Militia Talks Could Reshape Conflict in Darfur
|New York Times, 15 Avril 2007|
The two rebels sitting together on a dry riverbed could just as easily have been sworn enemies, perched on opposite sides of an abyss that has cleaved their homeland in two.
“We are brothers for Darfur,” Adam Shogar, a commander of the Sudan Liberation Army, says of the Arab and non-Arab militia groups.
But their talks on a military alliance of Arab and non-Arab tribes in Darfur could radically reshape the conflict, giving new life to rebel groups that have fought Khartoum for more than four years and undermining the government’s use of Arab militias to quell the rebellion.
Adam Shogar, a commander of the Sudan Liberation Army, the non-Arab rebels at the center of the Darfur conflict, stretched a coal-black arm at Yassine Yousef Abdul Rahman, his copper-skinned, brown-eyed counterpart from an Arab insurgent group, studying him carefully with midnight eyes.
“We are brothers for Darfur,” Mr. Shogar said. “We are in the same struggle for our rights.”
The meeting of the two men took place here in eastern Chad recently, where representatives of the main rebel groups fighting the government and its allied tribal militias in Darfur have gathered to try to join forces, either to negotiate a settlement to the crisis in Darfur or to mount a decisive offensive against the government.
“The government fear is if the Darfur Arabs unify and move against them, that is a decisive switch in the balance of power,” said Alex de Waal, a Sudan scholar at Justice Africa, a research institution in London, who has studied Darfur for decades. “Should they shift against the government, then the government is in deep trouble.”
The struggle in Darfur has often been portrayed as one between Arabs and black Africans, nomads and farmers, with the former bent on slaughtering the latter. But the conflict has never been that simple.
In many ways, Darfur’s Arab tribes have the same grievances as the African farmers and the same suspicion that Sudan’s central government in Khartoum views them as marginal and expendable. And they fear that the government is trying to scapegoat them as the sole authors of the killing in Darfur as the International Criminal Court begins indicting suspects for war crimes.
Here in eastern Chad, where the intertribal violence gripping Darfur has spilled over, Arab tribes have found themselves victims of non-Arab militias armed by Chad’s government, according to tribal leaders.
The complex and shifting role of Arab tribes in both Sudan and Chad underscores how difficult it will be to secure a political solution to the four-year-old crisis that has sent 2.3 million people fleeing their homes, killed at least 200,000 — some say as many as 400,000 — and set off a broad conflict in one of the most unstable parts of the world.
The main perpetrators of some of the worst atrocities have been government-sponsored Arab militias that have come to be known by a local epithet for bandits, janjaweed.
The Sudanese government turned to these militias as a kind of counterinsurgency force because its own military, weakened by a long civil war in the south and made up largely of non-Arab recruits, could not be relied on to crush the rebellion among non-Arab tribes in Darfur.
While some Arab tribal leaders, notably Musa Hilal and Ali Kushayb, heeded this call, most did not, and instead remained on the sidelines, Mr. de Waal and other Sudan experts said. Arab leaders in Darfur say that fewer than a quarter of its tribesmen took up arms against their non-Arab neighbors.
Furthermore, the relationship between the central government, dominated by three small Arab tribes living along the Nile, and Darfur’s Arabs, who claim a heritage going back to the Prophet Muhammad, is often antagonistic. Darfur’s Arabs have long been the stalwarts of the main opposition Umma Party, perhaps the largest and most popular political party in northern Sudan.
A boom-and-bust cycle of livestock herding has often left Darfur’s Arabs destitute, especially during the great droughts of the 1970s and ’80s. An ancient land tenure system controlled by the farm-based non-Arab tribes has led to conflicts between nomads and settled tribes for centuries, but traditionally these disputes have been resolved through mediation.
That system broke down in the 1980s and ’90s, as the government sought to exercise greater control over Darfur. Political and traditional leaders at the state and tribal level were replaced by Arab candidates closer to the government.
But Arabs in the region have also suffered in the Darfur conflict. Some of their traditional migration routes, which they have traversed for hundreds of years, have been cut off by the fighting, forcing some nomads to become sedentary.
“The suffering of Arab nomads in this conflict has been completely ignored,” said Mohammed El Sayed Hassan, director of Al Massar, a charity that helps nomads in North Darfur. “For centuries we have had friendship and exchange with the Fur people and other African tribes. Now we are seen as killers.”