AL-FASHER, SUDAN — As the dawn's rays spread across this sand-strewn northern capital of Sudan's troubled Darfur region this weekend, the crack of gunfire rang out. But the shots weren't hostile.
They were to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the festival following the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Thirty days of fasting between sunrise and sunset is almost uniformly observed here; even water is not consumed during daylight hours, despite the searing rays of the desert sun. So the celebration was a welcome distraction for many residents.
Yet the profusion of weapons is a stark reminder of how deep the troubles are in western Sudan. As many as 70,000 people have been killed and 1.8 million displaced since fighting broke out between rebels and the government early last year. Despite attempts by the international community to stop what the US calls genocide, the violence continues. So more and more Darfurians are taking security into their own hands.
"Many people in rural areas have had guns for a long time to protect their pastures or herds, especially since desertification increased competition for resources," says a man named Talha. "But for those who retain land in such areas now, possessing a gun has become regarded as a necessity."
Indeed, security has been lacking since February 2003, when rebels rose up against the government, accusing it of marginalizing the region. Proxy militias called the Janjaweed, which observers say are backed by the Sudanese government, have been attacking Darfur residents, leading to what the United Nations has called the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
A report released Monday by Human Rights Watch says that Sudan's government has not yet disarmed the Janjaweed - required by multiple UN resolutions - but has incorporated them into its security forces. One camp was dismantled by these forces last week, sending residents fleeing into the arid countryside, the report says.
Some 700 of an expected 3,300 African Union troops have been dispatched to help keep order in the region, though their mandate is limited. So reliance on firearms has become widespread, say people here.
"Increasingly, people are yielding to the logic of the gun - they feel it is the only means left which is guaranteed to feed their families," says one aid worker.
A two-day special meeting of the UN Security Council begins Thursday in Kenya, with a focus on the continuing crisis in Darfur.
Even young children fired away into the air during the celebration - some with toy plastic pistols, others discharging blanks from real handguns. "One day I want a gun like the government guys have. I want to drive around in a truck with big belts of ammunition and a machine gun mounted on the back," says 12-year-old Mohammed, through an interpreter.
"My own boy is 3 years old," says Talha. "He pleaded with me to buy him a toy pistol for Eid, wanting to copy the older boys who live next door. It was not that I could not afford it - I just don't think it is right for someone so young to be seduced by instruments of violence."
Talha readily admits that his view is not mainstream here. "Around 40 percent of the adult male population owns a firearm in Darfur," he says.