North Manchester, United States

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The conflict that erupted in the three states of Darfur, in western Sudan, in early 2003, between two armed groups and the Government of the Sudan, has been a humanitarian catastrophe. The armed groups, the ‘Sudan Liberation Army’ (SLA) and the ‘Justice and Equality Movement’ (JEM), began the war with attacks on towns, government facilities and civilians in Darfur, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of policemen and civilians and the break down of law and order in Darfur. The region is home to some 80 tribes and ethnic groups divided between nomadic and sedentary communities. The rebels appear to have been identified within two or three communities such as the Fur and the Zaghawa tribes which straddle the Sudan-Chad border.

The conflict subsequently spiraled out of control and has led to many thousands of deaths and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians within Sudan. Many others have fled into neighbouring Chad. 1 There have also been numerous allegations of gender-based sexual violence perpetrated by gunmen. A UN International Commission of Inquiry into the Darfur violence recommended that some of the human rights abuses be referred to the International Criminal Court.

The need for a peaceful resolution of the conflict is obvious. A ceasefire agreement signed in April 2004 provided observers of the conflict with some time to reflect on events in Darfur. 2 A May 2004 agreement between the Government and rebels established international monitoring of the ceasefire. 3

Despite having started the war in Darfur citing marginalisation, and having agreed to further humanitarian and peace protocols during peace talks in Abuja in late 2004 and signing a declaration of principles in July 2005, it would appear that the rebel movements have either no agenda or a hidden agenda and have been criticised by the international community as similarly being either unwilling or unable to follow through on the ceasefire and humanitarian commitments they have made during the several rounds of peace talks brokered by the African Union. 4 Apparent splits within the rebel organisations have further complicated negotiations. SLA rebels have also murdered AU peacekeepers in Darfur in the course of their duties in Darfur – duties which include providing protection to those communities most at risk. 5 Both the UN and AU have noted that the rebels have engaged in deliberately provocative attacks on civilians and government forces, especially in the lead-up to peace talks. 6

Meeting the food and health needs of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people was a tremendous challenge for the United Nations, its agencies and the dozens of international non-governmental organisations that are present in Darfur. Several months of hard work stabilised the humanitarian crisis, saving countless lives. Nonetheless, the United Nations has reported continuous rebel attacks on, and interference with, humanitarian workers and vehicles and that the rebel movements have denied or restricted humanitarian access to areas they control. 7 Several aid workers have also been murdered by rebel forces. 8

There are many dimensions to the conflict, regional, national and international. Environmental factors – such as encroaching desertification – have led to considerable historical tension between nomads and more established farming communities. While the conflict has been presented as being between “African” tribes such as the Zaghawa and “Arab” nomads, a vicious power struggle between the Government and radical Islamist factions underlies much of the violence. The JEM group, for example, is closely identified with the extremist Islamic political leader Dr Hasan al-Turabi and his Popular Congress party – extremists sidelined by the Sudanese government and who have been using the Darfur conflict to destabilise the Khartoum authorities and the comprehensive peace agreement signed in January 2005 ending the civil war in southern Sudan. The inter-tribal violence that has taken place in Darfur has, nevertheless, been portrayed by some anti-government activists as “ethnic cleansing” and even “genocide” – claims contradicted by reputable organisations such as Médicines sans Frontières.

The activities of groups of armed criminals that have come to be known as the “Janjaweed” have also been caught up in the ever-present propaganda war. It has been claimed that they are sponsored by the Government, something vigorously denied by the Khartoum authorities. As the Reuters Sudan Correspondent has noted: “In Darfur, Janjaweed is a word that means everything and nothing.” 9 There is also no agreed definition of the term “Janjaweed” or how much control anyone has over this phenomenon.

The need to disarm gunmen in Darfur is self-evident but difficult. The anti-government human rights group Justice Africa has noted: “Comprehensive, forcible disarmament is hazardous at best, impossible at worst. Before effective disarmament (or more realistically, regulation of armaments) can take place, a workable definition of the Janjawiid is needed.” 10

The conflict in Darfur presents a very complex situation with very complex problems, the understanding of which has already been made more difficult by the propaganda which invariably accompanies war, and which has historically been a feature of coverage of Sudan. The scarcity of reliable information on Darfur is an additional difficulty. United Nations media sources, for example, have noted “a lack of accurate information on the conflict” and Reuters has also stated that “it is hard to independently verify claims by government or rebels in Darfur.” This has served to further distort perceptions of the crisis.

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