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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.