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A Darfur Primer

The Darfur situation can be very confusing without a little extra information. This is what you would know if you were almost any Sudanese talking politics with your friends in an outdoor bar or at a university.

When the British left Sudan in 1956 they set it up with a small Arab minority government ruling over a mostly non-Arab African population.

The indigenous Africans had in fact already begun a revolt in 1955, the year before independence was final. The war, mostly in the south, lasted until 1972, when a peace agreement allowed limited self-government for the southern region of Sudan. A Southern Regional Assembly was established for that purpose, and it was to have control of much of the expected oil revenue from the fields just then discovered by Chevron Corporation in the south.

In 1983, after ten years of peace, Sudan’s president, Gaafar Nimeiri, nullified this agreement, disbanding the Southern Regional Assembly and imposing federal rule everywhere. New districts throughout Sudan would be ruled by military governors. The oil revenue, still unseen, would be controlled by the federal government in Khartoum.

Rebel groups quickly formed again. To make things worse, Nimeiri decreed that harsh Islamic sharia law would be imposed throughout Sudan, even over non-Muslim citizens in the south. These laws called for the amputation of hands for minor thefts, for the stoning of women, and many other cruelties. This angered the mass of people, who are quite moderate, and it angered the rebels, who now had three issues: a return to secular government, not sharia law; better representation for indigenous Africans, especially in the south; and a fair local share of the expected oil wealth, including oil jobs and more schools, roads, and clinics.

This political anger joined with the anger of hunger, as these were years of an intense African famine. An uprising in the spring of 1985 overthrew Nimeiri and caused the election of a parliamentary government led by moderate Sadiq al-Mahdi. He suspended sharia law, although it continued to be enforced by some local Arab administrators. Because of the lingering of sharia law, and because the other political issues of representation were still not fixed, the rebel groups didn’t disband.

Four nervous years followed. The oil fields could not be put into production during these years because occasional rebel attacks sent Chevron away. Sudan, sagging under heavy debt from the Nimeiri years, could not pay its loans and was cut off from further help by the International Monetary Fund. Sudan wanted to become a big oil player, but was still a poor relation among the Arab governments. So Mahdi called a new peace agreement that was expected to further subdue sharia law and perhaps reestablish selfrule in the south. That would let the oil production go forward.

Just before the conference, Mahdi was overthrown and exiled by a military strongman, General Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, who is still in power. He resumed the expansion of sharia law, shut down opposition newspapers and political parties, and imprisoned dissidents. This was a big shock to everyone. I was in high school at the time, and all of us wanted to fight it.

Under the sharia law of Bashir, a woman today cannot leave the country without the written permission of her father or husband. Men and women must sit in separate areas of public buses. The army has been purged of unbelievers. The government-attorney staffs and the courts have been cleansed of those who are not sufficiently loyal to the agenda of Bashir and his right-wing religious brotherhood. Elections have been corrupted. Men and women have been mercilessly brutalized for the most insignificant or unproved deeds. People disappear.

Bashir solved the oil field problem his own way, just as he would later solve his Darfur problem. Many Arab nomads throughout the south had been armed with automatic weapons during the two previous governments as an unsuccessful way of protecting the oil fields from rebel attacks. In the early 1990s, Bashir turned these nomads loose on the non-Arab villages, killing over two million people.

Boys who were out tending their animals far from their villages were the few survivors. They came back to find their fathers dead and their mothers and sisters raped and killed or missing into the slave trade. These boys, after incredibly difficult journeys, found their way to Ethiopia and then to other countries, including the United States, where they are still known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. So the Sudanese government is like this. Bashir is like this.

Communities in the United States, in Britain, and elsewhere in Europe accepted many thousands of these boys and helped them find new lives. This must not be forgotten by Muslims or by anyone.

Bashir built friendly relations with Osama bin Laden and other Islamic radicals, who then opened training camps in Sudan. He turned the oil fields over to the Chinese, who brought their own security people and guns into the now depopulated areas. Here was indeed a good model for economic development without sharing or resistance.

The famine must also be understood, for the weather changes seem permanent now. Beginning in the mid-1980s, nomadic Arabs and the more settled indigenous African tribesmen found themselves in greater than normal competition for the same few blades of grass for their animals, and the same few drops of water in the wells. Arabs drifted south into Zaghawa lands; some Zaghawa drifted farther south into Massalit and Fur tribal lands. This weather change has created a problem between tribes, and Bashir knows that one of his predecessors lost power because of famine. There are huge reserves of fresh water deep under Darfur. If the indigenous people can be removed, Arab farmers can be brought in and great farms can blossom. Sudan and Egypt have signed what is called “The Four Freedoms Agreement,” which effectively allows Egyptian Arabs to move into Darfur and other areas of Sudan. New farms might be a good idea if the water could be used wisely and not consumed all at once, but why not let these farms and farmers develop alongside the returned villages of my people? If the traditional people were allowed to pump this water, which they are not, these farms and this food for Sudan would result.

Throughout these recent years, the Arab government has been promoting Arab identity at the expense of Sudanese national identity. Arabs and indigenous Africans have gotten along for thousands of years in Sudan. Even in my own childhood, we feasted in one another’s tents and huts. Any disputes that couldn’t be settled through negotiations between the elders were settled in ritual battles held far from any village so that women and children and the elderly would not be harmed. In addition, there has always been so much intermarriage that it is hard to see the differences between the Arabs and the indigenous Africans. Almost every person, at least in the north half of Sudan and in most of Darfur, is Muslim, so there are no religious differences, either. But the drumbeat of Arab superiority began separating the hearts of the Arabs from their indigenous African neighbors. This should remind people of what happened in Rwanda.

Negotiations between elders to resolve tribal disputes were now harshly discouraged by the government. The Arabs were instead given weapons and military support to resolve them. While Arabs were being heavily armed by the government, non-Arab villages throughout Sudan were told to give up all their weapons or be destroyed. Darfur has been thick with automatic weapons ever since the 1980s, when Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya used Darfur as a staging area for his attacks on Chad in an attempt to expand to the south. The Darfuris, both Arab and African, are good traders, and they found themselves with many of those guns. An estimated fifty thousand Kalashnikov AK-47s, RPG launchers, and M-14 rifles came into Darfur and stayed. The villagers, afraid of what was coming, would not give them up.

Darfur rebel groups bristling with this firepower started talking about Darfur independence after the latest purge of non-Arabs from government, and on April 25, 2003, thirty-three rebel Land Cruisers attacked a government military base to destroy the airplanes and helicopters that had been destroying their villages. In retaliation, President Bashir let loose the dogs of war: the green light was given to armed Arab Janjaweed militia groups. Supported by government tanks, machine-gun-mounted vehicles, additional helicopter gunships, and bombers of the Sudan Army, these Arab militias began attacking and burning indigenous villages not in a sporadic way, but in a systematic way calculated to destroy every village and kill every person. Men, women, and children were killed. Village leaders were burned alive or tortured to death in front of their friends and children. Children were tossed into fires. Wells were poisoned with the bodies of children. Everything had come into place, politically, environmentally, and culturally for a genocide in Darfur.

The non-Arab traditional Africans of Darfur are being systematically murdered and displaced by Bashir’s government of Sudan as a part of a program to remove political dissent, remove challenges to power, make way for unobstructed resource development, and turn an Arab minority into an Arab majority.

Can you do that in this century? Can you solve all your problems by killing everyone in your way? That is for the world to decide. Deciding if and when the traditional people of Darfur can go home will also decide if genocide works or not, and therefore whether it will happen elsewhere again in the world. It seems to me that this is a good place to stop it forever.

That will require the repatriation of the Darfur people who were expelled. The camps now in Chad can be moved to Darfur as new towns, bringing schools and clinics and opportunities for personal development to a number of areas that have never had them. From these new towns, village life and some new agriculture can blossom. A zone of protection can be created by the United Nations for this, just as they can be created for other people around the world who need protection in living balanced lives on the earth. In exchange for this protection, the full human rights of the men and women of these areas, the same rights so beautifully described by Eleanor Roosevelt and others in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, must be added to the ancient customs. The Universal Declaration has long been accepted as international law.

This can be done. What is more important for the world right now than preserving ways of living in balance with the earth?

Map of Darfur