Home | Comment & Analysis    Sunday 18 July 2004

Situation in Darfur goes beyond a ’humanitarian crisis’

Editorial, The Durango Herald

July 18, 2004 — Bad news is, unfortunately, the best geography lesson. This is certainly the case with the tragic conflict in Darfur, in western Sudan. When I visited that vast and mountainous region on a research trip in 1980 I did not imagine that it would be in the headlines around the world a quarter century later - nor would I have wished it such a fate.

The news coverage (see, for example, "Systematic slaughter unfolds in Sudan," Herald , July 11) is a welcome sign of growing international sensitivity about such crises. I want to touch on three aspects of this conflict that relate it to many other events in the world.

First, the crisis is described as a conflict between Arabs and black Africans. Yes and no. There is no question that the government of Sudan and its allies have fostered Arab ethnic and cultural chauvinism or that the militias that have perpetuated much of the violence against populations of farmers in Darfur are Arabic-speaking pastoralists. American conceptions of race, however, do not apply - all Darfurians are black in American eyes (which is not to say that American fantasies of race are more logical than Sudanese fantasies).

Ethnicity has been manipulated by politicians but the fact is that the different ethnic groups in Darfur have been bound together by centuries of trade, intermarriage, assimilation by adoption or enslavement, sharing of resources and so forth. All Darfurians are Muslims so, unlike southern Sudan, religion is not a major issue here.

Second, this is not just a struggle between a government and rebels. The central actors in this tragedy are nongovernmental entities - militias known as Janjaweed ("horsemen"). These militias are not bound to any human rights conventions, unlike the Sudanese government. In a land stalked by drought and poverty they have used the weapons given them by the government during the north-south civil war to loot their neighbors among the Fur and Masalit ethnic groups and to seize land and wells. In other words, their agenda may overlap with the government’s (fighting the rebels) but it is far from identical.

Militias such as the Janjaweed are an example of a worldwide trend, the emergence of gangs and networks that may or may not have political aims but which are essentially criminal organizations. It is seizing land by driving out its inhabitants. It is plunder of livestock and other goods. It is enslavement. And it is rape, including gang rape and the holding of sex hostages. Women and girls, the most politically marginalized, are the victims of atrocities that are both criminal and political, as they have been in so many other wars.

Finally, the fighting and displacement in Darfur - perhaps 10,000 killed, more than 1 million displaced - are not an isolated phenomenon. They are part of a complex web of national and international politics.

A weak and unstable government in distant Khartoum has often relied on divide-and-rule tactics to try to control Darfur. Chronic civil war in neighboring Chad, which shares many of the same ethnic groups as Darfur, has contributed to instability in the region. In fact, internal conflicts in Chad and Sudan have long fed each other in an endless cycle. Oil-rich Libya to the north has pursued its own objectives in the region. Western countries support existing governments in the region to bolster the fight against terrorism. And a continuous flow of labor migrants, refugees, political operatives, guns and contraband across borders is just as much a part of the situation in Darfur as so-called "tribal warfare."

This is globalization with a vengeance. Some of the profits from this war may find their way far from the camps of destitute displaced people in western Sudan.

African wars and suffering have long been placed in the "humanitarian crisis" category. We have said, "It’s very sad. But let’s get real - Africa just doesn’t matter much." In this time of terrorism, AIDS, criminal networks, energy shortfalls and environmental debate, we need to re-examine that assumption.

Neil McHugh teaches African history at Fort Lewis College. He has spent time in Darfur and conducted research for a doctorate degree in another part of Sudan.