The second part of Londonstani's look at Darfur's conflict.
The vicious fighting over the past five years has changed the nature of Darfur's society by causing its people to question the fundamentals of their world view.
Before crossing into Darfur, I spent a few nights in an isolated refugee village on the border with Chad. One night, the men acting as teachers in the makeshift school decided to brave the risk of aerial bombardment by lighting a bonfire for the children. Nearly 50 children sat around the fire singing, laughing and taking turns to recite verses of the Quran.
I sat, watched and made idle conversation with a group of men who were back with their families after fighting with the JEM rebels for the past three months. To avoid having to contribute to the evening by singing a song in English “or Pakistani or whatever”, I walked back to the patch of desert I was sleeping on. A young fighter walked back with me.
“This is the reason we are in this humiliating situation,” Khaled said to me.
“The people of Darfur are blinded by religion,” he went on. “People tell us to accept suffering because of religion, and we do. People tell us to fight and die because of religion, and we do. Our people need to stop putting so much Quran into their brains, because there is little more room for other things that will help us develop and become strong and independent.”
Khaled's words were like the reality television version of my old university's Modern Middle East History course. In the late 19th century, all over the Middle East, and the wider Muslim world, people's trust in their traditional methods of social organisation, politics and trade was challenged when they felt they had proved unable to match European strength. A sense of social and economic dislocation convinced Egyptians, Indians and Laventines to turn away from professional guilds, Sufi orders and religious endowments and take refuge in secular Socialism, Arabism, Communism and, eventually, Islamism. This process had happened over a century, in Darfur it was just beginning.
The change in outlooks goes hand in hand with a change in social dynamics.
Without a real centre of learning of their own, growing numbers of young men, and women, from Darfur had started coming to Khartoum for a university education. Khartoum University has a long history of, sometimes violent, political activism on its campus. All the political trends of Sudan are represented, including Islamists and Communists, as well as those seeking greater autonomy, or even independence, for Sudan's far flung regions.
As I sat on a oil drum full of diesel balanced on creates of ammunition piled up in the back of one of JEM's battle wagons, one young fighter told me he joined up for war after seeing Khartoum.
“I went there and saw what they have and compared it to what we have,” he told me.
But it wasn't only seeing the relatively better developed capital that persuaded him to throw his lot in with JEM, Taqi told me as the butt of his ancient AK47 clanged against the tip of an even older RPG hanging off the doorframe. University presented new ideas. He heard that it was the government's duty to treat each area of the country equally. In fact, he'd heard government officials saying they did exactly that, which he knew not to be true. He heard some students belonged to parties that said the government should provide everyone with free electricity, health care, an education and even jobs. Others said that in a true Islamic system, the government would do all this and bring about equality by returning the country to the ideals of the prophet, in whose eyes men of all races were equal. Some said, that as a Darfuri, Taqi had a proud history to live up to. His ancestors, they said, had been Daju, an ancient black race that brought civilisation to the area while Europeans were herding goats and Arabs lived in tents. His more recent Tanjur ancestors brought Islam to Darfur and established trade and farming before the roaming, nomadic Arabs arrived to exploit their success.
Elements of all the things Taqi had been told were true. But he'd never considered them before. He'd always seen life in his inhospitable region as the natural way of things. He now realised things could be different. He wasn't sure exactly how he wanted things to be, but he wanted them to be different.
Returning from a still smoldering village of gutted straw huts and bullet casings strewn among children's toys, our battle truck broke down. While we waited for another to pick us up, I sat under a nearby tree with Taqi and Ahmed, the commanding officer of our little platoon.
Ahmed and Taqi had different visions for Darfur. Ahmed wanted the present government removed and all of Sudan represented in a government that was committed to developing and serving the entire country. Taqi was thinking the rest of Sudan could look after itself and that Darfur should go it alone. Ahmed's vision was more Islamist leaning and Taqi's more left leaning. However, both took it for granted that force was needed to govern. Compromise and conciliation were fine for solving disputes over water and grazing, but to rule, an iron fist was a must, they said. Using commerce to promote mutual dependence, and promoting debate to foster consensus were time consuming and unnecessary, they felt. I pointed out that on that fundamental point, they were in agreement with the government they were at war with.
The conflict is bringing Darfur up to speed with the rest of the Muslim world. Armed with new ideas as well as the new guns, young men in Darfur are changing the social makeup of the region.
In camps of near 100,000 refugees like El Salaam on the outskirts of El Fasher in North Darfur state and Kalma near Nyala in South Darfur state, the rebel groups are handing out guns to the young men from their own communities. They sideline the village chiefs and prayer leaders by controlling access to the most important resources in Darfur; food and water. The aid agencies bring the vital supplies to the camps, but once inside, they leave the last stage of distribution to local committees. What is supposed to be an incentive to mobilise the community becomes an asset the competing factions use to cement their control.
This same process has played out in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran with oil and in countries like Egypt and Tunisia with tourism.
In five years Darfur is making great strides in moving from pre-modern to modern third-world urban sprawl. It took the rest of the Muslim world the best part of a century.
What's happening on a small scale in Darfur's camps is also happening on a national level. Sudan has found oil.
For the first time in Sudan’s history, the rulers have an independent source of wealth. The oil fields are under government control and pumping and selling oil is a lot easier than creating the social and economic environment that encourages wealth creation through mutual cooperation which the government can then tax. Oil allows the government to start moving the country from an Afghanistan situation to a model that more resembles Egypt, where the state is the unchallenged central actor in all things. The government is using oil wealth to establish patronage and develop a commercial class that owes its existence to those in power. The regime uses oil wealth to cut deals with telecoms companies, tour operators, international contractors and global banks to tie the profits of international companies to the survival of those in power.
The present government of Omar al Bashir, which came into power in 1989, has had the good fortune of ruling at a time Sudan’s newly discovered oil resources are generating huge amounts of money because of high global oil prices. This governing elite, which is more exposed to outside ideas than the rest of the country, has decided that what the nation needs is strong centralised rule to drag it into the modern world. The idea that centralised rule equals a strong country is adopted from the experiences of other Arab states that saw centralisation as a pit stop on the way to constructing a strong state that regain a sense of pride lost during an emasculating period of European rule. Unfortunately, this mentality takes for granted a measure of dictatorial rule. In practice, greater aims of national development are lost as competing personalities fight to become that dictator, and then retain the position.
The oil, and the new approach to power it created among the ruling elite, contributed to the war in Darfur.
A simple journalist measures the start of hostilities from the time one group attacks another with the stated of aim of achieving a bunch of objectives. In Darfur, this moment came about in March 2003, when armed men in four-wheel drive vehicles rode into the region’s largest town – El Fasher – attacked the airport and destroyed government aircraft.
The rebels called themselves the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) and had simple aims. They had heard the government was getting oil money and they wanted more schools and clinics. They also wanted the few teachers and doctors in Darfur to get paid regularly and receive back pay for the past six months. Since then, the rebels have split into more than a dozen different groups and numerous factions.
The government’s reaction was predictable. The fighting began after the failure of a quick round of negotiations, where – in time-honoured fashion - Khartoum tried co-opt the leaders of the group. Thousands of Sudanese army soldiers were mobilised to fight the “traitors” and “Israeli agents” looking to “steal the country’s oil and mineral wealth” in the west of the country. In late 2003, while the world was still looking at the newly “liberated” Iraq, I covered a new war remotely for a news agency. Sitting in a far away city, I kept in contact with the civilian, military and rebel leaders through satellite phones. Every third day I wrote a report on a new battle. The pattern was always the same. Huge columns of Sudanese soldiers marching out of Darfur’s main towns would be ambushed. The death tolls were measured in the hundreds. The Sudanese military would claim not to know entire battalions had been obliterated in Darfur, while the rebels would claim their own casualties that were never more serious than a sprained ankle. At the same time they claimed the Sudanese were using “Apaches”, “Napalm” and “chemical weapons” against them.
Casualty figures for the Darfur conflict have always been an exercise in guesswork. The latest figure thrown about by international bodies is 300,000 dead. This figure – which has found itself repeated until it appears as fact in news reports– was offhandedly mentioned as an estimate by UN humanitarian affairs under secretary John Holmes of how many have been killed by fighting, disease or hunger. The government says only 11,000 have been killed in its fight with people it characterises as bandits.
It’s easier to pin down how many people have been made homeless by the conflict because most of them have settled in camps in and around Darfur. At the last count, these people numbered about 2 million - a third of Darfur’s total population.
Part 3 tomorrow...