How tragic fuse was lit in Darfur

The UN determines this week whether Sudan's leaders have met Monday's deadline.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Her charms are meant to keep away the devil. Little black leather pouches hanging around her neck, worn down by years of being rubbed between her fingers. But no, she half apologizes, they did not work. In this case, the "devil" came on horseback.

"We recognized them by their shapes," Ashura Abakar Adam Arasharo says of the men who burned her home and made her run for her life. She ran for two days, with her five children in tow. She left without any of her favorite head scarves or dishes - or her husband, whom she lost in the chaos. And now she sits in a camp for the internally displaced, in western Sudan, twisting her charms around in her fingers.

Neighbors. Acquaintances. Fellow Muslims. Classmates. Friends.

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No more.

"We did not see their faces," says Ms. Arasharo. "But we know who they are."

Whether the crisis in Darfur is genocide is being debated in faraway congressional corridors and on TV talk shows. But what is clear on the ground is that the fragile, yet workable, relationship between Arab and ethnic African tribes here, sustained over generations, has been smashed to pieces during the last 18 months of violence.

"Maybe once, I could say hello to them in the market," says Arasharo. "But now they have all changed into janjaweed."

Janjaweed. The word translates loosely as devils on horseback and for years was a derogatory term thrown at lowly bandits. These days it is used for the Arab horsemen who, allegedly supported by the government, roam this vast swath of land terrorizing the Africans within the population, say refugees and outside observers.

Not all Arabs in Darfur are janjaweed, just as not all of the African civilians they are targeting are members of the rebel groups they claim to be fighting. But today, everyone has bunkered down, and few have time for subtle distinctions. These days there are only janjaweed and rebels.

Those rebels, who initiated the current crisis in February 2003 when they overtook cities in Darfur, continued to meet over the weekend in Nigeria for peace talks with the Sudanese government. The United Nations Security Council gave Sudan until Monday to disarm the janjaweed and bring them to justice, or face sanctions.

The UN wrapped up its fact-finding mission Saturday and Jan Pronk, the UN's envoy to Sudan, returned to New York to brief Secretary-General Kofi Annan. UN observers said that the situation had improved, though the killing continues. Rebel negotiators walked out of talks Saturday for 24 hours, protesting the killing of some 75 civilians in six Darfur villages over the previous three days. It is unclear whether Khartoum has done enough to ward off sanctions.

Friends in Khartoum

Far away from where Arasharo sits listlessly in her camp, Abdullah Adam Khatir is nursing a mango juice at his favorite cafe by the Nile in Khartoum, Sudan's capital.

"Oh dear, how different it used to be," begins the political commentator, a member of the Fur tribe who grew up in Darfur. "There were always tensions, of course," he says, settling in for a long tale. "But we worked it out."

Mr. Khatir is thinking back 30 years, to the time when he would travel from his home in Kebkabiyah to the region's boarding school in Zalingei. It was a three-day trek by camel and the schoolboys - Arab and African alike - would be decked out in brown uniforms, riding two to a hump. Every year their parents would gather a collection and hire a Arab nomad to lead the caravan. "We would call him 'uncle,' and he would give us water," says Khatir. "And we would love him."

But come the rainy season, continues Khatir, it was not uncommon for that same "uncle" to stomp through the family fields with his fellow nomads, looking for better pastures. "They would trample our [crops] and we would yell and scream and throw sticks," says Khatir. "That's the way it was."

The main cause of tension between these two ethnic groups has always been land, pipes in Saddiq Umbada, an Arab economist and friend of Khatir's from those long-gone school days. The Africans, who were mainly farmers, wanted to cultivate the land, and the Arabs, who were almost all nomadic, wanted to graze in it.

"That was the friction that kept us apart," he says.

But still, there was trade in the markets, hellos at the water holes, and, once in a while, even love affairs in the shadows. The 17th-century founder of the Darfur sultanate, Suleiman Solong, was himself said to be of mixed descent - his father Arab and his mother from the African Marsalit tribe. "We all look alike," says Umbada. "I am supposed to be from the Arab tribe Zayadia but, in fact, everyone says I look a lot like this Fur friend here.... It's all confusing stuff."

One of many conflicts

"What is going on in Darfur today is not really new," says Francis Deng, the UN's special representative for the internally displaced. "We need to see it within the broader context of the divisions in the country." All told, there are close to 100 tribes and subtribes in Darfur. The Marsalit had a gripe against the Mararit. The Tama would always complain of being raided by the Zarhawa and the Fur subtribes would fight endlessly among themselves. African-Arab tensions were far from the only ones around. But, it turns out, they were the most combustible ones.

The relationship between the two groups strained in the late 1970s when a combination of population growth, drought, and an expanding Sahara desert heightened competition for land. In the 1980s, conflicts in nearby Chad and Libya brought arms across the border, introducing a new dimension to the growing economic feud. And then, in the '90s, political power games in the capital played out in the region, further aggravating the situation.

Then last April, an rebel group called the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) attacked a military airstrip in North Darfur and set in motion the current crisis. President Omar al-Bashir responded to the demands for more power-sharing by giving the Arabs the green light, as well as money and air cover, to attack the rebels or anyone who supported or sympathized with them. The government denies encouraging the janjaweed's abuses of human rights and is now, under international pressure, trying to wash its hands of them.

'This is not the Darfur we know'

But meanwhile, some 30,000 ethnic Africans have been killed, and 1.4 million have been forced to flee their homes - robbed and raped along the way, they say. The SLA and its fellow rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement, while less brutal, have attacked and burned Arab villages and set those populations fleeing as well.

Hatred is festering. An Arab dance troupe brought in by an aid group to entertain the African displaced at a camp this week was pelted with stones, and, in another camp, a local Arab aid worker was beaten to death by African residents chanting "janjaweed."

Meanwhile, there are stories every day of African women who leave the camps to collect wood and are raped by the Arab horsemen. All sides here in Darfur say there is no going back.

"The government has played us one against the other," says Khatir. "We here in Khartoum are intellectuals and know this. But at home, enmity is enormous."

His friend Umbada sighs. "This is not the Darfur we know. We meet up with one another here and lament," he says, "and try to send text messages back to our friends and family in Darfur's towns to tell them to stop this devastation."

But, he sighs again, the long rains have interrupted the mobile-phone system, so their text messages are not getting through. And anyway, he adds, it's not clear anyone wants to listen.

Friendship is 'impossible'

Arasharo is told about the African and Arab friends crying together in Khartoum as she waits in line for food at her camp. She shakes her head.

"Impossible," she responds. They are old friends, she is told. "Impossible," she repeats. "We are enemies."

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