Vilified Arabs of Darfur must be included in peace process

Tue, Mar 16, 2010, 00:00

Without the Janjaweed on board there will be no lasting solution, writes ROB CRILLY, in Otash Camp, South Darfur

THERE IS a well-trodden VIP path around Darfur’s aid camps. Celebrities, politicians and United Nations officials fly in from Khartoum, take the tour and are back on their jets before teatime.

The whistlestop visits don’t go anywhere near the ramshackle corner of Otash Camp that Sheikh Hassan Mohammed Mahmoud calls home.

If they did, then Sudan’s rumbling, complex conflict might be a little nearer resolution.

Sheikh Hassan’s story would turn their conception of Darfur’s miserable conflict upside down.

He is from one of the Arab tribes that make up the backbone of the dreaded Janjaweed: a people routinely vilified as genocidal monsters.

But ask him who was responsible for destroying his village, shooting his sons and forcing his people in to the camp, and he gives a one-word answer: “Harakat”, Arabic for “movement” or “rebels”.

They came as his village, Marla, was waking up. Children were fetching water and the women were tending their cooking fires as the sound of shouting and shooting came closer.

Sheikh Hassan gathered up as many of his 20 children as he could find, and ran for the woods. He didn’t get far before a searing pain ripped through his leg. He had been shot.

The rest of the journey to safety was made on a cart as he slipped in and out of consciousness. The group stayed in the woods for days as the 60-year-old man gradually regained his strength.

When they returned to the village, Sheikh Hassan found the corpses of two of his sons. A third would die in hospital. Some 25 cows, 35 goats and a horse – Sheikh Hassan’s entire wealth – had been stolen.

“We found the village was burned,” he said in Arabic. “There was nothing left. War had come, so we came here.” He and his people are the forgotten victims of the Darfur conflict.

When rebels took up arms against the government in 2003, Khartoum responded by mobilising the Janjaweed – fearsome Arab militias with a traditional role as defenders of their tribes.

They were sent on a scorched earth campaign, tasked with attacking civilians in an attempt to starve the rebels of support.

Today, the conflict is often understood as one of Arabs against so-called African tribes.

Sheikh Hassan’s Beni Halba people were among the Janjaweed. But he, his family and his village did their best to ignore the war until it eventually swept through their little village that morning. Today, they are eking out a miserable life in one of the sprawling aid camps, just like the tribes from the other side – the Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit – who support the rebels.

Among Arab leaders there is growing frustration that they are the forgotten people, accused of being Janjaweed when many families played no part in the conflict, or lost everything when they could ignore it no longer.

They accuse aid workers, celebrities and campaigners with the Save Darfur Campaign of concentrating efforts on the African tribes, neglecting the suffering of Arab communities.

Adam Mohammed Hamid, of the Nomad Development Council of Sudan in Khartoum, said: “People think they know who the Arabs are, but they don’t. They come to Sudan and speak to the African tribes, but no one speaks to the Arabs. Many are not fighting. Some are in the rebels. It is not what people think.”

Researchers from Tufts University support his view. In a paper published last year, they warned that a highly politicised public campaign for Darfur had made it difficult to see the nomadic, Arab tribes as anything other than the perpetrators of the violence.

Instead, the team argued that the nomads had lost their livelihoods as a result of the war and in some cases had turned to violence as a “maladaptation” to seeing their traditional role disappear.

Those factors are often overlooked by media portrayals that depict Arabs as driven by race hate. “The nomads are voiceless. Their illiteracy and lack of contact with the international community has completely disempowered them in terms of raising awareness about their situation,” said the team led by Helen Young.

The issue is relevant once again as peace talks continue in the Qatari capital of Doha.

Leaders from the Justice and Equality Movement and government officials gave themselves until yesterday, March 15th, to sign a deal that would bring rebel leaders to Khartoum.

But once again – like the failed 2006 talks in Abuja – the Darfuri Arab tribes would not be represented.

Julie Flint, co-author of Darfur: A New History of a Long War, said they have to be part of the peace process. “Darfur’s Arabs are part of the problem, as the whole history of the war has shown, but they are also part of the solution, as is apparent in the many areas where they have made local reconciliation agreements and are living in peace with their neighbours again,” she said.

“What is succeeding at the local level must be replicated at the regional level. Darfur’s Arabs can be a force for peace, just as they have been a force for war. Without them there will be no lasting solution.”

Any peace deal signed in Doha will be good news for Darfur. But it is only the first step to solving the region’s problems for good.

Real solutions will have to involve forgotten people like Sheikh Hassan.


Rob Crilly’s book, Saving Darfur: Everyone’s Favourite African War, is published by Reportage Press