Sudanese: 'What Arab-African rift?'

In Sudan's Arab north, Arabs marry, go to school, and work side by side with Africans from Darfur. The divide portrayed in the West means little to people here.

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    'Mixed' family: Abbas Adam Ibrahim is of African descent. His wife Taqwa Abdullah is an Arab.
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Ask Abbas Adam Ibrahim whether he is Arab or African, and he does not quite know how to respond. "Both," the Sudanese man says, after slight hesitation.

Mr. Adam comes from the Fur tribe, of Darfur – commonly understood to be an African tribe, under persecution by Sudan's Arab-dominated government.

Last month, the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for genocide and crimes against humanity in Darfur, saying "evidence shows that al-Bashir masterminded and implemented a plan to destroy in substantial part the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa groups, on account of their ethnicity."

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But for Sudanese Arabs and Africans coexisting peacefully outside Darfur, these racial distinctions are not so clear.

Adam, for example, believes he has some Arab blood.

During the drought of the early 1980s, Adam left Darfur for the mostly-Arab north of Sudan, in search of work and a better life. He settled in Dongola, a city more than 300 miles north of the capital, Khartoum, and has lived among Arabs ever since. He even married one and now has four "mixed" children.

"We live here peacefully and there are no problems," he says. "We live as if we are natives here. We feel that this is our country and this is our town."

Around the corner, at a small Darfurian social club, the atmosphere is loud and buoyant. Young men gather around tables playing cards, slamming down dominoes excitedly, and watching television. They are mostly economic migrants who left Darfur years ago. Among them are members of various tribes that are killing each other back in Darfur and in neighboring Kordofan State.

"There is no such thing as Arab or African. We are all Sudanese," says Mohammed El-Cheikh an Arab from Western Kordofan. "Him over there," he says, pointing across the yard to a young man standing shyly in the corner, "that's my friend Abubakr. He's from the [African] Tama tribe.

"There are problems in Darfur, but they are not between people. They are related to the government and to politics."

In scores of markets, clubs, and homes in the Arab north, Arabs and Africans are working side by side, sending their children to the same schools and intermarrying. The Arab-African distinction that has played out so broadly in media coverage of Darfur means little to people here.

In fact, historians say the distinction has no factual basis. There is a long tradition of intermarrying between the Arab and African tribes that settled in what is now Sudan.

"No single tribe in Sudan can claim it is purely African or Arab," says history teacher and mayor of the greater Dongola locality Bushra Mohamed Saleh. "They are all mixed."

And while some tribes may be more Arab or more African, coexistence between them is nothing new. Even in Darfur, different tribal groups lived together for centuries. So-called Arab nomadic tribes and African farming communities shared the same land – the nomads using it for their cattle to graze; the farmers using it to grow their crops. Conflicts arose routinely but were solved through traditional leaders.

Things changed early this millennium when traditional leaders lost their control, guns became more commonplace, and a group of non-Arab Darfurians took up arms against the government, arguing that their region had been neglected.

In responding to this rebellion, the government made a "big, big, big mistake," says Gen. Hassan Hamadain, who governed West Darfur State during the late 1990s.

It called upon popular defense forces from local communities to combat the Darfur rebels. But those who responded were mostly Arabs, many of whom joined the now infamous janjaweed militia that is accused of razing hundreds of African villages, looting, raping, and killing along the way.

"The government made use of the conflict in Darfur in a kind of non-thoughtful way," says General Hamadain, who has since retired from politics, acknowledging that he and others failed in Darfur. "It was not sensitive to the tribal relationships, the tribal history of the area, and the resources."

And so what began as normal, cyclical conflicts between mostly Arab herders and non-Arab farmers grew to what has been termed the world's largest humanitarian disaster. The United Nations says some 300,000 have died and 2.5 million have been displaced.

Among the dead were members of Hassan Ali Ibrahim's village, which was completely destroyed by Arabs. But he says he can't hold them all responsible.

"The disputes between the Arabs and people in Darfur originate from different reasons – grazing, pastures, natural things. They are not rooted in race," said the community elder, sitting under a tree at the Islamic school he manages in Dongola, where both Arab and African children sit side by side. "The Arabs that are here have nothing to do with this."

Still, for some Darfurians, it is not so easy to forget. Daoud (not his real name) watched with his own eyes as members of his family were killed by Arab militias in West Darfur. After the first attack on his village, he found his father dead. He says he does not blame the Arabs – "Who supported them? Who gave them the guns? Wasn't it the government?" – but he still has difficulty getting too close.

"I can interact with Arabs at work or in general ways, but when it comes to close relationships, I feel there is a wall between us."

British analyst Jago Salmon says this social polarization – a result he blames partly on simplistic descriptions by Western Darfur advocates – has been an unfortunate consequence of the conflict, but was never its root.

"We were still looking for dichotomy of some kind, something that would explain what was going on easily and simply. We latched onto the Arab-African dichotomy, which did vast damage…. Then as the conflict developed, it became a reality on the ground. It became something by which people explained the conflict themselves."

But as the conflict continues in Darfur – 180,000 have fled their homes this year alone, according to the UN – Adam will wake up next to his Arab wife every morning, Ali will teach his Arab students, and plenty of other African Darfurians will keep living alongside Arabs, wishing the politics would cease and their tribes could go back to life as usual.

Heba Aly traveled to Sudan on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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