The New York Times reported on Monday that Sudan had arrested a militia leader charged by the international criminal court with responsibility for mass murder in Darfur. Sudan has said before it wouldn't hand over Ali Khushayb, the militia leader, but all that changed when the court laid charges against the president himself in July.
The international media is like a not-very-clever lumbering, drunken beast. It lurches one way and then the other. While Afghanistan was slipping into disaster, the media was looking at Iraq too hard to think about multitasking. In an effort to avoid the same pitfall, Londonstani, thinks this is a good time to look at Darfur, where a fairly young insurgency is morphing along lines we have already seen in Afghanistan. Due to it's length, this will be a three-part posting, with a couple of pictures to help you power through.
Ameen, the commander of the dozen machinegun-mounted pickup trucks surrounding us in a rocky hide out in Darfur, had a simple message for the government of Sudan:
“If they want peace; we are ready for peace. But, if they want to fight; then, we are ready for killing.”
But nothing is ever clear and straight forward in Darfur. Ameen, I later realised, wasn't being entirely honest. Hours after waving me off back to the borderland of rock and sand his Justice and Equality (JEM) fighters use as a rear base, Ameen's forces gathered with nearly 1,000 other pickups and drove around 600 miles across the desert to attack Khartoum.
It was the first time Darfur rebels had taken the fight to the capital. On the outskirts of Khartoum, they fought better-armed Sudanese security forces at key entrances to the city and came within rifle range of their objectives to capture key government installations. For hours it seemed the government might actually fall. The army stayed out of the fight and left the security forces, parallel fighting units drawn from tribes allied to ruling figures, to battle the insurgents. It was 24 hours before the government felt it had survived the storm.
The second Battle of Omdurman - the first having been fought between British forces and Sudan's Mahdists in 1898 - was yet another mutation of the Darfur conflict, which has evolved from a simple armed revolt for better state resources into a complex civil war that has changed forever the society it springs from.
After the attack on Khartoum, the Islamist government which harboured Osama bin Laden in the 1990s and is still on the State Department's list of countries that support terror, carried out an image overhaul worthy of a Soviet-era Afghan policeman who has become a minister in Hamid Karzai's government by calling JEM an “Islamist terrorist organisation”. The JEM leadership, as far as I could tell, had little in the way of ideology. They wanted more government money and more say in the way their areas were governed. But upheaval causes change. The violence in Darfur has changed the social norms of the region and given rise to new outlooks which have turned a traditional Muslim agrarian society into fertile ground for ideologies that can explain the injustice Darfuris feel and justify the violence they see as the answer.
Darfur is one of the most covered and least understood conflicts in the world. It has become a politically correct cause, where all reasonable people are expected to equate the Sudanese government with Hitler and the Nazis without question. But such moral sweeps prevent a closer examination of the Sudanese government's motives and methods. From the outset, the Sudanese government's aim was to pacify Darfur's rebels. Their approach led to the humanitarian disaster and political powder keg we see today.
Understanding the Darfur conflict, where it might head and ultimately, how to stop it, rests on understanding its history.
When the war started, life in Darfur was pretty much as it has probably been for thousands of years. Isolated villages of straw huts dotted the landscape, there was no electricity or sanitation and journeys were measured by how much distance a donkey could cover in a day. Darfur used to be run by a loose central authority that, in the Islamic tradition, called itself a Sultanate. It's main job was to mediate conflict - which usually involved watering and grazing rights. The Sultanate was abolished in 1917, when Darfur became the last part of Sudan to fall to British control.
Darfur’s population is mainly made up of three principle groups; Fur, Zaghawa and Arabs. However, the simplicity of life in Darfur belies the complexity of its society. Fur and Zaghawa are generally farmers – but not always. And Arabs are usually nomadic, but sometimes farm. All three groups fight each other, and the clans within each group fight amongst themselves. Confused? Not if you know Afghanistan.
The three states that make up Darfur cover about 200,000 square miles – which makes it nearly as large as France. The terrain is scrubby desert splattered with pockets of lush vegetation. In Afghanistan, fighters can take shelter in mountains, in Darfur, they can disappear in the oceanic desert. In the rainy season, large swathes of Darfur are covered with a thin film of green, which disappears as quickly as it comes. No one is quite sure of the size of the population. But most estimates rest on about 6 million.
The fact that Darfur, like most of Sudan, remains pre-modern, means that it has also escaped the cataclysmic events of the 20th century that form the identity and outlook of much of the Muslim world. Many in Sudan felt they beat the British Empire when forces loyal to Mohammed Ahmed, aka the Mahdi, captured Khartoum in 1885 with the help of large numbers of fighters from Darfur. Today, Darfuris shrug off the history of British rule in Sudan because Britain’s imperial footprint from 1898 to 1956 was relatively light. Most of Darfur would never have seen a Sudanese official let alone a British one. In a country that had not experienced the urbanisation that was taking place in Cairo, Damascus and Delhi, the sense of humiliation that reverberated around the Muslim world is largely absent from the Sudanese psyche. The relatively short British presence in Sudan, and the fact that the limited British presence was ignored by much of the rest of the country saved Sudan’s national consciousness from having its nose rubbed in the superiority of European technical advancement. In places like Darfur, life with all its trials, tribulations and occasional warfare continued in the same way as it had for centuries. The traveler Robert Byron in the 1930s called Afghanistan “Asia without the inferiority complex”. Sudan is the Arab world’s equivalent, and for similar reasons.
Sudanese governments that have come to power after independence in 1956 have never felt the need to re-establish effective local administration. Like many other Arab governments they saw local government as a threat to the elite ruling in the capital and decided instead to administer from the centre. Darfur got little resources, but its man power was used by the men in government, including Darfuri officials living in the capital, to fight their wars. The present regime used thousands of Darfuri young men to fight the mainly Christian and Anamist south of the country for over two-decades under the banner of jihad. Colonel Ghaddafi of Libya used Darfur as a base from which to attack Chad, and flooded the region with weapons. The result was that Darfur was largely forgotten and insulated, but also militarised and volatile.
Part 2 tomorrow....