Discovering Darfur

No one stamped our passports when we entered Darfur, in western Sudan. There were no Chadian patrols at the border to stop our two-car convoy from crossing and, more importantly, no Sudanese troops on the other side to detain us. For many miles, there were simply no human beings at all, just desert, empty villages, and the occasional corpse of a camel or a sheep.

It was late July, and we had snuck into what the rebel groups that control the area like to call “liberated territory.” But the barren and depopulated landscape we saw before us suggested defeat rather than victory. It took a few hours of driving before we came upon people: a weary group, mostly women, with babies on their backs and random household goods on their heads, making the long trek toward Chad and safety.

Over the past year and a half, since the Sudanese government and allied militia began their scorched earth campaign against the black African population of Darfur, more than 1.5 million civilians have fled their villages. On July 22, the day that two colleagues and I crossed the border into Darfur to investigate human rights abuses, the House and the Senate passed concurrent resolutions declaring the atrocities committed there to be genocide.

By their estimate, based on UN figures, some 30,000 civilians had already been killed.

* * *

“When I was young,” our middle-aged translator said as we drove through the desert, “this area was thick with trees. You couldn't travel through here; it was impossible to cut a path.”

The link between desertification and the conflict in Darfur is much disputed. As the Sudanese government explains it, Darfur is a “tribal conflict” provoked by drastic environmental change. It is the Sahara's inexorable advance southward-turning forest into savannah and savannah into desert that has, in this view, intensified competition for land and water, and caused latent ethnic rivalries to explode into all-out warfare.

By focusing on geography and ethnicity, the government seeks to distance itself from the violence and to feign powerlessness. Yet a visit to the region reveals the speciousness of its account. As in southern Sudan, where a civil war raged for decades, ethnic militias are not independent actors but are used by the government as a proxy force. Villages studded with craters attest to the government's repeated bombing attacks. Unexploded ordinance dropped from airplanes and helicopters offers further proof. And while locals relate atrocities committed by camel-riding Arab tribesmen, they say the men on camels are frequently accompanied by army soldiers in government vehicles.

Stopping at an abandoned village near the town of Farawiye, we spoke to an elegant, white-robed, seventy-year-old man – the area's last remaining inhabitant. His three wives and thirteen children had escaped to Chad, but he had stayed behind in hopes of tracking down the surviving livestock from their herd.

“The bombing started six months before Ramadan,” he told us. Sudanese troops later attacked the village, and Janjaweed stole the animals. All 70 families that had lived there fled. There were no rebels near the village, he claimed; nothing to justify a military attack.

The air offensive that the old man described took place in about May 2003. It was just one month after the Sudan Liberation Army, a nascent rebel group, made a daring and successful attack on the North Darfur capital of El Fasher. Small and little known before the Fasher raid, the SLA quickly gained strength. The Khartoum government, afraid of losing control of the region, began arming and supporting Arab tribal militias. Known as Janjaweed (variously translated as “armed men on horseback,” “evil horsemen,” and “outlaws”), these militias offered the government the foot soldiers it needed to combat the insurgency.

With dark skin and African features, the Arab nomads of Darfur are physically akin to the region's other inhabitants. But as they claim Arab descent and an Arab cultural identity, they make a convenient local ally for the Arabist government in Khartoum.

The Janjaweed have gotten tangible financial rewards from their partnership with the government, even beyond money and weapons. Attacking civilian villages and killing or driving out their inhabitants, the militias have stolen countless herds of livestock: camels, goats, sheep and cows. And what they don't steal, they often kill.

During a visit to Khartoum in September, we tracked down and interviewed Musa Hilal, a notorious Janjaweed leader. We met him at an enormous home in an upscale neighborhood; everything about him spoke of money and power. Toward the end of our interview, we asked how many camels he owned. “It is difficult to say exactly,” he responded, unhappy with the question. “The whole wealth of the tribe is mine.”

* * *

Stripped of their land, their animals, and their livelihood, the impoverished civilians of Darfur now face hunger and disease. Until last May, the government obstructed humanitarian aid to the region, and even now aid agencies are slow to reach civilians in rebel-held territory.

Although a few agencies had carried out assessment missions to gauge the number of people living there and the level of need, international aid had yet to reach any of the people we met during our trip through North Darfur. Many were skinny and listless, and some were sick. Women said that their breast milk had gone dry. They offered up crying babies in the hope that we could treat them. One tiny infant had a red, monstrously swollen hand; others had bulging stomachs and burning fevers.

We found many displaced people living in ramshackle shelters scattered about the hills. Some had little more than a blanket draped over a bush to shield themselves from the wind, the rain and the relentless desert sun. Others hid under canopies woven from branches. With no land to farm and no livestock, many resorted to eating makhet, a small, pea-like wild food that grows on trees.

“It's poisonously bitter,” the locals complained, “we have to soak it in water for three days before it's even edible.”

Stopping in a village that was almost entirely abandoned, we met a group of women and children who had walked for days in search of water. They were angry and desperate. “We have no animals,” they told us, “We don't know how we will live.”

* * *

What was most striking about most of the displaced families we met was what they didn't include: men. Some men had joined the SLA, and some had stayed in their villages while sending their families to safety in the hills, but many were dead. In Um Laota, a village deep inside North Darfur, we spoke with a group of ten women, mostly widows. A young woman with a baby told us that her husband was killed a year ago, when their daughter was only a few days old. Janjaweed executed him while attacking her village together with Sudanese government troops.

“His body is still exposed,” she said. “No one could go to bury it.”

* * *

Survivors of Janjaweed raids recalled the racially-charged language that militias used. Many told us that their assailants yelled “kill the Nuba” or “kill the slaves” while carrying out attacks.

We spoke to a group of women in late July who had been assaulted by Janjaweed just a week before. “'You are abid (slaves),'” they said that the Janjaweed had told them. “You will work for us.'”

An old woman who was hit in the mouth by a Janjaweed attacker, losing a tooth, said he called her a dirty black. “I wasn't fast enough to run away, and he caught me,” she said, twisting the fabric of her ragged dress. “'Why are you still here?' he shouted, 'You blacks must leave.'” That was over a year ago, and she had not returned to her village since.

Some trace the underpinnings of this hatred to a nationalist movement known as the Arab Gathering. Formed in the late 1980s, the Arab Gathering consists of Arab intellectual and political leaders in Darfur who have endorsed an explicitly Arab supremacist agenda. In a 1987 public letter, the group described the “Arab race” as being responsible for “the creation of civilisation in this region,” and argued that Arabs deserved greater political power. A later series of documents attributed to the group went further. Speaking of the “Zurga” (a term that literally means black, but has the additional connotation of slave), they advocated encouraging disputes among Zurga tribes, destabilizing Zurga areas, and killing Zurga leaders.

“They have a 40-year plan to establish an Arab state here,” a Darfurian intellectual who claims to have read their documents told me. “But the so-called moderates among them say that any Zurga who cooperate will be treated well: we'll be Arabized.”

* * *

So what is to be done? Although the UN Security Council has insisted that the violence in Darfur stop, its latest resolutions on the crisis have been weak. The Chinese and the Russians, among others, are clearly determined to block meaningful action. But the failure of international will is partially due to the fact that the United States, which has led the way in calling attention to the Darfur crisis, is at a low point in its international credibility. A telling moment was the palpable skepticism abroad that greeted Secretary of State Colin Powell's announcement that the violence in Darfur constitutes genocide.

Still, there is little doubt that how the human rights and humanitarian crisis in Darfur is resolved will depend as much on international pressure as on the country's internal dynamics. “Carry the message to your country,” the widows in Um Laota insisted, when we spoke to them in late July. “We wait for your help.”

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