In Darfur, a war on the people

It’s been difficult to put an accurate number on the lives lost during the three-year conflict in Darfur, the western region of Sudan. Estimates from last year ranged from 70,000 to 300,000, though those numbers are little more than educated guesses.

For Ali B. Ali-Dinar, outreach coordinator at Penn’s African Studies Center, the numbers are not the issue. His concern is for the people—including entire communities and villages—who have been displaced by the conflict in that region and forced to move to camps around the province.

“Since this thing erupted [in early 2003], there was violence all the way,” says Dinar, who was born in Sudan and studied in the capital, Khartoum, before receiving his Ph.D. from Penn in Folklore Studies. “It’s too late for many people.”

According to Human Rights Watch, about 1.8 million Darfurians live in camps and approximately 220,000 have fled into the neighboring country of Chad, where they live in refugee camps. The conflict began in early 2003 when the Sudanese government and the Arab militia called the Janjaweed began fighting the rebel groups known as the Sudanese Liberation Army/Movement and the Justice and Equality movement. The government and Janjaweed have destroyed villages, killed thousands and raped and assaulted women and girls who are of the same ethnic group as the rebels.

Reports in the western media that have tried to frame this conflict as one between two ethnicities—the Arab Janjaweed and black African rebel groups—are vastly oversimplified, says Dinar. While the Janjaweed are comprised of Arab groups from Darfur and neighboring regions, there are many Arab tribes in the region who have not participated in the conflict. “The government wants it to be seen as an ethnic conflict,” Dinar explains. “It is a war of the state against the citizens, disguised as ethnic militias.”

It could more accurately be called a “proxy war,” he adds, similar to one that the government fought in southern Sudan where militias supported by the government fought insurgents. Through fighting a conflict by proxy, the government can deny any involvement and militias stand to gain financially from participating in the conflict. Civilians were also targeted in that conflict. Dinar points out that the Sudanese government has not helped at all to set up camps for the Darfurians who have fled their homes. The United Nations has played a humanitarian role and is expected to take over peacekeeping operations in September. Until then, troops from the African Union are keeping the peace, though Dinar says those efforts have been ineffective and “just a sham” because people are still frequently attacked. “They were not there to protect civilians.”

The Sudanese government has resisted bringing UN troops into the country, saying that such a move smacks of colonialism and is reminiscent of an occupation. Dinar says that simply put, a UN troop move would not be in the Sudanese government’s interest, since UN peacekeepers would meet with victims and begin to build cases against those who have committed atrocities—which would likely include some members of the Sudanese government.

In recent weeks, reports have shown that the conflict may escalate and spill over into Chad, which lies on Sudan’s western border. “Conflicts are not localized,” said Dinar, and some spillover is “a natural result of the instability in Darfur. They are all interconnected.”

The international community has responded with food and other forms of relief, but Dinar said that very little has changed. “Nothing is being done by the world community. It’s very troubling,” he said. “They have to stand up to the challenge.”

For more information on the conflict in Darfur, go to the Darfur Information Center at www.darfurinfo.org.

Originally published on March 30, 2006