Bones and dust: the forgotten tragedy of Darfur

Do you remember Darfur? Probably many of you will recall the name of this region of Sudan. Some of you shall remember the malnourished children and the suffering of the refugees at the border with Chad, displaced by one of the most lengthy and horrible genocides. Yet you hear about Darfur less and less, because meanwhile other terrible events have happened, both natural disasters and human troubles, such as the endless suffering in Iraq and more recently Burma.

The genocide in Darfur is still happening now, while I am writing. Yet the tragedy is today classified as back-page-news, hidden behind stories that can attract main advertising companies and sponsors to the various newspapers and T.V. programs. So if here in Aberdeen teachers have organised a rally of red-Tshirted children to support the freedom-struggle of the Burmese monks, I discovered that few of my students have any idea of what is happening today in Darfur.

The world is today ignoring what is happening there and people are butchered for the interest of lurid political games.

Furthermore, I have realised that Darfur politicians and, consequently some of the mass media, have, for convenience or by ignorance, presented the complex reality of a tragic genocide, in simplistic, again Manichean, terms. On the one side, the evil Muslim Arabs (can be Arabs anything other than evil?), on the other the poor black Africans. The story is much more complex and, believe it or not, has very much to do with Al Gore’s Noble Prize.

As many of you will be familiar with, I will try to briefly discuss the tragedy of Darfur from an anthropological viewpoint. At the same time I ask you to read more, to inform yourself on one of the most dramatic human induced disasters in history. Ignoring what is happening does not make us less guilty than those whom, knowing of the Nazi Holocaust, turned their faces away. Some western governments, such as the British, beyond the bla-bla-bla of the political interest, are actually sending back asylum seekers from Darfur, and their only hope is that we as ordinary citizens act to stop this and make others aware of what is happening in Darfur.

Understanding the tragedy of Darfur means to understand the tragedy of a suffering planet. The four and a half year Darfur drama has it roots in environmental changes, which have increased the progressive desertification of the area. This real cause of this genocide has been acknowledged only recently.

Simplified to the bone, the main reason for the tribal fight is the decreasing availability of primary resources, i.e. food for the livestock and human beings. It is impossible to understand the Darfur crisis without understanding the relationship between the different ethnic groups and the land. So, if you look at a map of Sudan, and then concentrate on the geographical area of Darfur, they will not tell you very much about the human geography of this region.

The map that you have to have in mind is how the local tribes see their territory and ethnic borders. The borders, inherited from a British colonial past, have no real meaning to these tribes, though they have for the central Sudanese government. The tribes recognise their own borders, marked by linguistic and kinship links. As you note from the map, we can, though this is still a simplification, divide the tribal influences in North, Central and South Darfur.

If we observe the different tribes and their lifestyle we can observe their main activities, so that A) in North Darfur, which is mainly desert and suffering the effects of global warming, is the region of the Zaghawa, who are predominantly nomads and camel breeders. B) In Central Darfur, which is the most fertile area, live the Fur and Masalit, who are farmers. C) In the South of Darfur we find again a desert-like drought area, where the main ‘Arab’ (which in Arabic means ‘nomad) tribes, such as the Rizeigat, the Misiriya and the Beni Halba.

This is of course a simplification of the complex tribal divisions and more can be read on the tribal identity in Darfur in Alex Dewaal’s article. Nonetheless, you can immediately notice a certain important division, some tribes derive their main vital recourses from farming, while others, mainly the ‘Arabs’, from nomadic lives depending on their livestock (often camels and cattle). Now, having the resources diminished because of the increased drought, farmers were less and less ready to let the nomads to use their fields and wells. Water in particular was, and is, essential for the farmers. In other words, the main reason for the genocide in Darfur is a war over natural resources; yet it is exploited for and encouraged by, as we shall see, political interests.

Land ownership and the right to use its resources have been a central issue among the different tribes living in Darfur. Tensions among farmers and nomads forced Sultan Musa Ibn Suleiman who was the second ruler in the Keira dynasty (1680–1700) to introduce a new system to grant some people control on the estates, called hakura ( plural hawakir). O’Fahey, in his excellent book, The Darfur Sultanate: A History, tells us how the Sultan used the hawakiriz in the attempt to attract much needed Islamic scholars and teachers to the region, as well as granted to merchants in the Nile valley for their services.

In other words, as any other feudal system, the sultans used the land to create clienteles and hence control the territory. There were two main categories of hakura , depending upon the system of taxations. One was limited in the right of collecting taxes, and another which was unlimited and included also the right of collecting religious taxes. O’Fahey has noticed, ‘The distinction between the two forms of grants was primarily one of scale. To the fuqura, merchants and members of the royal clan the sultans granted exemptions from taxation over a defined area of land or a named community; to the title-holders much larger estates were granted, which in turn often encompassed privileged communities or land’ (p.51).

Of course, the sultans could achieve the loyalty of a specific tribe by granting them control over the land and administratively redefine before unknown boundaries and control over the water resources. Of course, the tribal lands started to be known with the name of tribes controlling it (such as, as we have seen, Zaghawa, Rezeigat and so on). The nomadic groups which were not granted any hakura, had to negotiate with the tribes controlling the land access to resources. Though there were conflicts, often a solution and negotiation, even through marriages or exchanges of products and weapons, were achieved.

During the British colonial rule of Sudan in 1916, very little changes were added to the above system. Yet the British rulers, for the benefit of easy administration, started to fossilise the system itself, classifying the different tribes in categories, the majority of the tribes, and the Arab camel nomads, who officially were denied the possibility of land-holding. Of course, this did not facilitate the natural development of the region.

When Sudan gained independence, and in the 1970s started a land reform, the so-called Unregistered Lands Act made the relationship between land-holding and non land-holding tribes even more difficult and chaotic for the people of Darfur, since it abolished the traditional, feudal, land rules.

Some of you at this point may wonder why in this account of tribes, lands, and regions, the main recognised culprits are not mentioned: Where are the evil Arab Janjaweed? Also where is the Arab Islamic jihad killing poor black Africans?

The misconceptions about this genocide are many, often due to aggravated syndromes of ignorance, but also for political interests, which see states such as Sudan itself, Chad and the Central African Republic play their proxy war on the skin of innocent people.

Unfortunately, anthropologists, who would have the capacity of explaining what is going on in this tormented land and also help to find a solution, tend to be silenced and not reach the mass media.

At the same time the Muslims around the world, who are ready to scream for the rights of Palestinians and Chechens, march against the war in Iraq, and offer their alms to support the brothers and sisters in Afghanistan, seem to have completely removed and obliterated the shame of black Muslims killing other black Muslims. After interviewing some ordinary Muslims as well as community leaders I wish to pose two shocking questions: is it because they are black and Muslims?

Silence, disinterest and callous interests are allowing the genocide of hundreds of thousands. Yet also misinformation and the easy identification of an Orientalistic culprit are not helping at all to find the needed solution.

So, there are some important elements that now should be clearly known, after you have become aware of the environmental, historical and human geographical issues. First of all, 99% of the people leaving in Darfur are Muslims, and very strongly so.

Secondly, all of them are black: there are no white Arabs killing poor blacks. The ‘Arab’ black tribes of Darfur believe themselves to be the descendents of Muhammad’s family, through a complex linage and kinship system. But they are black Africans who are, in majority in the region of Darfur, nomads.

Thirdly, the Janjaweed (or men with guns on horseback) are not an Arab tribe, they are not white, but blacks, often of the same origin as their victims. They are organised and armed militias. In many cases they are nothing other than mercenaries used by the Sudanese government, or some people within the Sudanese government. Yet there are cases in which, since the Janjaweed do not have a uniform and are pretty impossible to distinguish from other black Africans by their body and facial features, soldiers have infiltrated from neighbouring pro-USA countries and have faked Janjaweed attacks on Darfur refugees to raise the tension against the Sudanese government. Indeed, the reality about the Janjaweed has been misrepresented by the majority of the mass media.

Finally, we can easily understand that, because of the discussed environmental changes, and the uncontrolled tribal fights, as well as the political games behind them, the nomadic, mainly ‘Arab’, tribes, have found their traditional nomadic life totally disrupted and consequently, they increasingly depend upon the central Sudanese government. In this disastrous situation young, unemployed, desperate, but also furious, young men of the nomadic Arab tribes of the South, can opt to become mercenaries within the different Janjaweed groups, since this is the only solution left to them.

Indeed, one of the agreements with the Janjaweed is that they can keep what they loot from the attacked villages. This is something that the mass media seems not to be interested in letting you know. It is only through interviews and discussions with Arab Sudanese immigrants and refugees that you can come to know this reality. Yet the reason for which the young Arab nomadic men decide to join the Janjaweed or form Janjaweed groups is extremely essential to the resolution itself of the conflict.

The reason is that there is some international interest too in presenting the genocide as another Arab, preferably Islamic, evil. The US neo-con administration is not campaigning to stop the Darfur genocide. Indeed this makes sense since it actually, willing or unwilling, is perpetrating another in Iraq. The US neo-con administration is also not interested in de-legitimating a bad Sudanese government, and replacing it with another. It is even not, though it plays an important role, the hope that a US friendly Sudanese government would allow US bases in Sudan. The US generals know that if it did not work in the main Muslim ally country, Saudi Arabia, it would be impossible in Sudan, where the US has very little support. Rather this neo-con administration seems to aim, when its actions are carefully examined, and the mass media representation of the genocide scrutinised, to achieve a de-legitimation of the Arab identity of Sudan itself by misrepresenting the Janjaweed as a unified, Islamic, non-black, Arab army.

On the other side, as I have said, Muslims seem to be very misinformed about what is going on in Darfur. Asking around, I discovered that a great majority see the conflict as result of ‘the culture of the blacks’ or adduce the conflict to the fact that ‘these black Muslims are not real Muslims, they are just linked to their African rituals and magic’.

Of course many Muslim friends of mine condemned what was going on and recognised that it is also a duty of all Muslims to try to do something to stop the genocide and help the Muslims, all of them, of Darfur. Yet the general impression, even in this case, was that the issues such as Palestine and Iraq and Afghanistan were a priority over the Darfur tragedy. Of course, the mass media, also the Arab mass media, which are completely ignoring the drastic situation in the area, have not helped to make the Darfur tragedy visible to Muslim communities.

Today we cannot ignore Darfur. It is time for action, yet very well informed action.


5 thoughts on “Bones and dust: the forgotten tragedy of Darfur

Add yours

  1. I got as far as your reference to Al Gore, followed the link, and now, almost a year later, the NYT is reporting that Sudan exported as much sorghum as the US gave it in aid. That it is exporting food and investing hundreds of millions in agribusiness, thanks to its Arab neighbors. Don’t get me wrong, I love investments that make food. I’m just not crazy about preventable mass slaughter (oh, yes, let’s not call it “genocide”), and I’m not crazy about deflecting human culpability to The Environment, and, by extension, the people who have the biggest carbon footprint. It’s just more propaganda from the charlatans that promote Global Warmism.

    “Climate change” is the problem? But in the article you cite, the competition for resources in that region has been going on since the 1920’s, somewhat antedating the global industrialization that is supposedly the cause of Climate Change.

    My background is in botany, not anthropology. Did you know that seedling survival rates are boosted dramatically in arid areas when atmospheric CO2 goes up by a tiny fraction? So, environmentalists are finding that more trees are growing with less water in the desert SW of the US, which is creating more shade…So at least the starving millions can have some shade while their government sells their food.

    As to Muslim ignorance, isn’t it an article of faith that a Muslim is a Muslim? That may be, but some are more Muslim than others, and tribalism runs deeper in the fabric of that culture than even Islam. For an anthropologist, you seem curiously unable to give due credit to the forces that really drive this culture.

  2. Thanks Gabriele for the detailed information. Named last year the Goodwill envoy”Khaled Hosseini”( Afghan American Author of international bestseller “the kite runner”) for the UN refugee agency in the United States visited Darfur in his fact finding mission to use his own experience to bring the “Darfur crisis” to greater & wider attention in the USA. Each one of you are doing a lovely job by doing your own bit to bring to attention the catastrophe that is faced by the innocent people of Darfur everyday.
    God Bless and keep posted!

  3. A great analysis of what is and isn’t happening in Darfur. I don’t agree with it all, though. I think you overstate the importance of climate change and would like you to apply the same anthropological microscope to the use of the term genocide, which I think is difficult to apply once the complexities of Darfur are understood.

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