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Rebellion in Darfur: Behind the Struggle in Western Sudan

Shane Bauer
Date Published: 
April 01, 2007

During late June 2006 in the small village of Bahai in northeast Chad, Osman Boush, an anti-government fighter from Sudan’s western Darfur region, enjoyed moments of peace, letting the day pass over cups of tea and the hum of the radio before he crossed the border back into the land he has been fighting for over the last three years. In the village’s market—a collection of hovels made out of thick layers of tarp and wood—his conversations drifted from world politics to the well being of his family to the status of the revolution in Darfur. In moments of quiet, he would watch NGO jeeps buzz from their ubiquitous walled compounds to the Ouri Cassoni refugee camp thirteen miles away, where many of his family members were living among 30,000 other exiled Darfuri villagers. Half of Chad’s border with Sudan is a dried riverbed marked by a thicket of trees that stretches 800 miles through the Sahelian plains. Walking along cracked ground past herds of sheep and camels crowded under the shade of solitary trees, his army-green gown flittered in the breeze as he neared the border. On the other side, the Sudan Liberation Army’s (SLA) “liberated territory” extends for hundreds of miles. According to Boush, one could drive for days without seeing a government soldier. The SLA is the largest of a growing and ever changing collection of groups referred to generally as “the movement” that have been engaged in armed struggle in Darfur against the central government of Sudan since 2003. Boush said the rebel movement was fighting for people all over Sudan, a country the size of Western Europe, that have been marginalized by the successive oligarchies in power since the country won independence from the British in 1956. “Everyone in Darfur is a marginalized person,” he said. “We have nothing there. The government gives us nothing.” Aside from being scorched by three years of genocide, the situation in Darfur has long been abysmal. Electricity, running water, and telephones exist only in major cities and even there, the services are sporadic. In the countryside, most people drink from the same water sources as their livestock, health clinics are rare, and there are no roads. A former mayor from North Darfur who is now a refugee in Chad, Bokhiet Dabo, said the central government used to make him tax peasants in his area for their livestock. “I paid more than $7,500 a year, but they never paid me and we got nothing. We bought the medicines for the animals by ourselves, we built the schools by ourselves, and we paid the teachers by ourselves.” In an attempt to change Darfur’s legacy of marginalization, people rose up to demand access to basic services, equal distribution of Sudan’s wealth—most of which is monopolized by the government elite in the capital Khartoum—and a more just system of governance. In response to the popular uprising, the Sudanese government has been engaging in a genocidal counter-insurgency campaign in Darfur, targeting the rebel movement’s base of popular support: the Black civilian population. The violence isn't driven by religious animosity though. While the architects of genocide in Khartoum are Muslims, Darfur is an entirely Muslim region as well. Government massacres have lead to the death of 200,000 to 400,000 civilians and the displacement of over 2 million—almost half of Darfur’s population—concentrating 200,000 people into refugee camps in neighboring Chad and the rest into camps and major towns throughout Darfur. Lost generation In the SLA’s liberated territory villages have been laid barren, slowly being swept over with sand as they came into their third year of standing empty. Their residents fled as soon as they saw towers of smoke curling up into the clouds while government forces and their allied militias swept through nearby villages, engulfing them in flames. Burned villages—now collections of circular walls without their straw thatched roofs—have become a permanent stain on the rural landscape. Three years since the counter-insurgency campaign began, the countryside has been virtually “cleansed” of its Black civilian population. Osman said fighting against genocide often seemed hopeless, but he won’t stop until the movement’s demands are met. “My generation is lost,” he said, iterating an oft-repeated sentiment by rebel youths, “but I’m fighting so the next generation can have a real future.” To unveil the level of injustice practiced by successive governments in Khartoum, an anonymous group calling themselves the “Seekers of Truth and Justice” circulated an Arabic publication in 2000 entitled The Black Book: Imbalances of Power and Wealth in Sudan. In a one-time distribution during Friday prayers, they passed out the book in the capital and major cities around the country. The authors used information previously unavailable to the public to unveil the power imbalance favoring the country’s northern region. The book showed that all twelve of Sudan’s presidents and prime ministers have come from the northern region, in which only 5.4 percent of the national population lives. It also uncovered that people from the northern region made up 60 percent of the federal government and held 76 percent of seats on the National Committee for Division of National Wealth. Despite several coups over the past fifty years, the people in power were essentially variations on the same group of northern Arabs that the British installed to rule the African country. Shortly after the book’s publication, the government started to negotiate an agreement with rebels in South Sudan who had been struggling against them for twenty years over issues of wealth and power sharing. As talks began, a cabal of Darfuri politicians, community leaders, and activists demanded that all regions of Sudan be included in the agreement. President Omar al-Basher dismissed them, saying he would “only talk to those who carry arms.” In Muzbad, the SLA’s stronghold in North Darfur, last June, SLA Vice Director of Intelligence Abbas Ibrahim sat in a two-room clinic and recalled the beginning of the uprising. He said their initial attacks were a response to al-Bashir’s lack of concern about the rest of the country. To show they were serious, the SLA, in coordination with Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), launched an attack in April 2003 against military targets in Darfur’s two largest cities, al-Fashir and Nyala, blowing up military aircraft and killing at least 30 officers. “We basically showed him ‘look, we have weapons. Now come and talk with us,’” said Ibrahim. National problem Ibrahim stressed that their problem was a national one, not limited to Darfur, but effecting regions around Sudan. “If you look at Sudan’s past up till now,” he said, “there are people from Western Sudan and Southern Sudan that don’t have their basic needs met. They are controlled by people in the center. All power is concentrated in the capital.” Like Darfur, much of Sudan is desperately poor—the nation’s per capita income was $640 in 2005 according to the World Bank—but the country has no shortage of wealth in natural resources. Today, Sudan is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. The Arab League has called it “the bread basket of the Arab world.” While it used to be one of the poorest countries on earth, the discovery of oil in South Sudan in 1978, now pumping 512,000 barrels of crude a day, has brought billions of dollars to the country. Direct foreign investment also skyrocketed from $128 million in 2000 to $2.3 billion in 2006. In 2005 alone, the country’s GDP rose eight per cent, according to the International Monetary Fund. But while five star hotels and shopping malls pop up in Khartoum, most of the rest of the country is left with next to nothing. Instead of spreading the wealth, the government elite spend oil revenues to crush revolutionary movements that threaten their tight grip on power. After a third of South Sudan’s population, around two million people, were killed during over twenty years of war there, the Southern Sudanese finally won an agreement of wealth and power sharing in 2005. The government agreed to split the oil wealth 50/50 with the South. According to a Sudanese finance minister speaking to the New York Times, the government now dedicates 70 percent of its share of oil profits to military defense. After finally succumbing to the demands of one resistance, it is using its profits to destroy another. As early rebel attacks against government targets became more frequent in Darfur, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir realized his military would not be enough to quell an insurgency in a region the size of Texas. Al-Bashir turned to Musa Hilal, the notorious leader of a racial supremacist organization in Darfur called the Arab Gathering. The organization’s ultimate objective, according to an August 2004 directive from Hilal’s headquarters, was to “change the demography of Darfur and empty it of its African tribes.” In 2003, the government formalized its relationship with Hilal’s militias, known as the janjaweed, or “devils on horseback.” It hired them as a proxy counter-insurgency force, giving them financial support, weapons, and military training. For the first year of government aggression, the Sudanese military and janjaweed worked in tandem. Refugees’ accounts of attacks are all strikingly similar: the janjaweed would surround their villages of mud and straw while the Sudanese Air force dumped shrapnel-filled bombs out of Russian Antinov cargo planes. After the planes left, the janjaweed would charge in on horses and camels—pillaging, torching huts, raping en masse, and killing at will. “Rape was used in Darfur as an instrument of war,” said Basilla Ciakuthi, a psychosocial counselor operating in Chad. She estimated that 75 percent of refugee women in Chad were raped in Darfur. “The janjaweed would come and surround a whole village and tie the men together and put the women in the middle and start to rape them,” she said. “In some other instances, whenever they came across women they would just rape them, in the fields, in their gardens, in their farms.” New colonizers For many outsiders, race in Darfur can be confusing. Racialized identities are based more on linguistic and cultural differences than physical distinctions—people who identify as “Arabs” speak Arabic as their first language and tend to be nomadic herders, while the self-identifying “Black” population speaks a myriad of different languages and are typically sedentary farmers. When massive desertification and severe droughts forced herders to graze on farmers’ lands, inter-communal conflicts started to erupt. Knowing that its rule was contested in Darfur, Khartoum took the opportunity to drive a wedge between the two groups to push them towards war. Politicians in Khartoum are now called the “new colonizers” by many in Darfur because of their control over the country’s resources and their divide-and-rule strategies. Despite this, most rebels say they refuse to turn against any civilians in the region, whether Black or Arab, insisting that their struggle is a political one, not based on ethnic or tribal divisions. While Khartoum continues to target Blacks in its attempts to quell the uprising, rebels insist that their problem is not with Arabs, but with the government and its allied militias. “Arab tribes and groups are an integral and indivisible component of Darfur’s social fabric who have been equally marginalized and deprived of their rights to development and genuine political participation,” the SLA’s original political declaration says. They stress that the government’s use of organizations like the Arab Gathering is detrimental to both Arabs and non-Arabs alike and call upon Arab Darfuris to join the struggle against Khartoum. And many have. JEM’s manifesto appeals to people across Sudan to stop all civil wars and internal conflicts “that only benefit the interest of the common enemy.” It calls on people to point their weapons “at the new colonizers [the government] and bring the battle to the presidential palace, not to the pastures and water wells.” While more people are joining the resistance as their villages are razed and their families are driven into camps, factioning within the rebel movement is weakening what was once a unified struggle. Over the past two years the SLA and JEM have wavered in and out of alliance. While the SLA is resolutely secular, JEM believes that since Darfur is a Muslim region, it should follow a liberal variety of Islamic-based law. And while JEM aspires to change the entire power structure in Sudan, SLA factions are mostly focused on changing conditions in Darfur. The SLA itself has been factioning slowly over the past two years, and today is broken into innumerable dis-unified groups. Fractures and reunification Last May, a nail was nearly driven into the movement’s coffin. When the leader of the most powerful faction of the SLA, Minni Arkou Minawi, signed the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) with President al-Bashir in Abuja, Nigeria, refugee camps were overwhelmed with demonstrations. Khalil Ibrahim of JEM and Abdel Wahid Mohammed al-Nur, then-leader of the other major SLA faction, refused to sign the agreement, saying that it didn’t speak for the displaced or address the structural inequalities between the capital and its periphery. Refugees in Chad condemned Minawi as a traitor for signing what they saw as an empty agreement that gives them no guarantee of protection from the government or janjaweed, no compensation for what they have lost as a result of the destruction, and doesn’t address long-standing injustice in Darfur. Arab nomadic groups in Darfur also complained that the agreement didn’t address their concerns and objected to being excluded from negotiations. Despite a near region-wide consensus that the agreement was insufficient, the UN threatened sanctions on Ibrahim and al-Nur for not signing. Since July 2006, the government has resumed its bombing campaigns against civilians for the first time in two years, justifying their actions as fighting the “enemies of peace” who refused to sign the DPA. Janjaweed attacks have also increased in Darfur and crossed the border into Chad, where 110,000 have been displaced in less than a year. Meanwhile, Minawi has taken a position in the government and rebel groups have turned against his faction, with many of his own rank-and-file abandoning him to join other groups. Speaking by satellite phone last November, SLA commander Jar al-Nabi said that despite increasing atrocities, there was hope on the horizon. He said that all factions of the SLA, except Minawi’s, were going to converge to reunify the movement and make a cohesive proposal for a just peace agreement. Rebels have since announced that military planes bombed them several times while they were trying to organize or attend political meetings to reunite their movement. “If we have power, the government must give us our rights,” al-Nabi said, explaining the military’s logic for attacking. “If they don’t give us our rights, we will take them by force.” Shane Bauer is an activist, independent journalist, and photographer. From May–July 2006, Shane reported from Eastern Chad and Sudan’s Darfur region. His work has appeared on and in several independent publications. You can contact him at shanebauer82[dot]hotmail[dot]com.