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What's behind the Darfur crisis - and what's next?

By David S. HauckStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 2, 2004

Thursday is a pivotal day for the government of Sudan. The United Nations Security Council begins debate on whether Khartoum has disarmed and brought to justice the Arab militias in the western part of the country responsible for killing more than 30,000 people and causing some 1.4 million others to flee their homes over the past 18 months. The penalty for noncompliance: economic and diplomatic sanctions.

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The UN's mission to Sudan, finishing its fact-finding work in Darfur last week, says that security has improved inside the camps and aid supplies are slowly reaching the camps. Still, some 75 villagers were reportedly killed in six separate attacks last week.

Critics have condemned the international community's slow response to the situation. But there are many factors at play. Western troops "invading" an Islamic country, even for humanitarian reasons, may be politically impossible after Iraq and Afghanistan. Members of the Security Council like Russia and China have business interests in Sudan. Then there's the question of genocide: The UN has yet to define the Darfur situation as such, which would, by international law, require members to act.

If the solution seems complex, the roots of the problem are perhaps more so.

Who's fighting whom?

The conflict in Darfur, three provinces in western Sudan, is usually cast in terms of Arabs vs. black Africans, but the reality is more muddled. Nearly everyone in the region is Muslim, and the skin color of the Arabs and non-Arabs is often indistinguishable. The distinction between the two groups falls mainly on their occupations: farmers and nomadic herders.

According to Human Rights Watch, an international monitoring group, the farmers are generally non-Arabs, or ethnic Africans. They live and farm in the central part of the region. The pastoralists, who reside in the north, are largely of Arab descent. They are nomadic and seminomadic and herd camels by trade.

Spats have periodically flared between the two groups, as migrating camel herders in search of water during the dry season would graze on the farmers' land. Disputes over lost crops would be settled by tribal leaders, with the nomadic tribes reimbursing the farmers. Recent droughts, however, have exacerbated the tension. The pastoralists began raiding farms to restock their decimated herds, and with the introduction of automatic weapons in the 1980s, banditry increased and the clashes became more violent.

Receiving no help from the central government, the farmers began arming themselves. In fact, instead of trying to quell the conflicts, Khartoum sided with the Arabs, according to Human Rights Watch. It recruited, paid, and armed more than 20,000 Arab militiamen, called Janjaweed (which translates as either "a man with a horse and a gun" or the more sinister "devil on horseback").

How did the current crisis begin?

The low-level clashes came to a head in February 2003 when two non-Arab rebel militias - the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) - attacked and captured several towns in Darfur. They demanded that Khartoum increase economic development in the region, share power, and disarm the Janjaweed. The government refused and in July launched major offensives.

After battling for months, the two sides agreed to a series of cease-fires in September, but they were routinely violated. By December all efforts at peace collapsed.

The Janjaweed increased attacks against civilians, according to international observers, creating what the UN has called "the worst humanitarian crisis in the world." It has set up 147 refugee camps throughout Darfur and in Eastern Chad to accommodate the 1.4 million civilians who have fled their homes. The UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that another $434 million is needed by the end of the year to respond to the most urgent needs.