August 18, 2004

Sudan/Darfur: Clearing Up Some Misconceptions

The situation in the Darfur region of Sudan has attracted worldwide attention. Due to misreporting or under-reporting, most people have been left with the impression that the crisis in the Darfur is a case of Arab Muslims versus black Christians and animists. While there is a north-south civil war, it is primarily between Arab Muslims backed by the Khartoum government (under Lieutenant General 'Umar Hasan Ahmad Al-Bashir, who came to power in a coup in 1989) versus black Christians and animists, that civil war is a separate issue from the crisis in Darfur.

Darfur, literally two Arabic words, dar and fur meaning "home/house of the Fur," comprises three provinces in western Sudan - Shamal (North) Darfur, Gharb (West) Darfur, and Janub (South) Darfur. The inhabitants of the area are predominantly Muslims who are of black African ethnicity rather than Arab. The major groups are the Fur, the Zaghawah and the Masalit. There are also some Arab tribes in the area, the Bani Halbah and Al-Mahiriyah, with internal conflicts as well.

The primary Arab tribal group in the Darfur is the Baqqarah, derived from the Arabic word for cattle. The Baqqarah are nomadic herdsmen constantly seeking new pastured for their cattle. This search has placed them at odds with the agrarian Fur, Zaghawah and Masalit. The economic struggle between the two escalated into armed conflict, resulting in the creation of the Janjawid militia on the Arab/Baqqarah side, and two groups on the non-Arab side, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M). The fact that the two groups have taken up arms to back up there demands for equal treatment from the Arab government in Khartoum has allowed the Bashir government to label them as rebels and use the Sudanese army and air force to support Janjawid attacks. The Janjawid have primarily focused their attacks on the civilian populations of the Fur, Zaghawah and Masalit rather than on the armed groups.

The attacks on civilians have resulted in a massive refugee problem, with almost one million seeking assistance in neighboring countries and creating a humanitarian crisis.
For more information, see the Human Rights Watch report on Darfur at