfur. These political outcasts returned to Darfur and formed JEM.[5]

Khartoum’s history of excluding Black Muslim tribes from political representation, as well as hoarding oil profits, denying Darfur water, land, and food resources, and refusing to budge on these issues has led to a strong rebel spirit amongst black Muslim Darfurians. However, attacks by the SLA on Sudanese troop barracks and outposts have led to one of the worst humanitarian crises in memory.

Since 2003 the Sudanese military has been violently attempting to quell the uprising in Darfur by any means necessary. Whether it is aerial assaults by Russian or Chinese-made aircraft or through Khartoum’s proxy paramilitaries, the Janjaweed, Darfurian rebels and civilians have been massacred on a regular basis.

The worst offenders in this situation are the Khartoum-funded Janjaweed. Janjaweed is literally translated as, “A man with a gun on a horse.” These traditional nomadic herders and hunters have long been involved in land and water disputes with the stationary non-Arab farmers and villagers. With few productive places left to graze their herds, these nomads began acting as bandits and thieves to survive. At some point, it is said that rogue Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi began to supply the Janjaweed with food and weapons, most likely upon request from Khartoum.[6]

In 2003, when the SLA and JEM stepped up their assaults on government positions in Darfur, the Janjaweed became more violent and began to assert their force. Numerous reports of mass civilian massacres, rapes, burning of children, and the razing of Black Muslims’ villages became all too commonplace. Although the Sudanese government denies funding and controlling these Janjaweed, it is obvious to both Darfurian victims and to international observers that these brutal paramilitaries are heavily funded and well-armed. Now, instead of being on horseback, they have pickup trucks with large caliber machine guns mounted on the back as well as large fleets of SUVs. Also, there are numerous reports of Sudanese aircraft leading the way by bombing villages, while the Janjaweed arrive shortly after to finish the systematic slaughter.[6*4]

The reason that the casualty numbers in this conflict are so high is due to the efficient, near-institutionalized killing by the Sudanese-Janjaweed coalition. According to reports, it is common for the Janjaweed to arrive to a village—sometimes already hit by government forces, sometimes not—and systematically kill all the men, women and children. Most disturbing are the acts of throwing children into fires, mass rapes of women, and burning entire settlements to the ground. The ones who escape the massacre of their villages sometimes die of exhaustion, starvation, and dehydration in the rugged, dry terrain. The obliteration of entire Black villages is not an isolated event or two. It is estimated that over 1,600 villages are the victims of these attacks (see map).[7]

Black Darfurians who were able to escape their villages to seek refuge have ended up in squalid, sprawling, understaffed camps plagued by disease, lack of shade, lack of water, and few medical supplies. Although a number of aid organizations such as the Red Cross are trying to provide more staffers and supplies, the surrounding areas are too dangerous. Janjaweed periodically attack these camps, and patrolling SLA forces are accused of killing a handful of aid workers and African Union (AU) peacekeeping forces and constantly skirmish with government supporters.2 Also, in addition to two large aid organizations pulling out, Khartoum has consistently hampered the process of allowing more workers in by beaurocratic and administrative red tape.2 Unfortunately, this means that even if Darfurian refugees escape the hails of bullets and fires of the Janjaweed, they could very well die in camps.

Another issue that has drawn ire from the international community is the crossing of state lines by Janjaweed and Sudanese military forces. Neighboring Chad, already dealing with the influx of thousands of possessionless, starving Darfurians, has had to engage Sudanese military and Janjaweed forces who have pursued refugees over the border. There have been a handful of deadly firefights after the Sudanese violated Chad’s borders.3 These events have stirred up outrage because it is obvious that these forces have orders to pursue refugees at any cost, even if it means crossing another country’s borders and engaging its soldiers.5

The crisis in Darfur is approaching year four, and it appears that there are no signs of it being over anytime soon. Despite international condemnation by the US, the UN, and countless other nations, The Sudanese military and Janjaweed are still systematically ridding the land of non-Arab villagers. There is no evident solution. Khartoum has consistently refused to admit a large UN peacekeeping force, and under-funded AU troops have been ineffective at best in quelling the killing and displacement of so many people. Sudan has created a major humanitarian crisis, and its government appears unwilling to help fix it, but instead is consciously enabling a genocide to persist.


[1] “UN rights unit calls Darfur bombardments ‘indiscriminate and inappropriate’”. No Author. United Nations Offficial Website. May 11, 2007.
[2] Darfur's Aid Groups on the Front Lines. (2007, March 12). Christian Science Monitor,
[3] (2007). Sudan. Retrieved May 16, 2007, from CIA World Factbook Web site:
[4] Plaut, Martin (2007). Who Are Sudan's Darfur Rebels?. Retrieved May 16, 2007, from BBC Web site:
[5] Flint, J, & De Waal, A (2006). Darfur: A Short History of a Long War.New York: Zed Books.
[6] Gerard, Prunier (2006). Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
[7] Baldauf, Scott (2007 April 13). Now, See Darfur Crisis For Yourself. Christian Science Monitor,